BETSY HART: Whatever happened to 'It takes a village?'
As a young woman new to the world of work and loving it, I actually went through a phase in which I hoped I would not be able to bear children.
I’ve written before about my ambivalence about having a family — before I had four children, of course. Yet I’m not sure I’ve shared that little tidbit!
But yes, there was a time when I thought about the “advantage” of being childless being decided for me. Deciding on that course myself? Not an option. Even then, I had a sense that having children was a calling about more than me.
Fast-forward to Time magazine’s provocative cover story on the dramatic rise in people in the U.S. choosing to be childless. “Child-free,” as it is called. The fallout has been strong, with much of it centered around a new culture war over “to have children/not have children.” Who is right? Which way is better? Who is being more selfish?
But the most interesting stream of response to the Time piece has not been different folks making their case for their lifestyle. But rather, the argument that the decision about childbearing, whether one has children at all, is a completely private one.
Really? Whatever happened to “It takes a village”? Does the involvement in the village ensue only after the private decision to have children has been made? Or should the village have a stake in that decision, too?
Yes, I wrote a book called “It Takes a Parent,” arguing that it’s parents who are primarily responsible for raising their children, and this is how it ought to be. But I do make the case for “the village,” and always have, in the sense that our actions are interconnected, and morally intertwined. So when my first marriage ended in (my unwanted) divorce, it didn’t just impact my four young children. It had a profound impact on our community — on the kids down the street, on the kids living on the street we moved to, and on it went.
One of the reasons marriage has fallen apart in our culture is because, today, people think of it as being privatized, thoroughly decoupled from any larger obligation to the culture around us. These days, marriage, according to society’s rules, is only about my spouse and me and what we want marriage to be, or don’t want it to be. It is cut off from the fabric of community needed to support it.
Likewise, we are privatizing decisions about childbearing. Historically, having children, if one could, was simply assumed. Now, not having them is a choice on a very complicated new menu that has never existed before. And that, too, has consequences for the community.
If someone doesn’t want to have kids, well, obviously I’m not going to step in and make them, or even try to change their minds, or argue that no one is really ready to be a parent before they are a parent.
But when record rates of people — even if still very much in the minority — are making the choice to be child-free, I’m sure going to ask, “Where does that movement come from, and how does it impact the children who are already here?”
I think we’ve gotten to a lamentable place in the West, with a perfect storm of independent (versus interdependent) lives, a focus on self-actualization and personal satisfaction, a sexual revolution coupled with reliable birth control, all of which have fundamentally shifted our thinking. It used to be that we understood that part of our role as human beings was to create and develop the generation that would replace us and carry on community and civilization itself.
Our grandparents, for instance, didn’t agonize about when to start their families — or whether to have kids in the first place. Not just because they couldn’t very effectively, until the 1960s and the birth-control pill, but because they wouldn’t. It wasn’t the way they thought about the world.
It has taken generational shifts, not just reliable birth control, to privatize the decision about whether to have children at all.
It seems to me that this trend is, more than anything else, a symptom of a larger problem: A disappearing village. And even a child can see that this has consequences for all of us.