Katie, a 32-year-old speech pathologist married to a 36-year-old actor in L.A., was tabling the question of whether to have kids until after the presidential election. “Action on climate change was a big reason we were waiting until then,” she explains. “If Trump wins again, it seems like there’s no way there will be a livable planet for long enough to justify bringing a new person into it.” Practical concerns, like a lack of family support nearby and living in a small space in an expensive city, added to their feeling of uncertainty.
All of that was before COVID-19, though. Now Katie says having kids seems impossible. “It’s amplified the general feeling of instability and uncertainty of what life will look like in even just five or 10 years,” she continues. “It seems like too risky a decision, even though we’d be great parents and would like to have kids in a more stable situation.”
The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic crisis are pushing some people like Katie, who were previously on the fence about having children, firmly into the “no” camp. The reasons vary: Some worry that the world their children will inherit won’t afford them a high quality of life; others have seen child-rearing become unaffordable; and some think it would be selfish or irresponsible to bring resource-consuming children into a climate-ravaged, economically unjust world.
Britta, a 27-year-old vet nurse married to a 28-year-old music teacher in Minnesota, is in the latter category. She says that she and her husband were already undecided about kids (also because of climate change), but the pandemic means the idea of having children now “feels irresponsible” to her, because she’d be taking up medical resources that are currently stretched thin. “Trying to conceive would mean OB-GYN appointments, purchasing baby items and using other resources,” she tells me, “and I’d be taking those resources away from people who are currently pregnant or are dealing with newborns.”
It’s not surprising that some would-be parents like Britta have been persuaded that child-rearing is selfish and irresponsible, or that babies are an imposition on the rest of the world. This idea has been peddled for centuries by politicians and commentators who lay the blame for social ills like poverty, famine, crime and climate change at the feet of people who have children — usually those who have “too many” children or who have children “too young” (dog whistles that translate to “black, brown and/or poor”). But for critics on the left, these are “gross and misanthropic politics” that get the source of the blame wrong. “It’s hard to think of a more neoliberal bit of gaslighting than telling a young woman to take responsibility for the crimes of capital by making a huge personal sacrifice [by not having children],” writes Liza Featherstone for Jacobin, “while letting those with all the money and power off the hook.”
Ordinary people shouldn’t be made to feel guilty that their children consume financial, medical and environmental resources, these critics argue; rather, the blame for our climate-ravaged, economically unjust world lies with fossil fuel executives who have fought hard to ensure our societies remain suicidally carbon-intensive and politicians who refuse to tax the rich to guarantee housing, livable wages and health care for everyone. “We should demand that capital stop shirking off the costs of childhood onto workers,” writes Connor Kilpatrick, also in Jacobin, “and instead socialize them — free Finnish baby boxes and a Medicare for All program that covers not only all prenatal and pediatric care, but that makes IVF a right and not a luxury.”
But some prospective parents say the promise of a socialist future isn’t much consolation as they decide whether to have a baby now. The U.S. already had some of the worst paid parental-leave policies in the world, astronomically costly childcare and a paltry, fraying social safety net, which means raising a child costs parents an average of $233,000. And now the coronavirus and its attendant economic crisis has resulted in a staggering 16.8 million Americans filing for unemployment in the past month alone, which means the category of people who can afford to have children is shrinking. “The pandemic has made it clear that we could be absolutely fucked in terms of health and finances if our circumstances change,” Katie explains. “Plus, right now, I’m the only one making money, so I’m not in a position to take much time off.”
For those who can still afford to have kids, some remain guilty about the prospect of bringing a child into the world — not because it would be an imposition on global resources, but because it would be so tough on the child. “Having a kid is frightening enough on a good, normal day,” says Molly, a 30-year-old researcher married to a builder in North Carolina. “Bringing a kid into the world when our health-care systems are constantly on the verge of collapse, our food supply chain is unprotected, poor people are treated as expendable trash and my government won’t do the bare minimum to protect anyone seems delusional. How could I possibly think my baby would have a future?”
Britta agrees. “I hear from co-workers about what some of their kids as young as five are worrying about, and it’s heartbreaking to me,” she says. “I’d want my child to be able to live their life without worrying if the world was going to end.”
These anxieties aren’t unique to our age, of course; although the specific issues of climate change and coronavirus are. Throughout history, people have birthed children into slavery, famine, war and pandemics far more fatal than the present one, and they also had fears about an apocalyptic end to the human race via meteor or nuclear war. At the same time, great philosophers and writers from Nietzche to Toni Morrison have grappled with whether that’s an intolerable cruelty to those children. (Frustratingly, their answers vary, and the question will likely never be settled.)
But whether or not they’re buoyed by Nietzche’s idea of the “will to life” or leftists rallying around the possibility of a better world, for anyone who is increasingly unsure that it’s desirable or even feasible to bring a child into a post-corona world, there’s at least one small consolation: They’re far from alone.