Millard County, UT. There sure seem to be a lot of men who just can’t stop talking about fertility. Gotta have more babies, Ross Douthat tells us. You want Social Security? Medicare? Then get busy, cries Lyman Stone. We’ll never out compete China if we don’t get the buns in the oven, Matthew Yglesias urges, and Michael Brendan Doughtery warns that civilization itself hangs in the balance! You can almost hear them chanting “Make boomsa for the motherland!” outside your bedroom door.
These pleas for greater fertility are, of course, exceedingly irritating to feminists. After all, it’s women who bear the children. From a feminist perspective, the fertility kings with their charts and graphs are just hard evidence that the patriarchy is still alive and well. What more proof of patriarchy do you need than a bunch of men who seem obsessed about what women are doing with their bodies, and even worse, who tell women what they should be doing with their bodies?
Unfortunately for feminists, their analysis is wrong. These fertility kings are not nearly obsessed enough with fertility. For all their investigations of how everything from the price of car seats to the disappearance of babysitters hampers fertility, they seem unaware of the fundamental fertility issues women—and therefore all of us—face in this country. Even in recent thoughtful pieces on the spiritual or emotional aspects of fertility, the plight of women remains unaddressed. Here is a brief sampling of issues the fertility kings overlook.
The United States is a global leader in hysterectomies. Opinions differ about how to treat various conditions of the womb, but it’s clear that our instinct is just to cut uteri out regardless of other options. Besides the long-term physiological impact of removing an essential organ, a woman without a uterus is a woman unable to procreate. This should be a front-and-center issue in any discussion on fertility, but it doesn’t even get a passing mention.
We have astronomically high C-section rates across the country: almost a third of American babies are born via major abdominal surgery. While some C-sections are medically necessary, most are the result of a culture that provides expectant mothers with no more prenatal care than a bottle of vitamins and a bunch of ultrasounds and ignores the need to prepare for the physical intensity of labor. We rely instead on drugs and instruments, which run a fair chance of derailing the natural unfolding of the birth process and dumping the woman on a cold, stainless steel bench to watch as she is rendered a passive vessel that is sliced open and whose precious contents are snatched out and held up before being whisked out of sight while she is stitched back together.
The surgical ordeal alone is enough to dampen a woman’s enthusiasm for having more children. To add insult to injury, from that day on, she is a marked woman. If she gets pregnant again, her hands will be tied in many places by the doctors and hospitals who will insist that her only option is to deliver under the knife again. Every subsequent C-section compounds the likelihood that the next pregnancy really will be life and death, and understandably, some women forgo more children. Surgical birth has made a big family a risky—not to mention expensive—choice.
Even for those women who manage to escape the surgeon’s scalpel, giving birth is a minefield. Our society thinks that all a woman needs to know to give birth is a knowledge of when to ask for the epidural. The result of this collective ignorance is that once a woman steps over the threshold in most hospitals, she loses her autonomous character as a living, feeling human being and instead becomes a piece of meat, to be poked, prodded, monitored, starved, strapped down, drugged up, cut, and even sexually violated as the medical staff deem necessary to extract a baby and proudly plop it onto her chest. Many women accept this abuse as the price of a healthy baby. They even embrace it and compete for goriest birth story at baby showers. It should be no surprise that younger women learn to be terrified of birth. Some of them would rather have hysterectomies than babies.
Other women are unable to internalize the oppression. As they transition to life after birth, they find their already broken sleep plagued by dreams of the real-life nightmare they endured at the hospital. When they dare give voice to their turmoil and unrest, they find little sympathy. After all, giving birth isn’t supposed to be a day at the spa. Without finding a supportive community to help them heal, it’s hard to contemplate returning to hell to bring home another angel.
Tragically, some women never make it home. Something goes wrong during birth or in the very vulnerable days just after, and father finds himself overwhelmed with the double burden of caring for a hungry infant while planning a funeral. Maternal mortality in the United States has been climbing for years. The cruel loss of these mothers should be a national outrage, yet our culture shrugs it off as the price of bearing children instead of being galvanized into action to ensure that every woman has nutrient-dense food, real knowledge of childbirth, and an enduring community in good times and bad. Other cultures prepare their daughters for motherhood by giving them a special diet six months before they get married; we give our daughters eating disorders, industrial food, and hormone-disrupting drugs.
Then there’s the question of what happens when a woman returns home. Who is waiting there to whisk her off to bed and pamper her, to make her nourishing soups and draw restorative baths and do the laundry and entertain the other children who are adjusting to the fact that they’ve been displaced as rulers of the universe? Who is there to provide comic relief for the latest diaper disaster and troubleshoot when baby seems sick and mama is so worn out she can’t think straight about what to do? These days, no one is there because in most places, the sisterhood has vanished. And these days, not even mama is home with baby if she has a job she can’t afford to quit or take unpaid leave from or has such a demanding career that she can’t stay away. Is it any wonder that postpartum depression has become such a scourge or that women can’t go off their anxiety or depression meds to have another child?
We can’t forget the millions of women who long for a child who never comes. Nowadays, the infertility industry takes advantage of these women’s dreams and persuades them to take out second mortgages, swallow handfuls of pills, and take a deep breath before they jab themselves with chemicals to force their bodies into producing eggs to be surgically retrieved, fertilized, and then implanted, all on a wing and a prayer that these heroic endeavors will result in a cherub to snuggle. If Fate does smile on their herculean efforts, then the trick is to stay pregnant. Many women end up living at the hospital for weeks or months in a desperate attempt to keep baby inside just a little longer, and then, once the baby comes, they move into the NICU. The whole ordeal is a huge burden, not just because of the demands of these tiny babies, but because of the emotional roller coaster and the tidal wave of medical bills that starts to hit. How many kids can you afford at that rate?
The events surrounding conception and birth should be sources of great joy and power in a woman’s life. Instead, they are all too often sources of stress on every level. No wonder so many women are no longer able to embrace childbearing. The fertility kings should be mortified that they can write so much and so often about fertility without ever mentioning its actual dynamics. It makes them vulnerable to the feminist criticism that they just see women as “wombs on legs.”
To the credit of the fertility kings, they understand that their charts and graphs show that something is deeply wrong. Our society lives in the eternal present—no gratitude for the past and no hope for the future. Although the silence of the fertility kings on childbearing reveals their ignorance, they have grasped that women are being cheated and that our society is out of balance. Feminists, on other hand, are so utterly convinced they know what’s best for women that they see falling fertility rates as evidence that women are finally throwing off the yoke of patriarchy. They are too committed to hyper-individualism and technological substitutes for biology to listen to women’s cries as they valiantly try to carry on the time-honored rhythms of life in a very hostile world. It is the fertility kings who are sounding the alarm, urgently lecturing us that, in the words of Jonathan Last, “the root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.”
Yet human fertility is not the root of our problems. It is but one symptom of a deeper, more elemental problem. We must recognize the pivotal importance of soil fertility as the foundation of all life, without which there can be no human flourishing. Our language itself reflects the ancient connection between humans and the earth. The word humus nowadays is used to describe that rich, dark quality of fertile soil so sought after by gardeners and farmers, but the word originally comes from Latin and means earth. We use the same root in the word human—from the earth—and we read the same connection in Genesis: “from dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The alchemists of the Middle Ages were on a fool’s errand thinking they could turn lead into gold, but we’re even bigger fools, thinking that sickly or dead soil can produce robust human beings without the crutch of medical intervention. A culture that takes care of soil fertility takes care of human fertility. Our culture takes care of neither. We have become inhuman. We are no longer of the earth. And we have no interest in the natural cycling of life, as our plummeting fertility rates clearly show. As Wendell Berry has observed, in our modern world, we think we are free from worry about fertility: “The pharmacist or the doctor will look after the fertility of the body, and the farming experts and agribusinessmen will look after the fertility of the earth. This is to short-circuit human culture at its source.”
This is not to say that nourishing the soil will directly solve the issue of doctors who no longer have the skills to deliver breech babies by means other than surgery. Soil fertility alone will not bring back the sisterhood. But soil fertility is upstream of those issues, and it directly affects a woman’s ability to conceive in the sanctity of her own bedroom or to successfully carry that pregnancy to term. It directly influences a woman’s capacity to bring a child into this world without being reduced to an immobilized object in a baby-extracting factory. And it directly encourages our faith that the children we bring into this world will have a future.
The fertility kings have good instincts. They understand that falling fertility is a red flag. But the remedy lies not in more charts and graphs or more pleas to prepare for the next mass-casualty war. Women’s mighty struggle to push forward in the great circle of life calls for changes far more fundamental than compiling better data sets, introducing more technological wizardry, or instituting more family-friendly government and corporate policies. It calls for a renewal of the ties that bind every living thing to every other living thing. It demands that we strip ourselves of our modernist arrogance and repent of our foolish notion that we have no need to work within the limits of Creation. In short, it requires humility—to become literally of the earth.
- Correction: To his credit, Lyman Stone has pointed out that C-sections impact fertility. His article is the exception that proves the rule: C-sections are not a regular topic of discussion in conversations about declining fertility. ↑
Thank you for this absolutely beautiful and inspiring piece. You capture the core and essence of what lies behind.
Cheers – JDP
Good insights here. I think it’s fair to point out that Douthat’s family doesn’t fit in an Accord, and Stone recently disclosed on Aaron Renn’s podcast that the child he and his wife welcomed this year, by all appearances their first, is in fact their fifth. This can only mean both have known hard times by way of babies. Stone is also on the record (on the Issues, Etc. radio show/podcast) as saying that his oevre should not be summarized as an order for all real Christians to go reproduce themselves into the ground.
The fertility kings may not always have room to get into the weeds when they write on these topics, and they also have the privacy of their families to consider. But they typically do _mention_ the dynamics, and their attention to fertility in general makes much more room for discussing those dynamics, as this article does. Thank you. 🙂
“Then there’s the question of what happens when a woman returns home.” Indeed. The sisterhood, the care from mothers and aunts and actual sisters has significantly diminished. And not all fathers are free enough or willing enough to put in much time cooking and caring. My own husband was very willing, but had to return to work very soon after I gave birth, and many of my friends’ husbands were not very willing to get into the down and dirty of childcare either in the early stages or, really, ever.
My own husband hired domestic help, as is traditional and normal. This article is part of a long chain of weird hippie fantasia about some mythical era where women did lots of unpaid labor for other women because ????, and it ignores the disappearance of informal but paid domestic labor and all the other structural changes that supported children being a normal part of society and thus motherhood being a normal part of society.
Being a woman writing extensively about declining fertility and historical fertility norms, I usually get dismissed, including by other women, since reality doesn’t match up with the fantasia too well. I had certain preconceptions going into motherhood that were shattered by learning the real historical facts and looking at the fertility trends of the last few decades and centuries.
The fertility kings are dishonest and not interested in expanding fertility, but in being special for having high fertility under difficult conditions. This is also part of a long chain of hippie DNA. There are lot of men *on the internet* with 5+ kids, but the actual counted-baby story of a full-on collapse in such numbers reveals that it’s not about an individual father’s willingness to scrub a few dishes or slap on a few diapers, since the guys in question didn’t do that stuff to get to 5+ kids. I know of several cases where preschool, relatives, and paid help (especially among mission families) came into play.
A lot of the sisterhood wants a paycheck, and a lot of women have been programmed to think that can’t possibly be the case, so they don’t get that help and fertility drops still further. Most people have no idea a majority of stay-home mothers utilize daycare. But if you don’t know it, you’ll be more reluctant to have a baby even if you can stay home because it’s profoundly isolating and intimidating.
The technological issues can be worked out after people accept the sociological issues of paying for services not being creepy or wrong but in fact part of how villages produce more villages.
I enjoyed Ms. Skabelund’s article and agreed with many of the things she suggests, but it all struck me as very idealistic. I especially liked your response because it was down to earth and practical. You clearly know what you are talking about. My children are in their 30s now. It seems like things have gotten harder, or at least more complicated since they were young.
My wife is a nurse and while my children were growing up, most of our neighbors had at least one nurse in the household. My daughter’s god mother, a maternity nurse, was present at the birth of all three of my children. How do people survive American healthcare without a nurse in the family?
I find Mrs. Hutchenson’s speculations about how my household must work pretty hilarious. Wrong too, of course. What has helped us have our rather modest number of children (3) is high fertility and rootedness, namely the network of support provided by those around us, namely family. Many of us perceive this and it’s why we see infertility as a compounding problem. The more atomized we become, the harder it is to build out these organic, familial, churchy, and neighborhood support networks that make the difference for people who can’t afford au pairs, babysitters, etc.
In any case, I’m sure the fertility Kings are quite annoying for not speaking about the “the plight of women.” I’m also quite sure that the author, the commenters and our readership would find us much much more annoying if we did presume to speak about the plight of women. Do you want to read my thoughts about our miscarriages? Or about childbirth? Or C-sections? Or the feeling of no longer quite possessing your own body that must come with breastfeeding a few children, especially one with a recently chipped tooth?
No, you really really don’t.
Men will write about fertility because as fathers and parents we are part of the drama.
1. Have you ever considered the fact that there are 8 BILLION people on the planet now? We cannot sustain anything at those numbers. Humans are simply reacting like any other animal to extreme overpopulation.
2. Women need paychecks. You never once addressed the question of how a woman is supposed to sustain a career while also taking off several months for childbirth every couple years or so. High fertility absolutely demands that women leave the workforce, which means we have no money, and therefore no authority or voice in society. (‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ is a stupid bull of a lie. If you want power, you have to have your own money under your complete control.)
3. Finally, you do know what the maternal mortality numbers were before medical childbirth? It is highly likely that about half the women who’ve ever given birth died from it. Labor is AGONY. Girls didn’t need hospital scare stories to fear childbirth; observation was quite enough. My mother and aunt were born at home, and my grandmother insisted on separate rooms from my grandfather after my mother was born. She had endured four pregnancies for two live babies and two stillbirths. My aunt got one of the very first Pill prescriptions issued after seeing her mother go through three births at home. Most humans want to avoid pain, and the choice between hospital risk and 15 hours of blind, screaming, torture really isn’t one. A woman in labor has no agency anyway. I mean, what else is she going to do during that time? Agency implies that one’s decisions can change a result. Labor is a biological process that is going to happen regardless of what the woman thinks. She’s a passive, helpless participant. I’ve done it twice and that’s quite enough. Being part of a ‘sisterhood’ of women with nothing better to do than scold me — and that was a lot of what those women did, scold and judge and humiliate — wouldn’t have helped.
If you want to help women, make sure that every decision-making authority and power structure is made of at least 50% women.
Good point #3.
However, #1 simply echoes the Malthusian Delusion, which gave rise to eugenics as an effete form of racism. Read some of Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, then ask how they tested prototype birth control devices, and on which populations. The slogan “too many people” usually means “too many poor people” or even worse: “too many dark people”. In fact, world population is leveling off according to census.gov
As for #2, I worked with a full professor while on faculty at NYU — she had 4 kids plus a tenured position and the lead role in a new course. Expecting that of most women is unrealistic and perhaps even cruel, but it can be done if you trade off the experience of spontaneous interaction for play dates and other forms of “managing” children’s lives. Money is not the only way to measure self-worth.
Your last paragraph is a bit narrow. It reminds me of a superficial comment by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg that abortion law focuses too much on doctors and not enough on patients. Well, look at the history of who got prosecuted for performing one in recent centuries: the doctor (or midwife), not the pregnant woman.
Great article, thank you Mrs Skabelund
Beautiful prose, vivid imagery, and lots to think about. I’ve had six children, all at hospitals and all but one with an epidural (my choice). I feel very blessed that my hospital birth experiences were positive overall–from the empathetic nurses to the tasty hospital food that I was delighted to eat in my quiet room while someone else watched my noisy flock of children at home. I recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to have such positive birth experiences. And I agree that our society owes mothers a greater debt of thanks, respect, and support than it currently offers. Having children has changed my world forever. The personal sacrifices are enormous. But they have also been so worth it. I think your next article needs to address the challenges of raising those cherubs to adulthood! As you know, birth is just the beginning.
It seems to be a fact that as countries become more industrialized and affluent, and especially as contraceptives become effective and available, fertility rates decrease. It doesn’t look like there’s much anyone can do to stop it. The picture I have in my mind of conservative commentators wringing their hands while trying to figure out how to get women to get pregnant is amusing and a bit creepy.
Providing more social, financial, and healthcare support for women who have babies or want to have them is a good thing, a humane thing – whether or not it will increase the birthrate.
Thanks for a rousing cri de coeur that boldly asserts femininity while distancing itself from feminism. However, your impassioned essay has way too much on human fertility (13 paragraphs) and not enough on soil fertility (4 paragraphs), offering us only a few vague connections linking the two.
The overview of problems related to childbearing and childbirth is essentially qualitative, lacking statistics. So why not indulge in some creative speculation and explore qualitatively HOW soil fertility and attuning to the land can improve human fertility?
Yes we need “a renewal of the ties that bind every living thing to every other living thing”. Tell us how you are accomplishing this in your own life. Name some cultures past or present that are still preserving such ties and suggest ways the US can adopt or adapt them. That would make your pitch truly positive in outlook.
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