Cumberland, MD. For many, 2020 and 2021 have been weirdly dark and distressing times—dystopian, even. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the policies seeking to contain and suppress it—many of us encountered a strange new world marked by abandoned schools, lonely playgrounds (creepily draped off with police tape), vacant churches, locked restaurants, and, yes, empty toilet paper shelves.
Then there were the protests. Whether triggered by anger over the death of an unarmed black man or skepticism over a contested presidential election, these explosive events generally deepened our distrust of each other and left scars across our urban neighborhoods. I’m not the only one who felt that our public life was bleaker, lonelier, and more apocalyptic than others we’ve lived through. But 2020 and 2021 also gave me the exhilarating and exhausting opportunity to welcome my first and second children into the world.
What better situation than these “unprecedented times” to read P.D. James’ riveting 1992 novel Children of Men? For those who haven’t encountered either book or film, a short review: The year is 2021. James introduces her readers—in part, through the journal entries of protagonist and Oxford historian Theo Faron—to a world where humans have ceased to procreate. The causes for this worldwide, 25-year-long period of infertility are as mysterious as they are immovable.
In light of such dismal affairs, the state has amassed immense power and promised “freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom.” It’s a world “where sex divorced from procreation had become meaninglessly acrobatic.” Petty crimes are punished by deportation to an island penal colony rife with torture. The mass suicides or “quietus” of the elderly are celebrated and incentivized by a pension from the state. Spoiler alert: hope arrives. And James masterfully shows the reader how the miraculous and unplanned birth of a single child begins to interrupt it all.
The novel is, as New York Times critic Caryn James wrote back in 2006, “a trenchant analysis of politics and power that speaks urgently to this social moment.” An entire follow-up essay could—and probably should—be written exploring how the novel’s treatment of politics, power, and the PR that makes it palatable is relevant to our pandemic world. But rather than go this route, I want to share how the novel reveals four things about modern parenthood.
Parenthood: On the Decline.
While James shows us a world plagued by universal infertility, ours is not as dire, but still is a world facing a steep birthrate decline. With 3,605,201 births in 2020 in the U.S., we are a couple million baby steps removed from the dystopian world that James presents in her novel. The birth rate has been declining for the last six years, hitting the lowest levels since 1979. For many young people–parenthood is no longer a “when in the course of natural human events” kind of thing. The BBC noted last year that, “Falling fertility rates mean nearly every country could have shrinking populations by the end of the century. And 23 nations – including Spain and Japan – are expected to see their populations halve by 2100.”
The problems of “inverted age structure (more old people than young people)” and enormous social changes that the experts predict might feel largely theoretical. Not everyone thinks the decline in birth rate is a problem. But, left uninterrupted, others warn that the United States’ status as an “aging society” will likely shrink the tax base, complicate elder care, delay retirement age, and drive up health care costs. In a country already scarred and struggling with a “loneliness epidemic” we find ourselves inching closer to the bleak landscape of James’s fictional world.
Our world, like the one James presents, faces a rise in pet custody battles, a trend toward religious disaffiliation, and, despite a slight reprieve last year, the reality that suicides still factor as a leading cause of death in the U.S. Are these symptoms and side effects of a world that doesn’t quite know what to expect when fewer people are expecting?
Parenthood: More than a Choice.
Up against all this darkness and decline (in James’s world and my own) comes the heavy privilege of parenthood. I say “heavy” because motherhood has been the most exhausting, visceral, and demanding experience of my life so far, and, if the mommy blogs are any indication, I’m not alone. As parents, we get the opportunity to bring teeny tiny little humans into this big and messy world—even when they show up at times when we least intend.
But our modern culture tends to view motherhood (and parenthood generally) as an entirely optional thing—a matter, primarily, of choice. The nation’s largest abortion provider, after all, promises that parenthood will be “planned.” But the assumptions of “my body, my choice” show up in more subtle ways than the abortion debate and seem to inform many American young women’s documented decisions to delay motherhood.
Of course, choice can be a beautiful thing. In some ways I believe it helps us reflect the Creator’s will and volition in our world. In her novel, James has shown us a world stripped of choice when it comes to fertility: it’s a barren, void, and scary place. And here in our own world, some young women (wisely, I think) delay motherhood in an effort to give their potential-someday-maybe-kids a better, more stable childhood than the one they enjoyed. But maybe choice isn’t the ultimate good. Perhaps motherhood and parenthood, generally, is more a gift than a choice? Children of Men certainly suggests that this is the case.
Julian—the woman miraculously gifted with motherhood—has the weighty privilege of carrying and protecting the new life growing within her. She spends much of her pregnancy dodging disruptive and violent protesters, hiding her child from the state secret police, and eventually giving birth in a rustic shed. There’s no question that her maternity—while decidedly unplanned, globally consequential, and difficult—came as a gift.
But baked into our cultural consciousness is an assumption that female fertility is an inconvenience to be managed, delayed, and planned away until one can accomplish all the other good things—a post-grad degree, the corner office, the world travel. “Trapping” a sexual partner with a baby “isn’t fair.” The biological clock that many women notice (and some people don’t quite appreciate) has become a plotline in sitcoms and a punchline in everyday life. Even a large and lucrative fertility industry can’t obscure the reality that parenthood is more than a choice. It is a miraculous gift.
Parenthood: A long term investment.
Parenthood is a gift and an opportunity because children, themselves, are valuable. It seems odd to state something so basic, but plenty of modern Westerners aren’t quite sure. In April, 2021, Vogue magazine in England tackled the question, “Is Having A Baby In 2021 Pure Environmental Vandalism?” The author wondered aloud if it were “…possible to live an ecologically responsible life while adding yet another person to our overstretched planet?”
The author doesn’t land in an entirely anti-natal place as other environmentalists. However, she acknowledges, with more than a hint of guilt, that since people will [likely always] continue to have babies, “…it is a question of how we raise those babies, of learning to live within our environmental means, of turning away from the fever of consumerism…” As a mom to an infant and a toddler, I can’t argue: children do take a lot of energy and resources. It’s easy to start resenting these tiny humans for their perpetual consumption—of financial, emotional, and natural resources. By all means, keep your baby gift registry small, use cloth diapers, and dress your children in second hand clothes. But do these creatures deserve to be viewed simply in terms of the resources they consume?
Children of Men shows us a world where they’re entirely missing. One would imagine, in that scenario, global warming would slow, air pollution ease, and fewer plastics would fill the oceans. But it’s a world without new people, where the animals and weeds have already begun to reclaim the roads, churches, and other spaces and edges of civilization. Because of the missing people, it’s a world destitute of hope. Humans—even the tiniest and least productive among us —have value. You quickly realize that when they’re gone.
Parenthood: Not just for Parents.
As a new parent, I’ve begun to notice a variety of different ways modern society expects or encourages parents to outsource their roles… as parents.
It was only about a day and a half after I gave birth to my daughter when I sat cross-legged and fragile on the hospital bed scrolling through Facebook. I noticed a male friend announcing that he and his husband were celebrating a breakthrough in their surrogacy journey. The egg donor’s “retrieval procedure” had procured 20 eggs; they were one step closer to fatherhood. The congratulations poured in. But I sat there, a bit numb. (Physically and mentally. Childbirth isn’t for wimps, my friends.)
I chose not to comment; I knew I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be as tactful as I wished. I wasn’t ready to be unfairly called a homophobe. I didn’t feel fear, just grief, thinking about the many ways these little children (if, indeed, they were created) would be torn away from their mother(s)—the woman who gave her genetic material, the woman who put her body through the agonies of pregnancy and childbirth. The mother who wouldn’t nurse, cuddle, or nurture the child she had just gestated. This child (or children) who would know the love of two men but miss out on having a mother.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, legal experts note that the new definition of family has increased the state’s power over children and “expand[ed] the power of courts in unprecedented ways.” But the state isn’t simply expanding its role in complex custody cases or delineating which nonparents have the right to get their names on a child’s birth certificate.
Democrats in Congress and the White House are seeking to expand government intervention into the roles traditionally resolved for parents and private entities by allocating billions of dollars for universal, subsidized childcare and preschool. Then there are the debates that have erupted in school board meetings across the country and the rather telling admission by a certain former candidate for governor who “…[doesn’t] think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
James’s novel doesn’t tackle these “culture war” sorts of issues, but her dialogue does acknowledge that there can be vibrant disagreement over who’s in charge of the children. To whom do these little beings belong? As Julian and her associates try to decide where the child should be born, they debate whether the child most belongs to England, mankind, God, her mother, or herself.
Of course, the question is especially fraught in James’ world where infertility has knocked out human reproduction for the past 25 years. But versions of this question will continue in our own world. Like any good novel, Children of Men entertains and enlightens. It provokes thought without being preachy. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do, while it still reads like the futuristic dystopian novel it’s meant to be.
In a dozen different ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the contours and disrupted the commitments of our everyday lives. But, even for those who haven’t lost a loved one, the pandemic has challenged us to reexamine our priorities and lean into the most local problems, solutions, and opportunities.
I didn’t intend to welcome two children into an era marked by so much bleakness and turmoil. But, with James’s help, I’ve remembered that there is no project more local, no gift more world-changing, than the calling of parenthood. And so, to borrow inspiration from an Old Testament prophet during dystopian times of his own, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…”