Having a child: a question that emerges at the dawn of a possible ecocidal cataclysm.
Having children is more than a life choice, it is the choice of life(s). By having children, we decide to give life to a being that would not have been born otherwise (or under other forms according to our beliefs).
Giving life has never been a trivial choice and it is even less so today as the foreboding of future catastrophes is more and more felt. But why have children? Let’s try to answer this question before going further in our reasoning.
Why have a child?
We are born to die and in the space of time that separates our birth from our death, we have the opportunity to perpetuate our genetic heritage and our culture (see article). This is what makes all living things, be it plants, animals or bacteria. In a purely natural logic, we all aspire to procreation, it is a force that drives us all, from which we cannot escape.
Beyond nature, man is a being of culture. He does not, in most cases, make children like a chicken lays eggs (except at the physiological stage). There are much deeper motivations that generally correspond to all the levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Let’s see what needs or desires can be met by having a child.
1st level: the physiological need.
Having a child is the consequence of a physiological need that is the sexual act. So, there are certain situations where the child is not wanted and it is born as a consequence of the force of nature and a fortiori irresponsible.
2nd level: security
A child who is born is integrated into a family group that is based on a certain tacit or explicit reciprocity. The child will grow up to be able to help its aging parents at an age when they will no longer be able to provide for themselves. The child, in traditional and even modern societies, plays this security role without the parent having wanted it. As such, there is a Chinese proverb that says “children are living wealth”. The offspring is only an insurance against the hazards of old age, moreover it constitutes a work force that can be employed in the family work. This is particularly true in agricultural societies and tends to disappear with the democratization of the public school. Nevertheless, the child who studies will be able to help his parents later on if he gets a better job. The studies lead in a way to a deferred gratification: the child who does not produce young, will produce older but he will produce more (by earning more money of which he will return part to his parents in various forms).
3rd level: the need to belong.
If the first two levels are nowadays taboo because they are shameful, we can say that the need for affection that comes from the feeling of belonging is not a hidden motivation. People admit openly or by their attitude that their child is a source of reciprocal affection that has no real equivalent: the love of a father, a mother or a child rarely equals the love that could be found elsewhere (at least in the long term). The feeling of belonging is a strong motivation. Humans are like that, they don’t like to be alone. Having a child allows him to be the leader of a tribe where he can dictate the rules. Do we have many opportunities in life to be the leader of something? I don’t think so. This question is directly related to the next need.
4th level: the need for esteem.
Having children gives you a sense of accomplishment in life. It is a source of satisfaction that goes beyond career advancement or making a lot of money. Being a parent makes it easier to continue to be friends with people who have become parents. Being a parent in many societies is an element of social appreciation and respectability. Many people are therefore under a lot of pressure from those around them. By having a child, we instantly create 2 types of esteem: social esteem and esteem for the child we have conceived (and a fortiori for our spouse). Esteem is a strong motivation, it is not altruistic.
5th level: the need for accomplishment.
To give meaning to one’s life. Shaping a being in one’s own image to change the world. These are the underlying examples of the conception of a child that are expressed at this level. The need is high, but it is still selfish. The desire to fulfill a religious duty or to incorporate procreation into a spiritual path are also frequent motivations at this level.
Having a child is not altruistic
For all these reasons, having a child is not an altruistic act. It comes above all from strong egotistical motivations. We make a child for ourselves, the child did not ask to be born. So of course, the initial conception of the child is a selfish intention, but one can behave altruistically and devotedly after its birth. One does not prevent the other. It’s like being asked to go to dinner and accepting out of courtesy when you don’t feel like it at all. Once there, you have a great time and you forget your initial desire. It is the same, I believe, for children: we conceive them in a selfish way and become altruistic by having them.
Modernity shatters one by one the motivations to have a child
Modernity is making the motivations that used to seem vital to many people less and less obvious. In prosperous (and somewhat socialist) states that have institutionalized solidarity, the safety net of the family is no longer as attractive, as it gives rise to more restrictive obligations (complying with intrusive family rules that organize marriage or other social interactions). The level of Maslow’s pyramid is increasingly being questioned. It is not always good to have many children today. One may receive reproachful looks or inappropriate remarks. The future is getting darker as natural disasters multiply, and it is understandable that there are some who see the large family as a threat to ecosystems. Since humans are the main cause of climate change, it is reasonable to think that having fewer children means fewer problems.
There is also a more subtle mask in this stance: people who live a hedonistic life (not really compatible with having children) put on the mask of respectability by talking about climate change.
You can’t force people to stop having children or to have more children. It turns out that today not having children is much more socially accepted. It is not my place to tell you what to do. It’s a personal choice, finally, of a couple. Uncertainty has always been a constant in history, having a child at the beginning of the XXIst century is not more worrying in my opinion than having done it at the beginning of the XXth century (preceding two world wars) or at the beginning of the XIXth century (at the time of globalized imperialism and all the wars that it generated). Each century brings its own challenges.