Fertility, Fear and Futurity

Elizabeth Breunig's motherhood on the lip of apocalypse

Mary Cassatt's Breakfast in Bed (1897). A master class in side-eye.


I haven’t written anything for here in several days, and the reason is that I’ve been struggling to conceive this post correctly in my head. As I mentioned in my weekly wrap-up on Sunday, not only is it very hard to write about the subject of fertility without it being taken personally by others, I find it very hard to write about the subject without getting personal myself. I suspect the same is true of others, and that this is one reason the subject provokes such emotional reactions.

Let me start with an example from Out There before talking about myself, and finally about the subject highlighted in the title of this post.

As everyone who spends time on Twitter knows by now, New York Times columnist Elizabeth Breunig wrote a pleasantly anodyne Mother’s Day piece about becoming a mother at the relatively young age (for her educational cohort) of 25 and how she is glad she did. Absolutely nothing in the piece cast aspersions at anyone who made different choices, and that didn’t stop the hordes of haters who inhabit Twitter from raining digital stones down on the revealed heretic against . . . well, it was never clear exactly what, but it was supposed to have something to do with feminism or anti-racism, but was quite plainly more visceral than either and not particularly related to them at all.

I’ll let Marianne Williamson speak for me in responding to the haters; I associate myself entirely with her words here:

But now I want to dig a bit deeper. What is the unowned part of themselves that is hated (or, better, feared)?

The obvious answer has something to do with fertility directly, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I don’t think those who poured unwarranted hatred down on Breunig’s head did so because they were afraid of their own ability to produce life, or hated their femininity, or that to become loving people they need to face and then embrace those things. Indeed, I think saying that effectively affirms the conscious basis of their own hatred: It turns Breunig’s piece into precisely the statement about The Good that they misinterpreted it to be, and were enraged by, whereas it quite transparently wasn’t that at all, but rather a plain and simple accounting of her own experience. If you can’t accept that other people have different experiences than you, and can be happy about them, without yourself getting enraged, then you’re the one with a fixed notion of The Good that you want to impose on everyone else; you’re the one who has forgotten how to do pluralism.

Nowhere in Breunig’s piece did she say, “every woman should become a mother at 25 like I did.” But she did say something about the nature of life that she feels she learned from becoming a mother at a young age, which I think gets closer to the heart of the matter:

Being young, or young enough still not to know yourself entirely, and then feeling the foundation of your nascent selfhood shift beneath you — perhaps that’s exactly the sort of momentous change that makes the whole enterprise so daunting. Yet there I’ve given up the game: With the exception of — perhaps — a few immutable characteristics, you are not something you discover one day through trial and error and interior spelunking; you are something that is constantly in the process of becoming, the invention of endless revolutions. You never know who you are, because who you are is always changing.

You catch glimpses of yourself in time, when life shines through your inner world like a prism, illuminating all the sundry colors you contain. It isn’t possible to disentangle the light from the color, the discovery of change from the change itself. And I think that’s all right.

Far from grounding her choice to have a child at a young age in biologically essentialist terms, she’s grounding it in existentialist terms. We have no essence, whether to be discovered through experiment or divined through philosophy or instructed by tradition. Rather, every choice we make defines our essence inasmuch as it is the choice to become the person who made that choice. And then, when you make the next choice, you change again, to become the person who made that choice. There’s no pre-determined path; you can only learn by doing, and, having done, you cannot undo, but only go forward, howsoever you turn.

That, I think, is what is really scary about her piece. Not that it tells people “live like me; it’s good!” The haters had to try to turn it into that because it’s precisely the opposite. Breunig says: You’ll never know if living this way is good without trying it. I didn’t know, and I chose. You must also choose before knowing, and you cannot escape the need to choose; even the decision not to take the leap is a life-defining choice.

That’s scary because existentialism just puts an enormous amount of pressure on the individual; as a way of life, it requires either enormous courage or bottomless narcissism. Most people don’t want that responsibility. They want rules, a guide, someone to follow and a group to conform to. It’s funny that Breunig is so often attacked for her Catholicism, since traditionalism largely depends on that common desire for simple answers that she didn’t offer, but that desire is just as common among the bourgeois bohemians and social justice warriors of Park Slope as it is among the ultra-Orthodox traditionalists of Borough Park. All Breunig’s purportedly left-wing and feminist haters are themselves clinging for dear life to a script, and Breunig is saying: Throw it away. Most enragingly, she’s saying it with insouciance, as though in the end there was nothing much to be afraid of. She’s just . . . happy. What could be more aggravating than that?

So what does that have to do with the title of this post? Let me tell you another, more personal anecdote before I answer that.

I have a friend who came to me once with a very personal problem. (Side note: Being a person people talk to about unexpectedly personal problems is kind of my thing, for better or worse.) She was trying to decide whether she wanted to have a child with her husband. He wanted to, but she was full of frets, and they largely centered on large, impersonal fears—of climate change in particular. How could she bring a child into a world on the brink of such disaster?

Listening to her, I could feel myself growing cold. Not because I thought her fears were foolish, though I did. On a purely intellectual level, I think the case for not having children in order to save the planet is just very poorly thought through—but that’s a topic for another time, and it wasn’t what she needed to hear then either. At the time, I also doubted that people actually act on such beliefs; I thought they were a mask for deeper, more personal fears that could not be acknowledged. (I’ve changed my mind to some degree about that, as I’ll explain in a bit, but that is something she and I talked about.) But I was also aware of something else, which I really worried would get in the way of being open with my friend in trying to be helpful. I was aware of my own investment in her decision.

I myself have one child, who is adopted, who I would not trade for anything in the world, including my own life. But I freely acknowledge that, when I was younger, I wanted a larger family, and that I wanted to sire children as well as raise them. It didn’t work out that way, and that just means I live with a certain amount of sadness along with joy, which is just the way life is. Accepting that fact rather than raging against it is kind of what the game is about. But just as it’s undoubtedly hard for Breunig’s haters not to rage at someone who is blithely happy about having made a great existential leap, it was hard for me not to feel a bit of anger about someone hesitating on the precipice of a decision that resonated so deeply with my own desires.

So I suppressed that anger, because it was inappropriate and certainly wouldn’t have done my friend any good. Instead I told a story—about my mother’s birth. My mother was born in exile in the Soviet Union in the middle of World War II; her parents had fled Poland together, and were deported eastward, spending the first part of the war in a labor camp on the White Sea and then in a settlement in Central Asia. It was, shall we say, not the most auspicious time to have a child. But have a child they did, in the very midst of horror. It was a life-defining decision, one that took enormous courage, and one I can’t imagine they ever regretted, through the terrible times of war that still remained and all the trials and tribulations of their post-war life.

But that’s not the whole story. My grandmother had been pregnant once before, at the very moment war was about to break out. In that context, in anticipation of horror that was in no way adequate to the actual horror that was coming, she decided to terminate the pregnancy—illegally, I assume, this being Poland in 1939—as soon as she was aware of it. I remember her telling me how scared her own mother was that she might impair her ability to ever have children again, but she did it anyway, and for that reason I say that was also a choice that took courage. It was also was a life-defining decision. If she had had a young child, or been heavily pregnant, I don’t know if she would have been prepared to flee with her husband. If she had stayed, she and her child would have been murdered, as the entire rest of her family was. If she had fled, who knows if the child would have survived the first winter in the labor camp—and if it died, would she have had the courage to go on from there?

My point isn’t to say that my grandmother made the right choice either time or both times. Rather, she couldn’t possibly know, then or in retrospect. And yet every choice was life-defining. Saying, “I’m not going to do this because I don’t know what will happen if I do” is also a choice, a life-defining one, and if you make a habit of it, then that habit is what defines your life. More to the point—and this was why I told the story to my friend—generations of people have had to make those kinds of choices in the face of insane uncertainty and possible horror that we truly can’t imagine. We’re here to debate about their choices because some of them, some of the time, chose to have children. The question is not “do I know that this will work out?” but, “do I want this?” And the point is not to deny fear, but not to be afraid of fear itself.

For over a year after that conversation, I didn’t speak to or hear from my friend. I wondered whether my response to her had been unwelcome, whether I had crossed the line, whether she had decided against having a child and, sensing my own emotional investment in the question, decided that she couldn’t tell me so. I didn’t know. But later in the pandemic, I reached out to see how she had fared, and learned that she was eight months pregnant. Moreover, she credited me with helping her make the decision to go for it.

Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about that fact. I don’t feel great about the responsibility—what if she hates being a mother? On the other hand, I feel extremely gratified—I am responsible, in a small way, for this new little life! What an achievement! On yet a third hand, meanwhile, I feel a tinge of envy, because this new little life isn’t really my creation, and, more importantly, isn’t going to be part of my life. There’s another bit of letting go for me, another little death, embedded in that little, growing life. And that jumble of feelings is what comes to me from my choice, to be involved; indeed, in the final analysis, it’s all we get from all our choices, as seen from inside our skulls.

But the feeling I actually want to hold onto from that jumble is joy, for her, for undertaking the process of becoming in the face of fear.

So what does that have to do with the title of this post? Where is “futurity” in all of this?

I am resistant, generally, to simplistic explanations of how we might substantially reverse the problem of fertility decline, whether by supporting families economically or by promoting religious traditionalism or by any other means. The phenomenon of sub-replacement fertility is simply too widespread; it crosses cultures, continents, political systems, from Colombia to Canada, Czechia to China. The primary cultural factor that correlates to sharp declines in fertility is female literacy. The primary economic factor that correlates similarly is the percentage of the population that lives in cities. If the alternative to fertility decline is either ISIS or the Khmer Rouge, I suppose we’ll have to live with fertility decline.

That doesn’t mean that we should do nothing. On moral grounds alone, we should do more to support families economically; on pluralistic grounds alone we should make sure that religious traditionalists are able to live out their chosen versions of the good life in peace. I’m just skeptical that those actions will enable us to swim particularly far against such a powerful tide.

But consequences, in this case as in so many cases, have ideas. And I think one that runs the risk of a feedback loop of decline feeding decline—beyond the economic doom loop—is the loss of a sense of the future. Smaller families are likely to be more conservative and obsessed about trying to preserve what they have, trying to control the uncontrollable future, and the need for impossible control surely feeds back into more anxiety about childbearing in the first place. I don’t think it’s a primary reason why fertility is so low in developed societies, but I do worry that it’s a consequence of fertility decline, as well as a related consequence of the causes of fertility decline, that then becomes a contributing cause. And it engenders its own psychic debilities, including among them the kinds of reactions we saw to Breunig’s piece and the kinds of fears that my friend articulated.

And then there are exogenous reasons for a loss of a sense of futurity. I mentioned that I’ve changed my mind about whether fear of climate change is a “real” cause of people not wanting to have kids, or whether it’s a mask for deeper and more personal fears. I changed my mind in part because I think it’s worth taking people’s word; if they say that it’s a real fear (and they do, in meaningful numbers) then maybe it is. But I also changed my mind because I think it plays into things I said earlier about how expensive existentialism is psychologically, how hard it is to make leaps into the dark, even though that’s what we are doing all the time, whether we acknowledge it or not.

For most people and for most of history, the expectation was that the future would look much like the past. Roles were set, and marrying and having children meant repeating a cycle more than embarking on a novel adventure. Modernity changed that, and meant that for more and more people life became a story defined by opportunity and possibility. That had obvious benefits, but it also had the unintended consequence of (as I keep noting) making all of us much more responsible for the narratives of our lives, which readily prompts a retreat into scripts of one kind or another to relieve the burden of choice.

Climate change, though, is a frontal challenge both to that sense of openness and opportunity and to the scripts that people have turned to in an effort to recover the security of pre-modern life. The future will not be like the past. It also won’t be like the promised future of an ever-better present. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be. Like my grandmother in 1939, we’re poised on the brink of horror that we can’t truly anticipate, but part of what we can’t anticipate is that, if we imagine ourselves as people still making choices (as we must, or what is the point of the exercise?), then we must imagine ourselves as my grandmother in exile, deciding to have a child because even amidst the chaos and uncertainty and pervasive death, life was going on. It wasn’t a blank; it had to be lived, and was worth living, even though it wasn’t following any script and offered no clarity about the future. That’s hard to do; it’s easier to give in to fear. We’re awash in dystopias these days not only because there are real things to fear, but because a script of pessimism is, in its depressing way, reassuring relative to the reality of the unknown.

So if there’s a cultural response to be made that has some relevance to breaking out of our situation, I think it lies in cultivating a different sense of the future than either the modern or the pre-modern, but different as well from our own doom-laden blank. Something more rooted in resiliency than in either optimism or security, and more about letting be than about holding on or giving up—more Heraclitus than Parmenides, and more Chuang Tzu than Confucius. I’m not saying optimism has no place; we need the dynamists because we’re going to have to innovate our way out of the worst of what’s to come. But I don’t think an adequate answer to fear lies with them, because even if the dynamists are right and successful, they are in no position to provide security. We have to fight fear itself, on its own ground in the psyche—fear of the future, personal and collective, most of all—as well as the material conditions that make that fear more palpable and rational.

I think Breunig would agree. Personally, I don’t really know how to do that. I don’t think I’ve really done it for myself. But I working on it, for myself, and for my son.