The question posed by the article in Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune seemed an easy one.
“Maternal anxiety is reaching ‘crazy high rates’ in Utah, and experts aren’t sure why,” was the headline on the article by Becky Jacobs, one of our excellent Report for America staffers.
Why are new mothers, and mothers-to-be, experiencing levels of anxiety ranging from high to debilitating to suicidal?
Simple. Men are pigs and Republicans are in charge. (I could go all religion on you and blame The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But having already tagged a gender and a political party, that would have been redundant.)
As I have often said in this space, the world and its economic cues have changed forever due to technology.
When making a living was a matter of upper-body strength — the only thing where men, on average, have an advantage over women — the extended family was reasonably the default choice of lifestyle. In pre-industrial, agriculture-based cultures, child (and maternal) mortality was high and you needed extra hands to till and harvest. In an industrial society, logic dictated that men go into the workplace and women stay home to raise the children. In both cases, women were pushed to have children as a way of keeping those men around, whether to bring in a paycheck or fight off saber-toothed tigers.
In the knowledge-based economy, all of that is out the window. A woman alone, or even with a child, can make her own way in the world without any smelly, lazy, demanding, sometimes violent, man cluttering up the place.
At the same time, in Utah and in much of the United States, the support system once provided by the extended family and religious organizations has not been replaced by a proper social safety net. So the idea of having children, or having as many children as previous generations had, seems financially unwise. Maybe because a woman hasn’t found, and doesn’t otherwise need, a man who is gainfully employed. Maybe because even a happily married couple has both other priorities and reasonable fears.
The United States, for example, is the only advanced nation where the term “medical bankruptcy" is a thing. Jobs are relatively plentiful but not altogether secure. The value of medical and other benefits is nowhere near keeping up with costs. Getting the college or graduate degree necessary to move to the upper echelon of careers saddles the entry-level worker with considerable debt. Suicide. Addiction. Homelessness.
And even in super-family-friendly Utah, the air is filthy and the powers that be think that universal access to health care is evil.
People — women — aren’t averse to having children because they wouldn’t love them. They aren’t having children because they know they would love them more than anything, and they are not sure that they as individuals, or the society in which they live, will be good enough for those children.
Or, in the case of all that maternal anxiety, they have those fears, but they have the children anyway.
Leave it to The New York Times to put a hole in my wonderful theory.
In a loooong piece posted on The Tribune website Monday, writer Anna Louie Sussman noted that major declines in birthrates are not unique to the U.S. Northern European nations — the essay focuses on Denmark — are seeing the same numbers despite the fact that gender equality is high, health care is a public service, college is free, parental leave is generous and childcare readily affordable.
Of course, the same things about women no longer needing men or children to be valued members of society holds there as well as here. But while the immediate economic and social status of European women is relatively secure, the planet is still a scary place.
Climate change, as Sussman said, has created a situation where, “On any given day, it seems that some part of the inhabited world is either on fire or underwater.” Income inequality is a serious destabilizer even when, for the moment, you are on the top end of the scale. And the xenophobic populists who warn of impending demographic doom are scary even when you know they are full of it, because of how many other people seem to believe them.
We need to come to terms with the fact that having fewer children is a logical decision increasingly made by free people. The culture and the government need not to stand athwart, but adapt. If we need more workers, accept more migrants and refugees. If Social Security and Medicare need more money, raise taxes on the rich.
And if we really want families to have more children, free them from medical and student debt, improve schools and the environment and make having children something that reasonable people might want to do.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has collaborated with his wife to replace themselves. That’s enough. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitte: @debatestate