The persistent cultural trend away from family life and childbirth is deeply troubling, not just because of its demographic implications, but because it means denying core characteristics of what it means to be human: our need for connection and our desire for meaning.
A late 2021 Pew Research Center survey shows that a rising number of childless adults claim they are unlikely to have children. Of the nonparents aged eighteen to forty-nine who were surveyed, forty-four percent said it is “not too likely” or “not at all likely” that they would procreate, an increase of seven percent from 2018. And seventy-four percent of polled adults under fifty said they were unlikely to have more children after having one or two.
While rational people agree that there are legitimate reasons not to have children, many of which center on medical or physiological realities, those don’t seem to be at issue in the study: a majority (fifty-six percent) of nonparents under fifty who say they’re unlikely to have children claim they just don’t want to.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. In 2013, Time published “Having It All Without Having Children,” which generated controversy with its celebration of childless professionals and their reasons for opting out of family life. The angle is clear: Kids get in the way. They get in the way of building a career, and they get in the way of enjoying life on your terms. (Ironically, the persistent cultural trend away from childbirth seems to have given rise to increased media focus on children, as evidenced by recent debates over mask mandates and curricula in schools.)
Perhaps we can all agree that the continuation of humanity is a social good. But the consequences of the dwindling birth rate are far greater than questions related to population figures. Our generation’s celebration of “I don’t want to” has profound, even existential, implications that extend far beyond our personal preferences and lifestyle choices.
Choosing to forgo family life (excluding, of course, reasons beyond our control, like infertility or health issues that preclude procreation or adoption) denies two core aspects of human nature: our need to connect with others and our desire to find enduring meaning in life.
Our culture perceives the splintering of the nuclear family as, in the words of one Public Discourse author, “a virtuous expression of individual autonomy.” This type of autonomy is often celebrated as one of the greatest goods, one that many are reluctant to sacrifice in favor of pursuing family life and its responsibilities and challenges. If the focus on individual autonomy that pervades our society feels abnormal, it’s for a reason: it doesn’t quite square with how we’re wired.
As social creatures, we naturally carry responsibilities to care for, protect, and nurture others. If not our own biological or adoptive children, then our spouses. If not spouses, then our aging parents. If not our nuclear families, then the poor, the marginalized, and the most vulnerable in society. All of us walk through phases during which we, too, are dependent. This dependence, which starts in utero with our physical connection to our mothers, comes full circle in our final days. By our very design, we are wired not for total independence, but rather, radical dependence on others. Marriage and family life allow us to practice and cultivate this principle of radical dependence that is so central to human nature.
Marriage and family life allow us to practice and cultivate the principle of radical dependence that is so central to human nature.
As the foundational unit of society, the family offers us opportunities for connection that inform and shape all our social interactions. How we relate to our nuclear families determines how we will move through the world as adults. In her essay last year, “The Sanctifying Work of Pregnancy,” Lara Ryd explained that this type of interconnectedness begins from the very moment of conception as expectant mothers learn to rely on their communities, thereby strengthening bonds with those around them.
The notion of radical dependence carries a parallel in both the adoption and caregiving contexts. Even without the physical vulnerabilities that pregnancy naturally involves, any type of pursuit that is fundamentally other-focused, like adoptive parenthood or full-time caregiving, requires more than just one individual’s physical and mental efforts. This is because both caregiving and adoption entail the intentional decision to welcome and care for life, new or old. This unique type of self-sacrifice reminds us of our primal need for each other.
It truly takes a community to support, sustain, encourage, and ultimately promote the good of each person. To the extent that young people in our society are turning away from family life and childbirth, our society loses a sense of the many ways in which its members are radically dependent on each other.
The Search for Meaning
Beyond our capacity to connect, family life provides something that has enduring value, even when life feels impossibly heavy: meaning.
Meaning is accessible to us in a way that pleasure is not. It can be found through consistent effort, a disciplined practice of seeking it, recognizing it, and inculcating it in our lives. This is a much more satisfying and soul-nourishing quest than grasping for ephemeral pleasures.
It is true that children can bring great pleasure to our lives, even amid the challenges and constant calls to self-denial. Pleasure can often be found by those who seek it, but the hard reality is that everyone lives through seasons that involve more pain than pleasure, more responsibility than freedom, and more suffering than bliss. Whether on a small scale due to a personal trial or a wider level due to a global crisis like a pandemic or war, suffering will befall all of us. By its very nature, pleasure is fleeting and largely circumstantial. While children can bring pleasure, the more important point to acknowledge is that they help provide meaning, which is enduring and rooted in love and self-sacrifice.
Church history abounds with examples of individuals whose lives we acknowledge as deeply meaningful precisely because of their commitment to embodying love and self-sacrifice. In recent history, saints like Gianna Beretta Molla, Thérèse of Lisieux, Maximilian Kolbe, and Faustina Kowalska come to mind as individuals whose final days were marked with intense physical, mental, or spiritual suffering. While the common thread binding these people and their stories is suffering, nobody would deny that their lives (even the shortest among them) were deeply meaningful.
In my own modest way, I have noted that some of the heaviest, darkest, and least enjoyable seasons of my life have been among the most meaningful. These seasons have not only forced necessary change in my heart but have connected me more closely with my family and community, reminding me that I cannot thrive as an individual or contribute meaningfully to society without these support systems.
Children can bring pleasure, but the more important point is that they help provide meaning, which is enduring and rooted in love and self-sacrifice.
As an example of how parenthood and its unexpected struggles have provided meaning in my own life, my second son spent thirty-one days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after he was born eight weeks early via emergency C-section. It was an emotionally and physically exhausting period, marked with anxiety. Yet I look back on it as among the richest and most meaningful in my life because of the people who walked alongside us: parents who scooped up our kids for a weekend of fun so we could visit our son in the hospital, friends who crossed town in rush-hour traffic to drop off takeout from our favorite restaurant, coworkers who shipped flowers, and fellow NICU moms who, though near-strangers, sent gifts and prayers and words of encouragement.
My experience taught me that parenthood opens us to suffering, pain, and fear in ways that are incomparable to anything I had felt before. It might seem that these feelings would lend themselves to an inward turn, perhaps to excessive introspection or self-pity, but I realized that they were given powerful and constructive outward expression in the intimate ways I came to connect with and rely on others.
This is not to suggest that meaning and connection are impossible outside of parenthood. People remain childless for a variety of legitimate and personal reasons. And it’s also not to dismiss the benefits of partaking in the pleasures of life from time to time. No one would deny that leisure does indeed enrich lives when kept in its proper place. As a parent of young children, I certainly understand that constant self-denial in the service of others can leave us feeling a bit starved and that some level of self-care can make us better parents.
The question, rather, is: what is the price we are willing to pay for it? Will we trade something long-lasting and deeply meaningful in favor of a life dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of pleasure and individual autonomy?
If so, the price is simply too high.
When we opt out of parenthood simply because we “don’t want it,” we cut off a limb. We deny ourselves the opportunity for growth, connection, and meaning. Regardless of its form, declining the opportunity to parent—biologically, spiritually, or otherwise—means denying core aspects of what makes us fully human.
It is primarily for this reason—and not just because of questions related to demographics or population growth—that the toll of the dwindling birth rate should concern us. The accelerating cultural trend away from childbirth threatens to diminish core characteristics of what it means to be a fulfilled, flourishing human: our need for connection and our desire to seek meaning.
There are many legitimate reasons not to have children. But given the price of what we lose, “I don’t want to” simply isn’t good enough.