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Here’s a startling fact: Since 2009, adult diapers have outsold baby diapers, by as much as 28 percent in Japan. Longevity is outpacing fertility, now at a record low at about 62.9 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. The bare numbers only tell us how many women had babies and how many did not; we don’t know who couldn’t and who wouldn’t. But both demographics are rising: more women embracing the supposed joys of childlessness and more couples who would like to have a baby but can’t.
Last July a story in The Washington Post profiled a St. Louis couple who married in 2008, immediately lost their jobs, and waited a year to get back on their feet before trying to conceive—only to discover conception wouldn’t be easy. Both are approaching their mid-30s, struggling with whether they can afford the $15,000 or so it would take for medical intervention. Meanwhile she dreams of a blond, blue-eyed girl and boy who look a lot like her.
The economy has taken blame for low birthrates, especially when infertile couples need expensive help to conceive. But even a child naturally born doesn’t come cheap—or so they say. “Average estimates” of raising a child to the age of 18 range from $200,000 to $241,000 (not including college), depending on where you live and what your expectations are. While couples watch their paychecks and calculate on the backs of envelopes whether they can afford a kid, the months slip by, little by little nibbling away their chances.
Others have the money but not the biology, and desperation takes them to extremes. Theresa Erickson, a pricey San Diego lawyer, went to jail for a scam that involved sending surrogates to Ukraine to be implanted with embryos likely to fit the high-demand blond-and-blue-eyed stereotype. She and her partners would then find adoptive parents willing to pay up to $150,000 for the babies, on the pretense that they were benefiting from a previous surrogacy agreement gone bad. After her sentencing, a tearful Erickson told reporters that the surrogacy industry was the “Wild Wild West,” desperately in need of regulation.
How did childbearing and raising get so complicated? Partly for the same reason marriage is so complicated: We’ve made it all about us.
It’s an ironic age, in so many ways, but strikingly in this: The higher we price children, the less we value them. Value them as themselves, that is. They may have high value to the parents—the sum total of music lessons, ballet costumes, personal trainers, exclusive schools, tutoring, sports camps, and the pride taken in achievement. Or they may have wildly fluctuating value to a single mom who feels a confused affection toward her toddler but can’t get out of herself enough to understand what the little one really needs from her.
How did childbearing and raising get so complicated? Partly for the same reason marriage is so complicated: We’ve made it all about us. Certainly, parents devalued their children before Roe v. Wade. The real damage from that decision was making subjective value official.
Children need very little, materially. If I estimated what it cost to raise our girl and boy to the age of eighteen, it would be well below the national average. They ate what we ate, lived where we lived, made do with a single income and a single running vehicle as we did. When they were old enough for outside activities, we limited them to one each. My husband’s decision, long before they were born, never to allow a TV in the house probably helped, because they weren’t exposed to purposeful consumerism and didn’t ask for a lot of stuff. We were not exceptional or praiseworthy in this—many of our friends followed a similar path, and the kids generally turned out OK.
By contrast, millions of unborn babies are discarded because somebody wasn’t “ready.” The lack of readiness doesn’t cancel the worth of a human life. Besides, who is fully ready? The kids we get are not the ones we dreamed of or wished for: God’s way of showing that they are not our extensions or justifications. He owns our children—and, if it comes to that, our childlessness.
Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to note that since 2009, adult diapers have outsold baby diapers, by as much as 28 percent in Japan.