The closer we come to having a child of our own the more a single question recurs in my reading and conversation with others: “Can you provide for a child?” Next in line, of course, is the implicit, “For how many children can you provide?” And underpinning it all is the question: “Do you meet my standards for provision?”
If this is, usually, a matter of private concern (for parents and extended families), it has perhaps never been more publicly or more coarsely treated than recently, with the birth of the octuplets in California. Hearing responses from different groups of people gives one a sense of their value systems. Some see these kids as a mark of life’s abundance, praising God or nature for the creation of so many lives and/or the medical world for meeting the needs of such premature children. Some, however, see this as a failure of the medical community to reduce the number of foetuses and thereby raise the odds of success for the remaining children. Many, when hearing of the number, immediately jump to the conclusion that this woman and her children will need public assistance and thus add to the weight around our country’s neck (and I’ll admit that 8 premies makes for one heck of an albatross, if you think about it that way). I’m sure those last, in particular, nearly flipped a lid when they heard that the woman has six older children. And I’m sure the medical question will get more interesting now that we know (after much media invasion of the family’s privacy) that the woman did have embryo implantation, and thus the multiples aren’t merely the result of fertility drugs (this is where doctors get nervous). News is still coming in, so I can’t vouch for the reliability of all of this information, but it seems pretty clear that the few facts we do know have thrown the public into a tizzy.
How many is “too” many? And why do we assume that there is, at some particular number, a “too” that gives us the right to step in? I find this woman’s case interesting because it puts the ethics of the fertility industry to a point in a way I haven’t seen before. Yes, I find bioethics really, really interesting, and I did long before having kids on my horizon. Some of our assumptions about what’s “appropriate” use of technology have to do with our visions of a prototype fertility case. Usually it’s a childless couple that has been attempting to have children for many, many years. Why, many ask, would we not do everything possible to give them a child? It’s always “a” child. But why, I’m wondering, is the question different if the case is that of a woman (no mention of a father just yet) who seeks to have a child after she’s already had children? And what if she chooses, despite a doctor’s advice, to reject embryo reduction? We talk a lot in this society about the value of the individual. We teach our kids to feel special and we ourselves strive to be distinct from each other. But then why, when it comes to a couple’s decision to have two children instead of one (or seven instead of six) does the existence of another child in the family change the “value” of the child under consideration?
In some cases (though certainly not all), the different answers you hear from the public seem to have a distinct classist ring to them: only poor people have large families, the consensus goes, and poor people can’t provide for those children in the way that some think they ought. When push comes to shove, some of these commenters might even go so far as to say that unless a couple can lay down [insert dollar figure here] they should not be having children: doing so would constitute something like criminal neglect. Alright, so very few are willing to go that far. But many gesture in that direction without being willing to specify just how far they would go to prevent parents from neglecting children, and just what, in dollar terms, constitutes neglect in this day and age.
In some circles, “provide” has a lot more to do with whether parents can regularly put food on the table than it does with whether they can afford everything needed to ensure that Rosa will grow up to have the choice of being a professional ballerina or a Nobel-winning chemist (both of which benefit from starting the training young). In some circles the emphasis is on how much time the parents will be willing to devote to their children. How much time, how much money, how many social opportunities–you name it. I can certainly see why parents desire to give their kids as much of a lift as possible, but I don’t quite understand how such natural desire turns into the means by which we judge whether others can have children and how many they can have–particularly in this day of “to each his own.” Children very nicely challenge the limits of our national devotion to free speech and freedom of action.
Time for some anecdotes: I was talking children with a female colleague (before I was pregnant), analyzing all the ins and outs of children and academia. One thing about the academic life: it puts the family question to a point. You either have children while you’re young and poor (and have a flexible schedule) or you wait to secure your geographical, financial, and professional situation first. Some recent studies in my field showed that professors thought the first option was preferable to the latter, but among grad students the general feeling went the other way. Something tells me both sides think the other’s crazy: professors easily forget the deep anxiety that grad students feel at jeopardizing their careers . . . and grad students have unreal expectations about the bliss of life once you’ve actually gotten a *gasp* job.
My colleague began to express worries about having kids until her financial situation really settled down and she felt like she could prepare and provide for them. Boy, I know that desire. But, as she started to talk it through, she realized that that time may be a good ten to fifteen years down the road. By that time she might well be beyond her childbearing years. We both sat there, struck by our desire for a family, our desire to provide for them, and our sense that either our desire for children or our standards for provision needed to give way. By now I’ve put my cards on the table (or rather, I now greet everyone belly-first), and those I know have been very kind about not asking pointed questions like “And how, exactly, do you propose to provide for a child?” But I’m keeping an eye on these various social trends and larger social expectations (which vary greatly around the country and in different sub-cultures). They tell me quite a lot about what we think the role of children (and the role of parents) is today.