I once shared A. J. Delgado’s reservations about having children. It’s a natural concern for women who are career-oriented or who relish their independence and freedom. Delgado raises an important point that conservatives must confront: Many women (even those who are pro-family, pro-life conservatives) have a lot of anxiety about becoming mothers. The plummeting birth rate in the U.S. is not caused only by registered Democrats.
But Delgado misunderstands conservative thinking about children and mothers, starting with her notion that conservatives aim to pressure people into marriage or child-rearing. She writes:
We should tread carefully in pressuring others into marriage and/or families. When promotion of child-rearing becomes pressure to raise children (as it has been for centuries), how is this sound, or even conservative, public policy?
But “pressure” is neither our tactic as conservatives nor our intent. Conservatives are first and foremost concerned with directing society and the law toward the best outcomes for children, women, and society at large. For conservatives, that project always begins with marriage.
Marriage does not seem to play an important role in Delgado’s analysis. Though conservatives are not interested in coercing anyone to do anything, we are most certainly not trying to pressure unmarried women into becoming mothers. The Obama administration and Democrats, with their beloved Julia and perversely incentivized welfare programs, have been doing a fine job with that for decades, bringing us to a point where unwed motherhood, divorce, and abortion are a cultural norm.
We are right to be concerned about falling birth rates, to be sure. And this is where conservatives have an opportunity to offer new and creative policies that help married women make the choice to have children without feeling crushed by the financial strains that come with child care and paying off student debts. Recent Pew data found that as many as 30 percent of young couples put off having children because they simply could not afford the cost of child care or could not continue to pay their student debt while also raising a child. The real pressures so many young couples are feeling today are financial ones that stand in the way of their hopes to start a family. As women do not enjoy unending fertility, they feel that pressure disproportionately.
Here is where Democrats swoop in with liberal abortion laws and promises of forgiven student loans. There is a reason conservatives do so badly with single women: Democrats exploit their anxieties; conservatives largely ignore them.
Conservatives need to confront female anxiety about motherhood with fresh solutions. Offering tax incentives to companies that offer paid maternity leave, making student-loan payments fully tax-deductible for married women who have had a child, or expanding the child-care tax credit for working mothers and offering an equal credit for stay-at-home mothers are just a few places to start.
But we cannot lose sight of the fact that this all boils down to marriage. Conservatives have a two-part job. One is to convince society that decisions about children should be made within the permanent institution of marriage. Those decisions are profoundly private and should be made with freedom and mutual cooperation between a loving husband and wife before a God who invites them to participate in his creation of their own free will. The second part of our job is to convince society that openness to life and children is an essential part of the definition of marriage.
It’s overly simplistic to argue that Pope Francis is being heavy-handed with his remarks about cats and dogs, when he seemingly rebuked people for giving love to their animals rather than choosing to be loving parents. Take a look around the world. It’s not by accident that people of all different faiths and creeds and political orientations marry to form families. It’s because deep down we know that the most vulnerable and innocent human beings, children, belong in loving homes at the feet of their parents. If we strip that part away from marriage, then that delicate thread that holds marriage together unravels and we are left with the marriage anarchy that is spreading in our society. And the people who are harmed the most are innocent children and women who have been made vulnerable by childbirth and motherhood.
A. J. Delgado is free to remain “child-free,” as she puts it. Conservatives should not pressure her or any woman into becoming a mother — and we aren’t. But conservatives also shouldn’t write her off entirely. Many women are truly conflicted about becoming a mother in today’s world. And who can blame them? Women get very distressing signals about motherhood: We can end the life of our children up until the moment they are born; we are the only country in the industrialized world that does not guarantee mothers some form of paid maternity leave (heck, you can still get fired for having a child in some workplaces); the average cost of child care for one year for one child is nearly $12,000; moms are more or less told that a good education is wasted on them if they leave the work force; and fathers can abandon their wives and children for any reason at all. It’s a terrifying time to be a mother in America.
Conservatives can begin by reframing the conversation to focus less on birth rates, which does implicate a certain pressure on women to pick up the pace, and more on empowering women to make the choice to become a mother. But our starting point must always be marriage.
— Ashley E. McGuire is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.