I’ll never forget the moment my wife told me she was expecting. I had just returned home from work, and she asked me to come into the kitchen. She was radiating the kind of nervous excitement a person has when they’re about to announce big news. But instead of saying anything, she handed me a small, gift-wrapped present.
I pulled the wrapping paper away, and there — in a small box — was a tiny set of baby clothes. I knew instantly what it meant. A moment of pure joy followed. We hugged. We cried. We plotted how we would tell the rest of the family. Months later, even that moment of elation was eclipsed in Lexington, Ky.’s Baptist Hospital, as we welcomed our first child into this world.
We didn’t think much about the decision to have kids; it’s just what a family does. You get married and you become parents very soon after — in part because a huge part of the joy in life is being young enough, long enough to play with your children well into their young adulthood. When I was in college, my friends and I were locked in a furious pickup-basketball rivalry with my father and his friends. We swapped wins back and forth, exchanging a championship belt that the winner would hold up high as he walked onto the court for the next game.
I treasured those memories, and I couldn’t wait to replicate all the best elements of my childhood with my own kids. Childhood meant hope. Babies meant joy.
So what happens to a society when hope and joy seem to be in full retreat?
Last week the National Center for Health Statistics reported that America’s general fertility rate hit a record low in 2017. That record — bad enough on its own — raised eyebrows in part because it came amid a relative economic boom. As Washington Post columnist Christine Emba notes, “Birthrates tend to drop during periods of economic distress as people put off having babies, but potential parents usually get back to business once the economy rebounds.
The University of Virginia’s W. Bradford Wilcox has been sounding the alarm for some time, noting not just declining American birth rates but also declining marriage rates and apparently declining interest in sex, even among young adults. In a long and thoughtful Politico essay a few months ago, he explored multiple reasons for these declines, including cultural confusion in the aftermath of #MeToo, the prevalence of porn, and a smartphone culture that makes relationships increasingly virtual.
I think all of these explanations are valid, in part. After all, when dealing with sweeping cultural transformations in a continent-sized nation of more than 320 million people, you’ll rarely find any single cause. So let me add one more.
It’s worth exploring whether our declining birth rate may be yet another symptom of the despair that grips so many American hearts.
Our nation faces a mental-health crisis. In many ways, our culture is increasingly marked by depression, anxiety, and despair. The numbers can feel so big, so shocking as to be overwhelming. I’ve written many times about the “deaths of despair” that are actually decreasing life expectancy in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation. When more Americans die from drug overdoses each year than fell to enemy fire in the whole Vietnam War, we know we face an extraordinary challenge.
To no one’s surprise, these deaths occur against the backdrop of extraordinarily sobering rates of suicide, anxiety, and depression. From 2008 to 2015, the number of children and teens who were hospitalized for “suicidal thoughts or actions” more than doubled. From 2005 to 2014, there was a 37 percent increase in the number of teens who reported a major depressive episode. In 2016, Time reported that an incredible 30 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District students experienced “feelings of hopelessness and sadness lasting more than two weeks.”
Reaching back to 2015, a sobering Vox Magazine story reported that Millennials were experiencing “unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression.” The article contains a deluge of statistics. “More than 25 percent of college students have a diagnosable mental illness.” An incredible “61 percent of 1,010 college students who responded to an American College Health Association assessment in fall 2014 reported feeling overwhelming anxiety within the last year.” And then there’s this:
Mental health problems don’t just start in college. According to Psychology Today, “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
I must confess that, as the parent of two teenagers, none of this surprises me. I know my kids’ friends and peers. And while there are notable exceptions to every trend, theirs is not a generation characterized by hope and joy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents ask a version of this key question: “Were we this sad when we were young?”
Yes, I know that correlation isn’t causation. But I do think it’s worth exploring whether our declining birth rate may be yet another symptom of the despair that grips so many American hearts. When you lose hope, do you want to bring a child into this world? Do you have the energy to care for and sustain a separate human life? I’m not positing sadness as the reason for declining American fertility even in an age of material prosperity. But I think it’s a reason.
We know that existential despair can take a life. But it can also prevent a life from being created. I think back to my twenties. If I had been struggling or my wife had been battling major depression, would we have felt ready to be parents? Would she have wrapped that present with gladness in her heart? Or would we have felt the need to fix ourselves before we raised a child? Childlessness can damage a culture and diminish a civilization just as surely as suicide. It’s worth considering whether they might have the same underlying cause.