In the wake of Chelsea Handler’s Daily Show segment celebrating A Day in the Life of a Childless Woman, there is an apparent internet trend of middle-aged women celebrating childlessness. In the most recent example of such a video going viral, TikTok influencer Julia Mazur (dubbed the “Shakshuka Girl”) celebrated her Saturday as a childless millennial. Antinatalism is thus not confined to Hollywood elites, but reflects a larger trend of American fertility decline.
According to one study, the mean number of children born to American women between 2015 and 2019 was 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Nearly half of all American women under the age of 45 are childless. In a study interviewing women about their reproductive goals, some of the most commonly cited reasons for delaying or declining children were “fear of falling further into debt . . . or not having the emotional or social resources to provide adequately for one’s child.”
Indeed, the historical gap between the number of children women want to have and the number they do have, suggests that, for many women, concerns about resources are very real, and that better support of motherhood and childrearing (broadly understood) would increase fertility rates. This problem deserves thoughtful policy deliberation, but in my view, expanding the state’s social safety net would be insufficient to solve it. The most urgent need is to rebuild local institutions, communities, friendships, and social capital around a pro-natal outlook.
Still, we would be myopic if we did not recognize that Mazur’s video illustrates how many women of childbearing age aren’t afraid of having children for lack of financial resources. She giddily recounts attending Beyonce concerts, brags about purchasing expensive clothing to comfort herself, and apparently lives in a nice home. Her fear of children is of a different kind.
Fear is an appetitive movement or emotion that humans experience when they perceive some object as an evil or threat, accompanied by a kind of withdrawing from the object. In its most visceral form of immediate threat of death, one can see how a body reacts by a kind of involuntary contraction, as in the case of the elevator floor prank. Meanwhile, fear of some future evil is typically accompanied by aversion of the will from the object feared.
Many American women have a plan of life premised upon fear of children because children are perceived as an evil to be avoided, inasmuch as children would burden their autonomous pursuit of the creature comforts Chandler and Mazur praise, like partying late at a concert on Friday, sleeping in on Saturday, eating edibles or shakshuka, and rewatching Real Housewives of New York.
I personally find the fear of loss of autonomy to be understandable. Indeed, I can attest that little “autonomy” so understood (i.e., voluntaristic freedom) remains to parents on Saturdays. And, believe it or not, one recent Saturday, I even wondered whether the life of a childless millennial might be better.
It all happened a couple months ago during a homebrewing session.
When I homebrew beer, my children love to help. Sometimes I am annoyed as they can get in the way, but I try to indulge them. Little hands hold the base of the grain grinder in place, help carry buckets, close and open valves, pour in and stir the hops. And, of course, fetch the hose.
Flowing water is necessary in the homebrewing process to pump through a wort chiller. Wort is the sugary and hoppy grain water that will transform into delicious suds once the yeast has been pitched in—but the yeast cannot survive if it is too hot. After about an hour of boiling and adding hops, the wort was ready to chill. As usual, one of my sons went to fetch the hose from outside as I was finishing the boil and brought it through our back door into the hallway off the kitchen.
A couple minutes later, he asked, “Dad, why is the hose turned on?“
“What!? No!” I cried, running.
Indeed, the hose was cheerily gushing forth a stream in the hallway, right into the floor vent. Out of eagerness to help, my five-year-old son had gone and turned on the hose, not knowing it wasn’t yet hooked up to the chiller. How many gallons had flowed into my ventilation system?
It was a Saturday evening, and it had already been a long day of running errands and doing chores. The last thing I desired to do was to make the descent into the dreaded bowels of my 150-year-old home: the crawlspace. But I knew this was the sort of emergency that required immediate attention. And while I’m not much of a handyman, I was the only affordable one available.
So, I donned my headlamp and cobweb stick and slithered over dirt and pipes, under floorboards, and through the spiders to find the sagging insulation—with a fellowship of children on my heels. I thought in the moment that it was as if I were Gandalf, leading them into Moria. And my eldest was their captain, relaying my instructions.
Then we came upon it: a silvery, bloated air duct, sagging to the ground and dripping water. My fellowship formed an assembly line of sorts, passing towels in and buckets of water out. Once I pierced through the soft underbelly of aluminum and fiberglass, it didn’t take long for all the water to flow out—about five gallons. I cut out the wet insulation and patched the duct until I could get new insulation. The emergency had been averted in less than an hour.
As I reflected on what the meaning of the ordeal might be—I am a philosopher after all—my inner critic began to murmur, “What a needless headache. This never would have happened if you didn’t have a gaggle of children that you apparently can’t keep track of. And this unforced error is going to cost you more time and money you don’t have. Wouldn’t your Saturday—your life—have been better off without them?”
“But that isn’t right,” I replied to my inner interlocutor. The world is a richer and more beautiful place with my children in it because each one is not an evil to be avoided, but a gift from God to be welcomed. Consider my five-year-old boy. True, he has the wild heart and eagerness of a young colt—and the strength of one to boot—but that is why I am here, to train him to tame his heart and channel his power toward virtue. And my fellowship helped shoulder the burden, making our trip into the crawlspace almost fun. Well, fun for them, at any rate.
I returned to my wort, cooled it, transferred it to a fermentation bucket, and pitched the yeast. A week later, my English-style ale was ready for the keg. As I reflect on that Saturday and contemplate my plans for next Saturday, I am wondering if what Homer Simpson once said of beer is not also true about children: they are the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
Next Saturday, I’ll grumble when I have to awaken at 7 a.m. to get ready with my wife to take children to soccer games. Frankly, I don’t really like the game of soccer, and shuttling five kids around to four different teams for five hours is not my ideal Saturday itinerary. On the other hand, they are all pretty good. My five-year-old son is the fastest on the field. My six-year-old daughter averages seven goals a game. They call her “Miss Messi.” And my oldest daughter won MVP last year. I guess, if I’m honest, I am looking forward a little bit to watching them kick butt.
We’ll get home in the early afternoon. We’ll do some house chores, mostly to clean up the messes the little kids made. Then I’ll make a boatload of food to feed them all, but my big kids will help. We were planning to make some General Tso’s chicken and fried wontons, but they do like learning new recipes. Who knows? Maybe we’ll try making some shakshuka. And, come to think of it, I believe there is still some of that beer left in the kegerator. English ale should wash it down fine. After dinner, it will be time for family movie night. I think the kids want to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this week.
Perhaps Saturdays for the fertile millennial parent aren’t so bad, after all.