Like your typical millennial I was discussing the pros and cons of having kids with my friends. The very idea of discussing the pros and cons of having kids seems laughable to older generations. It was just something everyone did. But due to the invention of highly effective birth control and the legalization of abortion having kids is now a choice. This is a celebrated fact as perhaps it should be but as the saying goes: “there are no solutions: only tradeoffs.”
My point of view on having children in the abstract is that not having kids is such a large deviation from the historical norm that one should think really hard about it. But I think most people don’t. They hear about the horrors of pregnancy or of cheating spouses and think the risks are too high to bear, pun intended. They think of how busy they are and can’t imagine adding a child on top.
My oneliner about having kids is “having kids is the best hedge against meaninglessness later in life.” For the 99% of people who don’t revolutionize an industry, write a bestseller, or make some breakthrough scientific discovery having kids is the most meaningful thing you will do in your life.
When I was in the third grade I said to my mother “Mom isn’t it great that your friends are all of my friend’s moms.” She of course laughed and said yes. But I understand now that her friends were my friend’s moms because she was so dedicated to me. Taking me to my after school activities and being active in the PTA that she was forced to make new friends who were in close proximity. She had less time for her previous one’s and they probably drifted away.
I want to talk about the game theory surrounding having children. Let’s say I’m the average person and have 10 or so close friends that I see regularly and 50–100 less close friends that I see a few times a year. Some from work, some from high school/college, and some from whatever hobbies I am involved in. If I choose to have kids and none of my close friends do I am putting myself on a very different life trajectory from them. I’ll be going to little league games and kid’s birthday parties and they will still be staying out late drinking and partying. I will feel alone and outside my group. In this scenario I will have to find new friends. The easiest option is the people around me. Those at my kids little league games.
Studies are very clear that when the first woman in a group of close friends has a child the next follows fairly shortly after and then so on exponentially after that. It needs to be someone in your core friend group for this to work, not just an acquaintance.
This could be due to many factors but I think the mimetic one deserves some credit. Friend A sees all the attention Friend B is getting on social media regarding her cute new baby and wants that for herself. Maybe Friend A had been meaning to have kids but due to all the modern distractions of life she never got around to it. Having kids is a choice now due to birth control. It’s not something that just happens anymore. Making that choice is hard.
For the little things in life like optimizing our sleep or workout schedules we make rational decisions as it is easy to to weigh the pros and cons from an unbiased perspective. But for the really big emotional decisions there are so many variables in play we mostly just follow what our friends do. This is ironic but it is true.
Humans are above all socially mimetic creatures. Monkey see Monkey do. Holding your friends precious little baby in your arms may do more to ignite the motherly instinct than reading a thousand articles on why you should have children.
So my practical advice to government bureaucracies and fertility organizations that are panicking about the collapse in birth rates: target the first mother. Analyze friend groups, identify the easiest to sway woman, and convince her to get pregnant. Then the rest of her more hesitant friends will follow.
You can profile her by age, political views, and family ties. Then show her targeted ads on facebook and instagram or offer her a lump sump of money. Facebook will give you this data on the cheap especially since it is for a good cause. Many industrialized and wealthy countries already offer cash incentives to would be mothers. But most of these programs have been ineffective. If you get the first mother, the others will follow.
Zuckerberg used this same method when starting Facebook. Originally it was only for Harvard students, you needed a Harvard email to sign up. Once Zuckerberg had a majority of Harvard students on the site he went on to other universities and did lots of targeted marketing and offered incentives to get new members on the site. In my analogy each university represents a new group of friends full of potential mothers.
The British government did a very similar thing when recruitment numbers fell off during WWI. People originally were happy to sign up for all of the traditional reasons: patriotism, honor, glory, adventure, oh and you’ll look dashing in that uniform. But once people found out how hellish this war was they no longer wanted to sign up. So the British government changed their rules to allow groups of friends to serve together. Recruitment numbers shot through the roof. You still had to go to hell and fight but you could do it with your friends and that made it all the more palatable.
Group suffering brings people close together. Members of sports teams are close because of the mutual suffering they endure in practice on a regular basis. Squads of soldiers are closer still because of the insane mental and physical strain they endure. For women there is a shared suffering around gestation, birth, and child rearing that bonds them together.
I know my pitch isn’t exactly making motherhood sound breezy and fun. But cute baby pictures and first steps are not the primary reason to have kids. They are not what make it meaningful. The suffering of taking on the most challenging endeavor of your life: raising and providing for a new human, is meaningful. That is what makes parents proud. Not what their kids did but what they did for their them.
I love the story of the man who wanted to divorce his wife because he felt like he had grown apart from her. He told his therapist how he felt and she told him to carry her to bed for the next 30 days. At the end of the month the man’s love was reignited and he felt like he did when he first met his wife.
Often it is not what we do that has meaning but how much effort we put into it. Some people get a great deal of meaning from their elaborate train set configurations, or from precisely hand painted figurines. I laugh at these obscure and pedantic hobbies but for the people doing them they hold great meaning.
Often the keys to finding meaning is to simply pick something and commit to it. Really commit to it. This can be done in any career field, any sport, any hobby. But the issue with any of these is that they can be given up so easily. You can change careers, find a new hobby, or begin a new workout routine without too many doubts.
When you have a child changing your mind is far harder or even impossible. Having a kid rewires people’s brains. It is not something you can go back on. How many a listless man-child was transformed into a hardworker and caregiver throughout history due to accidentally knocking up his girlfriend. Studies show men’s expected earnings increase markedly when they have a child compared to equivalent men who don’t. This seems counter intuitive. You have far less time and far more stress yet you are able to work harder at your job? This is because you now have a real reason to go to work. Not just so you can play video games and get drunk on the weekend.
Today we easily circumvent accidental pregnancy through various highly effective methods of birth control. Birth control allows for you to have a kid at a later date when you are more “ready.” But you will never be ready to have a kid. There is always a reason to wait. What if birth control instead of delaying births has simply postponed them indefinitely?
PS: Another off the wall idea is to do a pregnancy pact with your friends. You and 4 friends who want to have kids all put $1000 dollars into a pot and the first woman to get pregnant gets $4,000 and second place gets $1,000. Then you all get to go through this together.