Are children a form of wealth?MOLLIE HEMINGWAY
In my religious community, having many children is considered an extraordinary gift from God. In my cultural circles, it gets you mocked as an idiot of epic proportions. It may sound silly, but I had never felt that disconnect between my two worlds so strongly.
The only time I experienced culture shock was a few years ago upon return from a convention of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod. One night at the bar, some of the people there got in a friendly discussion about our families. And, specifically, the size of our families. The men and women with 10 or more were quickly identified and feted. Then, I came back to DC and went to see the movie Anchorman. It's a great movie but at the end, the mentally retarded character played by Steve Carrell is identified as a fundamentalist Christian who ends up having 12 kids. The audience roared with delight.
That was my experience with culture shock. In my religious community, having many children is considered an extraordinary gift from God. In my cultural circles, it gets you mocked as an idiot of epic proportions. It may sound silly, but I had never felt that disconnect between my two worlds so strongly as I did that night.
So it was a treat to come across Kate Zernike's piece in the New York Times about how large families are scorned and mocked by various elements in the culture. The story profiles a variety of different large families and packs an unbelievable amount of thoughtful detail into each description. It tackles big issues but keeps everything very readable.
As most of the media is obsessing about the California octuplets, this reporter uses that as a hook to explore the much more significant phenomenon of family size in general:
If you read the article, these paragraphs are clearly not meant to be taken as face value. They're presenting a common view of large families as opposed to arguing for that view. The story goes on to mention how the British government's environmental adviser declared it "irresponsible" to have more than two children and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's goal of including contraception in the stimulus package. The story doesn't overplay the significance of these things but steadily paints a picture of how large families are marginalized and attacked as immoral or costly.
Check out this interesting substantiating detail:
So many of the families who share their stories tell of unbelievably inappropriate comments or questions about sex or birth control from bosses, random strangers and friends. The article explores the idea that women who have many children can't also be educated or professional or have ambition. The women in the article talk about having a foot in both the domestic and professional words. One mother, a college professor, notes that much of the criticism comes from educated people who shouldn't traffic in such gross stereotypes. On the other hand, sometimes people assume you have to be super wealthy to afford a large family.
So the article introduces us to Barbara Curtis, a mother of 12 in Northern Virginia. She's a Montessori teacher and her husband is a commercial accounts manager -- neither super-rich nor poverty stricken.
It's fascinating how quickly the praise for the mother of octuplets rather quickly turned to scorn. A friend noticed that the scorn was based mostly on money. It's not that people think marriage is a necessary prerequisite for family. And people certainly believe in-vitro fertilization is fine, even if you're a single mum. But it is morally wrong for a single woman to have in-vitro fertilization if she already has six children -- particularly if she doesn't kill some of the embryos who are growing in her womb. The main -- perhaps only -- ethical problem seemed to be that the woman couldn't support these children. It's just interesting to note how much society views children as economic liabilities as opposed to people.
The story has some hidden ghosts. A comment about how women with less education have more children on average than women with significantly more education could speak to different priorities in life as opposed to some proof that hicks are breeders. But other ghosts are brought out a bit:
The article also addresses the efforts by some environmentalists to fight the existence of siblings. Every couple would get one child and then they're done if some had their way. Large families contend that they have economies of scale and an economic incentive to reduce consumption and reuse resources. The article also notes that women's fertility in the United States is barely at replacement rate. We don't hear from any members of large families who have negative comments about them but it's a long article that covers a lot of ground. It's a great idea for a story and handled very well.
These findings amount to the greatest change in our understanding of the human brain in 400 years. It is the discovery that the adult human brain, rather than being fixed or "hardwired", can not only change itself but works by changing itself. It is "neuroplastic": "neuro" for neuron, the nerve cells in the brain, and "plastic" in the sense of adaptable, changeable, malleable. Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to what it senses, what it does and even what it thinks and imagines.
Mollie Hemingway. "Are children a form of wealth?" Get Religion.org (February 19, 2009).
Reprinted by permission of GetReligion.org and Mollie Hemingway. The original posting of this article is here.
Mollie Hemingway is a Washington writer who writes for Get Religion. She is the author of Losing Our Religion.
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