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In Defense of Babies

by on March 20, 2019 5:00 AM


Talk to a 20-something these days and you’re likely to hear a passionate renunciation of parenthood. Bring a child into this messed-up world? Cruel and irresponsible.

Foremost among the reasons not to have a baby is climate change: Our rosy old futuristic imaginings of flying cars and robo-drudges have given way to disaster movie visions of floods, fires, pandemics and epic clashes over vanishing resources. Who wants to think about how their child will fare during the apocalypse?

Then there’s the money piece. Young adults who are already wondering how they’re going to pay off their student loans and if they’ll ever be able to buy a house or even live without roommates can’t see taking on the additional expense of clothing, feeding and eventually educating a child.

A third strike against parenthood is our politics. The paralysis of democratic institutions in the face of rising authoritarianism does not inspire confidence in a better tomorrow.

Anyone who watched the 2018 batch of Oscar-nominated short films had to have been struck by the grimness of most of them. Among the themes of the short documentaries: racism in the U.K.; the desperation of refugees crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded rubber boats; patients and their families struggling with end-of-life decisions; and an American Nazi rally in New York on the eve of World War II – a reminder that yes, it can happen here.

To the extent that these films represented the zeitgeist, one had to conclude that humanity is in a major funk.

Of course, every generation can find reasons not to have children: fascism, the Bomb, overpopulation, a toxic environment. Most young adults, impelled by biology or hope or some combination of the two, wind up starting families anyway.

I keep hearing that this moment feels different, though. The threats seem more dire and more immediate; the will to confront them, strangely, shamefully missing in action. An essay in the New York Times last week noted that the American fertility rate is plummeting.

At a party a couple of weeks ago where we went around the room taking stock of ourselves at midlife, a theme emerged: Several of these parents of young adults expressed longing for grandchildren and fear that there may never be any.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Am I the only grandparent here?” Nearly. There was one other.

I tried to reassure the grandma and grandpa wannabes: A few years ago, when my daughter Sylvie and her friends were in their mid-20s, they debated the advisability of bringing children into this messed-up world. Now they’re all in their early 30s. And here come the babies.

Last August, as I have been incessantly proclaiming from the house tops, Sylvie brought the adorable Penelope into this messed-up world. She tells me her most vehemently anti-baby friend from a few years ago is now “officially trying” to have one.

As for her own decision to start a family, Sylvie said, “Despite feeling anxious about climate change and such, I still knew I wanted to have a baby at some point. Hope is a crucial aspect of being human.”

If anything, Penelope’s arrival has stoked my fears for the future. Armageddon may be hypothetical; Penelope is not. Now when I picture the bursting of the protective bubble in which my children and I have lived, I shudder to think of this sweet-smiling, twinkly-eyed person being there when it happens.

I don’t know how to reconcile that fear with the joy I derive from the sheer fact of her existence.

In “End Game,” the Oscar-nominated short doc on “this crazy thing called death,” the professionals talk to patients and families about a good death, but most of them seem unconvinced. Most of the audience, too, I’ll bet.

I imagined everyone in the State Theatre thinking, as I was, please, please, please let this not happen to me or my loved ones. Surely there are, if not good deaths, better and worse ones. We wish only to be spared the worst ones and the too-soon ones.

But in the meantime, when we’re not contemplating our own demise, or the end of civilization, there’s joy, and what is a baby, if not, according to the idiom, a bundle of joy?

We should be able to embrace the general principle that life is sacred, and act accordingly. But most of us do better with concrete, specific instances than we do with general principles. That’s what a baby is: a warm, breathing, embraceable embodiment of life.

Want people to get behind the Green New Deal, or some other set of proposals aimed at saving us from our worst tendencies? Hand them a tiny human. Embrace a baby rather than a general principle and you’ll want to save her, save all babies, from all harm.

From that perspective, having babies may be the best thing our children can do in the face of global catastrophe.

And we oldsters get grandchildren out of the deal.




A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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