In a recent Guardian article about “America’s premier pronatalists,” the journalist mentions her own assumption that “the main thing that [makes having kids] hard [is] that it’s now so incredibly expensive to raise children.”

“No,” the father of the profiled family replies. “Not at all”—and in a significant sense, I think he’s right. So do Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman, authors of the newly released What Are Children For?: On Ambivalence and Choice.

That’s not to say Berg and Wiseman (or I) would ever be dismissive of the real financial hardships many would-be parents face. On the contrary, they devote the first of the book’s four long chapters to a sober examination of such “externals.”

But the delight of the book is that they do not stop there. Berg and Wiseman equally reject the assumption—seen in many lesser entries in the kids conversation—that the externals are the whole of the matter, that all this ambivalence would melt away with just the right package of policies to extend parental leave and make childcare affordable.

It wouldn’t, and What are Children For? is a welcome complication of that simplistic account. As the title signals, Berg and Wiseman aim to deliver a sharp cultural and philosophical analysis, giving rigorous but sympathetic examination to a “world that is both pro- and anti-natalist.” Though they embrace at the last moment a major claim they seem to resist throughout the text, their project succeeds.

A sea of options

Readers familiar with the Christian philosopher Charles Taylor’s idea of secularism in A Secular Age will be well-prepped to understand a core contention of What Are Children For?: that having kids once was not a choice, and now it is a choice, and this colossal change is integral to the modern experience of ambivalence about children.

Taylor defined secularism as what happens when a society changes from one “where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” Likewise, where once having children was “just what people did,” Berg and Wiseman write, now it is something we feel we must “weigh against a sea of other options,” many of them at least superficially easier, more pleasurable, less risky, and simpler to do well.

A quote Berg and Wiseman share from psychologist Nancy Felipe Russo, writing in 1976, drives home the recency and totality of this shift. Having children was then so assumed that “even if the perfect contraceptive were developed and used,” Russo thought, the “social and cultural forces that enforce the motherhood mandate would continue.” Today, in my judgment, the opposite is true: Even if all contraception were to disappear tomorrow, our agonizing would not vanish with it.

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Nor would we be any closer to knowing how to decide. For many of our peers, Berg and Wiseman contend, “having children is steadily becoming an unintelligible practice of questionable worth.” With the internet’s help, we mainline reports of human evil and suffering, then doubt the wisdom of prolonging human existence. “We lack the resources to answer such questions,” the authors muse. “The old frameworks, whatever they were, no longer seem to apply. And the new ones have left us far less certain about the very desirability of children.”

Life, history, literature

What Are Children For? begins and ends with single-author sections, Wiseman writing at the start about her choice to pursue motherhood and Berg reflecting at the end on life after reaching it. In between, the chapter on externals is a well-rendered map to mostly familiar territory for anyone following the natalism debates: financial concerns, worries about lost freedoms and disappointing careers, inability to find a suitable romantic partner, and so on.

Key passages on the novelty of children as a choice are found here, as is a remarkably dreary section on modern dating, portions of which appear in a 2022 Atlantic essay, “The Paradox of Slow Love.” I don’t have room here to do it justice, but Berg and Wiseman’s sketch of a heightening wall between romance and family is alarming.

The second chapter, on the history of feminist debate over reproduction, provides valuable intellectual context—albeit context that, for readers from more conservative evangelical backgrounds, may explain others’ motivations and impulses better than our own. Some of the thinkers Berg and Wiseman explore here are far outside the mainstream, but their gravitational pull on the broader culture is clear.

Perhaps the strongest portion of this chapter is its critique of an all-too-recognizable male abdication of responsibility performed in the name of progress. “In center-left circles,” Berg and Wiseman write, “the conviction that women ought to be able to determine their own reproductive fates and exercise as much autonomy over their bodies as men has transmuted over the years into the presumption that the question of whether to start a family is the purview of women alone.”

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Sometimes, they acknowledge, this male passivity may be well-intended: If motherhood is as costly as our culture has come to believe, “how could a man ask the woman he loves to submit herself to such a fate?” But sometimes, what “might at first seem like an act of selfless deference (if you want a child, we can have one) functions more like an evasive maneuver”:

Lukewarm offers of cooperation can stand in the way of making the choice confidently and without reservations. Who would want to bring a child into the world with someone who, when asked whether he wants to be a dad, has only a feeble “if you insist ...” to offer in return? The remark “whatever you want—it’s up to you” is annoying enough when trying to pick a film to watch or a restaurant to order takeout from; it is unbearable as a response to the question “Do you want to have a child with me?”

The third chapter, on literature, extends this exploration of cultural context into the present day: “The motherhood ambivalence novelists are prescient,” Berg and Wiseman show, “insofar as the broader mood about parenting today is one of doubt.”

By this point, I must admit, I was growing restless, eager to get to the fourth chapter’s direct tackle of the titular question. But this final bit of scene-setting was perceptive too, offering a tour of a genre I knew to be influential but haven’t personally read. For those already reading this kind of literature—perhaps not very critically—I expect it will be enlightening.

A defense of life itself

In the last chapter before Wiseman’s conclusion, the authors deal with two primary arguments against children: “that life is an evil imposed on mankind” and “that mankind is itself an evil imposition on the world.”

To both, Berg and Wiseman give a simple answer: an affirmation of life. This is not an unsophisticated response—they grapple with serious philosophers over centuries of classical, Jewish, Christian, and post-Christian thought. But it is boldly asserted and unapologetically grounded in common human intuition and experience.

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In brief, they argue that humanity has value; that alongside our capacity for evil is a real capacity to recognize and choose good; that we can pursue unconditionally and universally good ends, “like friendship and justice,” which “make it genuinely worthwhile to live a human life”; and that affirming this goodness doesn’t mean turning “a blind eye to our human struggles and failings.”

As for bearing children, Berg and Wiseman argue, bringing a new life into the world affirms about others what we already affirm about ourselves. In fact, they write, asking, “What are children for?” is essentially “to say, why affirm life?”

What, after all, is one asking for? A list of benefits? To affirm life is not to give it a theoretical justification, to acknowledge its merits and counter the charges of its detractors. In deciding to have children, one takes a practical stance on one of the most fundamental questions a person can ask: Is human life, despite all the suffering and uncertainty it entails, worth living?

This is a striking and provocative conclusion, not least in its conspicuously nonsectarian framing. Would I be convinced without already having a view of humanity that accounts for these tensions of goodness and evil, dignity and suffering, chance and virtue? I’m not sure. Reading as a Christian, I found myself agreeing with Berg and Wiseman on points large and small—yet often only incidentally. We’d come to the same place by apparently different routes.

Sometimes, this difference in perspective was constructive. I’d love to see the authors in conversation with the Catholic writer Timothy Carney, whose diagnosis of “civilizational sadness” in Family Unfriendly is deeply resonant with the closing notes of What Are Children For? And I’m still chewing on Berg and Wiseman’s observation that “of all miracles performed by Christ, he never helps a barren woman conceive.”

On the other hand, I can imagine how Berg and Wiseman would likely square their call to “affirm life” with the book’s multiple endorsements of abortion rights—but it’s not a connection I could make sense of myself.

A question only you can answer?

It is commonplace that a life choice so important as whether to have children is one we each must make exclusively for ourselves. Berg and Wiseman support that view, but all over What Are Children For? they seem dissatisfied with where it leads.

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They reject a vision of the kids decision as a solitary quest of “‘finding yourself’ and discovering ‘what you really want’” to the neglect of “everything else you care about.” They chastise men who shirk their role in the decision-making process and mourn a similar isolation from friends and family. They chafe against the motherhood-ambivalence literature’s deep interiority, the way it deprives characters and readers alike of insight to “the infinitely many ways each of us can be opaque to ourselves, blind to our own weaknesses, deluded about our motivations.” And they praise a writer’s reminder “that what is at stake in the decision to have children is not just a series of personal experiences to be enjoyed and suffered but the possibility of human life.”

Altogether, this reads to me as much more than an invitation to public discourse. It sounds like a plea for community, for people with good counsel and real influence in your life, people who care about what you care about, who will tell you when you are misguided or self-deceiving, who will help you through this hard question as much as the challenges that will follow if you answer yes.

Yet for all that, the final line of the last cowritten chapter declares that because having children is such a weighty, life-affirming commitment, “only you can determine if it is the right one for you.”

In a narrow sense, yes, that’s true. I certainly don’t long for the bad old days of forced marriages or a brutal, totalitarian version of pronatalism. But we’re talking about affirming life here. Surely the life we’re affirming is life together?

Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

What Are Children For?: On Ambivalence and Choice
Our Rating
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Book Title
What Are Children For?: On Ambivalence and Choice
St. Martin's Press
Release Date
June 11, 2024
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