I fancy I can hear the mutterings of “The shortage? Which one?” from the back rows. Yes, there are a few, properly understood. But I have a particular one in mind this morning. It’s not peculiar to America, either. The whole First World, and quite a bit of the rest, appears to be afflicted by it.
On this Fathers’ Day in the Year of Our Lord 2023, it is both striking and ironic that we should suffer a shortage of fathers…but we do.
Mark Steyn’s critically important 2008 book America Alone alerted readers to the collapse of human reproduction, essentially worldwide. Well developed nations – i.e., those that enjoy a general level of prosperity greater than or equal to that of Europe – are all experiencing reproduction rates well below the “ZPG level” of 2.1 children per couple. Those nations in which people are still having children at that rate or higher are, sad to say, not well developed. While it’s been known for some time that reproduction rates decline as social and technological advances increase general prosperity, until Steyn’s book few saw the decline as evidence of a depopulated future. Indeed, there were many who hailed the news as a good thing for “our overpopulated planet.”
Well, if you truly believe there are “too many of us,” you’ll be untroubled by the news that there’ll soon be fewer. But such a belief isn’t important to the “birth dearth.” People have kids for reasons closer to their hearts. Inversely, they refrain from having kids for reasons close to their hearts as well…though in many cases those reasons are not things they’d care to discuss with others.
I am not a father. Things being as they are, I’ll never be one. But the reasons for which millions of men are averting fatherhood are things I can discuss with a certain degree of authority.
Supposedly, evolution has hard-wired us to want to reproduce. At least, I’ve heard that quite a few times from others, these seven decades past. But if it’s so, evolution is being resisted pretty effectively by a whole lot of people, especially the men of our nation.
American men face a social, economic, and legal environment unprecedented in human history. That environment faces us with a huge mass of powerful disincentives to reproduce. Those disincentives have caused the reproduction rate among natural-born Americans to fall to about 1.7 children per couple. Were it not for immigration, our population would be shrinking, as is observably the case in Japan.
I could go into gruesome detail about those disincentives, but I’ll spare you this morning. At any rate, they tend to point in two dominant emotional directions: selfishness and fear. If you review what I and others have written about the stresses on families in our time, I think you’ll come to that conclusion at once.
Life in our time discourages a young man from seeking or accepting the responsibilities of fatherhood. We’ve seen too many broken homes, too much marital misery, and too many damaged children. Some of us are or were damaged by our upbringings; the condition is more common than I like to think about. Add to that the highly biased legal environment, which reliably ruins a man with kids should his wife decide to divorce him, and you have a constellation of fear factors that require an unusual degree of courage to beat.
Along with that goes the group of inducements to selfishness our socioeconomic milieu presents us. You’ve heard it before! “Why buy a cow when milk is cheap?” And it is cheap, Gentle Reader. During my years of singlehood I was offered “free” sex (“Invariably the most expensive sort” – Robert A. Heinlein) by many women, on many occasions. I should add that I’m no prize for looks and never have been – see my Amazon bio if you simply must have the details — so there was something going on there that operates independently of such considerations.
Even many men who overcome their fears sufficiently to marry strive to avert fatherhood. Children are expensive. They put sharp limits on their parents’ options. In these days of the “two income family,” the childless couple can usually live much better, materially speaking, than a couple that elects to bear children. Plus, there are all those questions about which parent is to be responsible for what and when. Life is stressful enough; who needs more stress?
Are these things all continuously on the minds of young men in their prime fatherhood years? I doubt it…but I don’t doubt that some or all of them will rise to the forefront of consciousness when they confront the possibility of childbearing. We’re not exactly taught to put the human future ahead of our own “needs” these days, are we?
Yes, selfishness and fear are also inhibitors to motherhood. However, the urge to have children is stronger in women than in men, for reasons both obvious and obscure. In many families, she wants to have kids and is willing to embrace the consequences, whereas he does not and would do anything short of murder to avoid it. Indeed, there have been many cases – some of them widely known – in which he has had himself sterilized, possibly even before the nuptials, and never thereafter has his wife learned of it.
To close, this morning at Mass the celebrant concluded the service by asking the fathers in the pews to rise and accept a special blessing. It warmed me greatly that nearly all the men present stood to be blessed. I was also a bit ashamed that in obedience to my conscience, I could not join them. For the shortage of fathers – men courageous enough and charitable enough to embrace the estate open-eyed, resolved to fulfill it to the best of their ability – is among the worst that afflict us today. Such men are rich in God’s grace. They deserve the admiration they receive, this day and every day.
May God bless and keep you all.