According to the best guesses of those tracking the population of the world, last week the world passed a major milestone: the 8 billionth person was born on earth. The global population is projected to continue rising for the next few decades, and then a population decline—perhaps a precipitous one—is expected to begin.
This decline is coming because, on average, women are having fewer babies. The decades-long drop in fertility is precipitated by many factors including China’s forced one-child policy which has significantly impacted global population.
In the days before the one-child policy, the Chinese phrase for announcing “I’m pregnant,” was “I have happiness.” This sentiment changed, however, when becoming pregnant became a crime—a crime you could be socially punished, openly shamed, and physically assaulted for. By targeting and abusing women, the Chinese government got what it wanted: fewer people. But China also got something else it may not have anticipated: a nation of women who do not want children.
China now sees itself slipping toward economic collapse due to too few young workers to support the ageing population. Government forces are trying frantically to encourage women to have babies. But it may be too late to undo what they have done to motherhood.
But what have they done, exactly?
You reap what you sow
After years of being told that childbearing is unnecessary, socially inappropriate, and in some cases criminal, young women began to believe it. A recent article by He Huifeng highlights the issue. She says, “Many of China’s Gen Z women are looking to break free from the shackles of marriage and children, to live for themselves.” She says that for these young women, “Winning at life does not necessarily involve getting married or having children, no matter how much their parents and the government want them to.”
One woman He cites says life is more about “living for yourself” and says she does not think the presence of a husband or child could help her be successful. One advertising director, Liu Xin, told He, “‘Live for yourself’ has become a go-to advertising campaign that many brands use to lure female consumers, since a large number of women under the age of 35 only want to please themselves in terms of consumption and lifestyles … They want to have an easy life.”
Liu explains further, “Actually, ‘lying flat’ is prevalent among young women, not only in terms of work but also in respect to marriage and children.” According to He, “Lying flat, or tang ping, represents the mindset of literally lying down instead of being a productive member of society. Rather than striving to study hard, buy a home, or even start a family, many young people are rejecting it all to ‘lie flat.’”
After years of living as only children, having their fertility forcibly suppressed, and being told that children are a bane to be avoided like the plague—in concert with increasing economic resources—the situation seems to have given birth to a new kind of woman. A self-serving, self-focused woman who does not see herself as a unique and powerful giver and commander of life, but as a cog in the wheel of humanity who has only her own ease to consider. Of course, many childless women are motivated more by economic concerns than by self-seeking; this can also be tracked back largely to the intentional development of a society that values public work over private family-based service.
Returning to ancient wisdom
“Lying flat” and rejecting a life course that includes responsibility, work, managing stress, planning, and sacrifice—a life course that many would call “growing up”—is not just a problem for Chinese youth. We see a similar phenomenon in America and elsewhere. Why?
Though complex, the reasons are likely similar. While women’s fertility has not been forcibly suppressed through forced abortion and forced contraception in America, the free-for-all sexual climate and the push to climb the corporate ladder has urged women to the abortionist’s table, cheered on by a chorus of voices invoking the same noxious idea that was planted in the minds of young Chinese women: “babies are burdens.” This not only curbed the birth of babies but turned women’s minds away from the next generation that might have followed in their footsteps, and instead focused their minds inward.
The pervasive “live for yourself” mantra is in direct conflict with both the ancient Chinese wisdom of Confucius and the teachings of Jesus, which are both summed up nicely by Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Once a mindset of living only for oneself is deeply ingrained in a culture and in the souls of young women and men in it, how can a change from selfishness to selflessness be precipitated?
Once parenthood is relegated to the realm of things distasteful, unrewarding, and loathsome how can it be made appealing again? Or can it?
Erica Komisar, an American psychoanalyst, says, “Many of the young adults I treat who are ambivalent about becoming parents feel they were burdens to their overstressed working parents … They lack any reminiscence of a joyful childhood experience during which their parents prioritized them.”
Commenting on the falling birthrate she says, “What we fail to realize is that the desire to have and to care for children comes from feeling that we as children were desired and cared for, and that we were a priority to our parents … The declining birth rate is … a failure of society to value nurturing and family above all else and to model our joy in parenting to the next generation.”
Valuing nurturing and family above all else
If a major failure of the maturing generations is failing to value family above all else and failing to model joy in parenting, then perhaps a winning strategy is to start there: to talk freely and frequently about how raising children is—in aggregate—a prime asset, not just a time-consuming liability.
Chinese influencer Shen Jiake observes that for policies aimed at increasing the birth rate to be effective they must make young women feel as though their quality of life will be improved more by having children than by not having them. The fact that children make life more joyful (if also more rigorous) used to be largely self-evident, but no more.
American writer and mother Bethany Mandel says this is precisely where we must begin. She says those who know the joy of parenting must confront the false narrative that “motherhood is where dreams and hopes and ambitions go to die. Children are dream crushers. Something to be avoided.” And perhaps it is not as much an uphill battle as it appears.
Mandel says, “Here’s the secret: Talking about the joys of parenthood isn’t just some slick spin to get people to produce more human capital. No, it’s the truth. There is no higher joy, no greater euphoria, no more thrilling or exalted accomplishment than bringing a unique soul, all their own, into the world and orienting them toward virtue.”
Mandel continues, “[H]ow we depict life with children…sets a tone that influences whether the next generation continues the great unbroken chain. We must communicate this reality when we talk about parenthood both online and in person. Parenthood is sublime. It is the greatest and most transcendent of human achievements. This isn’t sugarcoating, this isn’t hyperbole, it’s just truth telling. And we need more of it.”
I concur. It seems the very future of the world depends upon it.
China berated and victimized mothers for 40 years. The West has been debasing, mocking, and marginalizing them for even longer. It’s time for more truth-telling. It’s time to let the secret out in grand fashion that having new little people to care for, to trust you, to teach you, to make you fall down laughing and to adore you beyond your wildest dreams—despite the diapers and the long hours—is the very finest life has to offer.