Children are not fungible

One of the major blind spots conservatives have regarding family size is the oddly egalitarian idea that all children are basically the same and will turn out well (read: better than the children of their ideological opponents) no matter how much or how little you do for them beyond the basics. That, therefore, one should pop ’em out like pez because really, they just need extremely cheap food, some thrift-store clothes and can be put to sleep anywhere with a roof over it and anything more is just “nice to have”. But children are not all the same.  To use an obvious example, a Down’s syndrome child will need very different resources and time than a neurologically and physically “normal” child.  To use a less obvious example, there are babies that don’t mind if Mom pops into another room for an hour and will be very relaxed and let her take care of other little tasks that whole time, while other babies freak out if Mom just goes around the nearest corner for ten seconds.  Those two babies grow up into children with very different social and interaction needs.

More to the point, the subtext of the endless refrains about how little children need elides the reality that if you have something like a Temple Grandin on your hands, that kid will need much and the price is very likely to include not many more or even any more children.  She is an extreme and remarkable example, but there’s many other situations where it doesn’t serve the children or child you have already to keep adding more to the mix.  Children can and do “get lost” in larger families and sometimes it will still all work out, but in a society where there are not tons and tons of other women around to help out, each individual mother has less reserve for additional children even if she is of the “rack and stack in one corner of our shack, feed ’em beans and rice til 18 and dress them only in castoffs” school of thought.  This isn’t about coddling or helicoptering children, it’s about being able to meet the non-physical needs that children have effectively.  And that’s hard to do when legal regulations mean having to purchase from among a short list of expensive vehicles in order to have more than three kids since most of America isn’t “walkable”.  Or when the costs of “walkable” neighborhoods are so high that the household income has to be top 20% to even rent in one.  Or when it’s a full time job just coordinating educational needs for each successive child.

The numbers don’t lie.  There’s a reason very few people have that fifth or sixth child.  I wish more women could, but we’d have to live in a pretty different world for that to happen.


7 thoughts on “Children are not fungible

  1. My husband and I went through a similar thought process when deciding whether or not to be open to a fourth child. We are already a one-income family (husband is a stay-at-home dad), but we did have to think about how well we could manage the house, kids, and other family obligations with another one, as well as how we would rearrange the house so everyone had a place to sleep. The tipping point for us was the fact that our family car is not big enough to safely carry any more children, and we simply cannot afford a bigger car.

    So that was that – only three kids for us.


  2. Very true. Also true about pregnancies and post-partum experiences, not all are fungible. Temporarily or permanently disabling pregnancies and crippling ppd probably sway a lot of women towards fewer births.


  3. I think a lot of this stems from the idea the older children will baby-sit the younger. At some point older children do need to learn child-rearing skills, and it’s their responsibility to help out. What is worrisome is when older children become co-parents and have to step into the parental role because mom is too worn out and dad isn’t home enough. It takes us back to the underlying, driving root cause– the lack of community.


  4. Good post. One of the reasons why there is a decade long gap between our oldest three and youngest two is that I was so overwhelmed with the first three (they were SO close together) that I couldn’t imagine having any more. They were 10 before I got my bearings.

    The lack of community we have in the West necessarily limits the ability of a “nuclear family” to thrive with a houseful of kids. Women are not robots. Back to back to back to back births, homeschooling, growing food, sewing clothes, baking bread, thrift store shopping, church attendance and who knows what else all on your own is NOT a healthy way to live.


    • I really believe those lifestyle notions are exactly that– notions. I’m not sure why and how in the blogging world people thought these were livable ideas, because they aren’t. People need to do their research and find out what life was actually like.

      They would be surprised to find out many of those things were possible because of community and intergenerational families. But do a lot of the bloggers and spherians really want community and intergenerational homes…methinks not…hmm…


      • Women end up at the blogs because they are mostly the SAHMs in the early stages of housewiving, with the kids and the housework piling up and nobody around them locally to step in and help them figure out what would be normal, sensible or reasonable for their household and circumstances.

        So they go looking on the internet for tips and help to deal with being so exhausted and overwhelmed and they find stuff like “Susy’s blog where she market gardens, homeschools and raises four vigorous children” and they have nothing to measure it against. Most people are average and not researchers or relentlessly curious. They just see a glossy blog and think Susy is presenting reality when she is very much not, often as a distraction from her own isolation and struggles or as desperately needed income despite her “SAHM” status.

        When we are cut off from normal relations with each other as people, all sorts of batty notions seem reasonable in the castles of our minds. It’s hard work to step out into the grime of reality and deal with the loneliness and lack of help during those early fragile years. So a lot of women get caught up in the fantasies of Superwife.

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      • Ah yes, the Superwife. I wonder what men think about that archetype?

        It’s hard to find a representation to measure or compare against if you’re isolated. The isolation is what I see happening all too often.


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