The problem with an overscaled, anti-natalist society, Oklahoma infant death edition

The title is gruesome because the situation is gruesome.  But it is also an example of how gigantic and numerous the obstacles are to a society where it’s less terrible to try to have children.

Recently in Oklahoma, a young couple where both parents worked full time had an 11 week old infant in full-time daycare.  In this daycare the infant was swaddled and put to sleep in a different infant’s unused carseat.  The little child’s head tipped against its chest and the poor child suffocated.  The daycare employee was away from the infant for two hours before coming back to check, finding out something terrible had happened and calling 911.

The story is sad, and most of the news about it weirdly focuses on “unsafeness of car seats”.  But let’s list the many problems leading to the collateral damage of one little infant’s life.

  • Mom has to return to work while less than three months postpartum
  • But she lacks the class status or income to pay for a one-on-one caregiver or split the costs with other families to have a one-on-two or three infants caregiver (nanny or nanny share)
  • And she also lacks the close-knit neighborhood or extended family that would provide free childcare so she could work
  • So she uses a daycare that is very cheap
  • And because it’s so cheap, the daycare has a financial incentive to NOT follow the rules about staff to infant ratios, despite being licensed and “legit”
  • Which leads to a caregiver who walks away from a child with newborn sleep patterns for far longer than is appropriate at that infant age.
  • Then there’s the state of Oklahoma, which has a “bad daycare employee blacklist”, but the list is worse than useless, since if they can’t find the daycare employee, the person disappears from the list.  This is the kind of weird bureaucratic goof that happens when more and more regulations to deal with the original regulations are larded on top of each other
  • And of course the daycare employee couldn’t be found after the infant’s death because it’s easy to hide when you aren’t “over the table” in your pay, which is very common even in “licensed” daycares.

I see a lot of talk in the right wing, from the mainstream part to the dissident weird part, that assumes there is no real obstacle to getting (white) women to have more kids, it’s just their silly refusal to marry a (white) man and start having kids.  Well, this woman did just marry a man and start a family, but the job her husband has doesn’t pay enough for her to work part time or stay home full time and the breakdown of community meant that she was stuck with a sorry list of options when she had to go back to work almost immediately after having her baby.  And the lack of relationships means not just relying on regulations, but not being able to enforce violations of those regulations.  Rule of law is only as strong as the people willing to uphold it.  And in an environment where nearly every American child is a chosen birth, natalism means doing extra for women to increase their desire to have additional children, start relatively young and minimize outside the home work so they can have the close-knit neighborhood relationships that allow for free ranging children of all ages.

And that extra doesn’t consist of tax credits or restoring father custody as a default.  It doesn’t in fact consist of much policy or political prescription to begin with (those things would follow).  It consists of giving women social status for being married mothers and then helping them directly to prove they have the status.  That’s something one could formalize eventually in social policy, but what is pretty easy is to start doing it now.  And who knows, maybe a few infants could be spared the tragedy this one suffered.

TFR, or Total fertility rate is not the last word on fertility

Even though it’s a statistic you can find in many spots on the internet, like the CIA factbook and Wikipedia, TFR or Total fertility rate (the total children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime, across an entire nation, ethnic group, or religious group, etc.) is a misleading portrait of the drop in childbearing over the decades.

Take two countries with a TFR of 1.5, which is very low, below the “replacement rate” of 2.1.  This would be 15 children expected per 10 women in their lifetimes.

Country A gets to a TFR of 1.5 this way with ten women: 5, 5, 3, 1, 1, 0,0,0,0,0.

Country B gets to a TFR of 1.5 this way: 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 0, 0.

One country has a robustly fertile subculture leading to 20% of the women bearing 67% of the children and half of the women remaining childless for life.  The other country has most women having kids, but nobody has a large family.

When everyone has one or two kids, this is child-friendly in a very limited sense of the term.  Everything is set up around the expectation that women will be mothers, but not too much and not for too long.  It is a Nordic model and in fact they do look more like country B.

When a few people have most of the kids, things are more complicated and uncertain as to future fertility trends.  Because the choice to mother in country A is so much more stark and binary, there’s less child-friendliness in terms of maternity leave or whatever, but the women who will have kids will “harden” and just have them anyway…up to a point.

While living in a world with easy birth control is very new in human history, purposely limiting the number of children for any number of reasons is not.  By the way, America looks more like Country A.

Low TFR is a data point, but how groups get there is also relevant to understanding what a robust natalism would look like.

The primary c-section obstacle to large families

This one will be a quickie because state level data is a huge headache to assemble, but nationally, about 20-25% of first births are primary c-sections. About 33% of births each year are c-sections, but the exact amount which are first births varies more year to year.  Further, starting that way limits the feasible number of births to no more than 6, with 3-4 being much more typical.  After four c-sections, the risk of death to either/both of mom and baby or catastrophic surgery like a preterm c-section/hysterectomy combo gets up to the level of open-heart surgery (well north of 20%, far, far, far higher than the half a percent (.5%) risk of rupture only (not death and not catastrophic surgery, rupture may mean forceps or vacuum delivery for the infant and/or another c-section) for VBAC after one section that leads many hospitals to deny women access to VBAC .

Some women (pretty much all conservative Christian or Mormon women) successfully find a doctor willing to perform the surgery after 4 c-sections, and some of those women die.  It’s a small group, so I’m not going to claim you’re guaranteed to die if you have five or six c-sections and zero vaginal deliveries.  So few women “go there” it’s not easy to know.  But you will struggle to find a doctor to take on your pregnancy past four and increasingly past three sections and you will be very very very strongly pushed to have a hysterectomy or tube tying after the second, third or fourth c-section delivery.

I basically hear zip, zilch, zero about this from conservatives claiming people have smaller families these days due to selfishness and love of money and vacations.  You’d think they would pay attention to this sort of massive obstacle to a plurality of women having large families.

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.

Dear conservatives, women are not having large families except on the internet per their (fictional?) husbands.

 

Because I am a data fan, I looked into the census data on fertility, especially for white non-Hispanic women, who make up most of your typical pool of conservatives in America.  And what I found is that the data supports my contention that women are simply not having more than four children and most are not having more than three, and this includes women in their 40s, who can be classified as biologically “done” whether they sped the process along with medical interventions or not.  This would include the overwhelming majority of conservative women too.

Either conservative men need to admit how utterly tiny the group is that they are classifying as “conservative” or “traditional” and that this group is simply too small to outbreed anyone via natural increase (the daughters are not replicating their mothers’ fecundity, according to the data as the cohorts move through time) or they need to shut up about how it’s not hard to have seven or ten kids, they know lots of women who do.  It’s called clustering.  It isn’t surprising if all the people with nine kids hang out together at Latin mass or Particular Baptist churches, but statistically speaking, they can’t be doing so at very many such places because there just aren’t enough of them to represent like that.

As of 2014, about 1%, or one women in a hundred is having five or more children, among the white non-Hispanic women aged 15-44.  Among the women who could still pop out a surprise baby or two (women in their 30s and early 40s), the percentage is three women per hundred.  There is nothing wrong with having three or four instead of the mass media-advocated “perfect two”, but out in conservative media, a distinct effort is being made to promote families of 7 kids or more as both normal and common and only marginally more difficult/expensive to raise than smaller families.  There is an assist from conservative men online with mysteriously high amounts of free time and mysteriously high levels of unemployment and underemployment chatting at great length about how easy it is for their wives.

The percentages I’m talking about have remained under five percent for over twenty years now.  In 1970, about one woman (all races) in five had five or more kids.  By 1985 it was less than one woman in ten, and by 1990 it was around one woman in twenty.  And those numbers are for all races of women, the white non-Hispanic numbers were slightly lower at every stage, with the current numbers for all races being about 2% having five or more children.

Babies are great, kids are great, but the function of female humanity is not solely to reproduce until menopause and even if it was, they sure aren’t supposed to do it alone in a tract house in a faceless suburban housing development with no way to get to anything except by car.

One of the biggest pieces of a practical Benedict Option would be some honesty from conservatives, male and female alike, about where exactly people are with the kid-having and why they have given up on large families despite most of the people having kids being people who greatly desire and want children.

ETA 8/10/15: I found an example of the conservative online deceptiveness with the note at the end of this sadly funny post about how silly women are for not having zillions of children with some unemployed Latin Mass LARPer.  I’ll paste the note below if you don’t want to slog through the linked post:

US Census shows 42% of women of childbearing age currently have no children. 22% have two, 17% one, 12% three, and 7% four or more. That means only 1/5 of women today have yet to dodge the ignominy of the Darwin Award. Interestingly, nearly all of the traditional women I know (who eschew divorce, natch) are in that final 7%. Having won the genetic lottery, why go feral? Domesticated animals rarely leave the warm farm if the farmer is feeding and breeding them well.

Setting aside the wonderful way this conservative man refers to Christian wives and mothers, what this guy is doing is combining data that is separated out by the Census.  I combined the data for women having more than five children because the category “7+” is measured in fractions of a percent for nearly all age groups and ethnic groups among women.  And having five or six are combined by the Census people to get that data consistently over 1% for most ages and ethnic groups of women.  The guy, by flinging around “seven percent of women have more than four kids in their lifetimes”, is combining categories in a way designed to over report how frequently women have larger numbers of children.  Four is only being included because without that group, the real math is the following:

All women, 5 or 6 children: 1.6%

All women, 7 or more children: 3/10% (three tenths of a percent).  This of course rounds up to the 2% of all women I am using.

Five percent of all women having exactly four children is very different than what this guy is trying to imply.  It also means that plenty of “traditional” wives and mothers are faithful and behave normally without having large numbers of children.  Not quite what this guy was going for, but the reality on the ground.  Women who are committed to Christ first honor their duties and obligations regardless of whether they have any children, three, five or fifteen.

The value of siblings

Parents can’t pull fast ones on the kids, preserves family history more coherently, lowers risk of incestuous parent-child emotions developing.

Part of the horror of modern narcissism is the way in which parents cheat their child or “perfect two” children out of access to a continuous family history and further leave them vulnerable to emotional manipulations that are much harder to do when all the kids can compare notes.  You can run into problems with ten or fifteen siblings, but human history isn’t average people having that many kids as the normal family size.

I hope to explore this more in written form, one of the downsides of notebooking it in blog format.  Siblings are important because when the parents are outnumbered, they kind of need to communicate to the children that there are other people who care about them and can take care of them too.  The benefits accrue just having three kids instead of two, but are probably sweetest of spot at 4-6 kids.  After that, the sheer numbers issue becomes a massive problem if the kids aren’t raised factory-style with lots of other adults around.  It’s easy to get paranoid and make the child or children believe there’s nothing outside the nuclear family unit when there’s only one or two kids.  It’s harder to be anti-social and atomistic in relation to one’s local community when you have to do a name-check to make sure all the kids are rounded up.

Anyway siblings are valuable enough that society should be ordered for women to be able to have three or more children without it being a heavily politicized, rare choice.

Practical Natalism: A conservative approach to fertility

Every few months there is a fertility discussion somewhere on the internet.  It is generally either “lalalala women can pop out babies on demand after age 35/40/45 and anyone who says otherwise is sexist!” (liberal flavor)  or “lalala women’s ovaries dry up instantly at 30, better marry at sexy 17 to be on the safe side girls!” (conservative flavor).  Once in awhile a vague gesture is made in the direction of male fertility having a time limit, but the main show is the endless binary battle between the delusions of liberals and conservatives regarding female fertility.

The truth is that both the liberals and the conservatives are a little bit right about the nuances of female fertility, and a whole lot wrong about what normal female fertility looks like.

It is certainly the case that we women cannot expect to conceive in our 60s or later barring explicitly Divine intervention.  But at the same time, women are not all granted the same level of fertility.  Some have a more robust baseline than others.  There are women who can start at 35 and have one each year until 45, while others can struggle to have three or four starting at age 21.  Obviously we shouldn’t give advice to young women based on the first case, because it has such a high margin of error if a young woman is not so blessed in the fertility department.  But neither does it really do much good to expect all women to start at 20 in a world that mostly doesn’t support young marriage.

We should instead be honest with women about the number of children it is reasonable to hope for at different age ranges assuming decent health. Start at 25, having 5 in 15 years is not unlikely.  Start around 30, having 5 in 10 years is much less likely.  Better to expect 3.  Not all women want more than a couple, but my experiences with women who sincerely seem to think it’s reasonable to start at 35-38 and still end up with 4-6 kids by 45 suggest that they are clearly not getting the best information on what’s reasonable at that age if that’s the family size they hope to have.

And honesty about how much more physically demanding kids can be after 35 would also go a long way towards honest fertility information.  Natalism, properly understood, is about more than just having babies.  It’s about having energy and time and a loving community to raise them so that at the margins, women do have that extra child or two.  So what if it’s possible to conceive and birth healthy, term babies after 40 for the first time? You may not live to see that kid or kids have their own children, and that’s profoundly self-centered.  You may not even live to see that kid reach adulthood.  The very act of conceiving for the first time at such ages comes with its own problems, since women are designed to be optimally fertile from 18-35, as far as the balance between growing babies and being able to wrangle them too.

And fertility should be whole-body, not just about getting pregnant over and over again.  Breastfeeding the kids for at least the first year of their lives, and ideally for some portion of their second and third years provides time for mother to recover physically and adjust to the demands of each new infant more smoothly than trying to get pregnant within seconds of the previous delivery.  This can produce breastfeeding-related temporary infertility, but simple consideration by husbands to not try for more in rapid succession is also part of whole-body fertility.  I know that for many women, there is pressure to closely space due to marrying in the late 20s or early 30s and wanting more than two kids, or a fear that if you aren’t constantly pregnant, he won’t let you have more than one or two.  Or pressure from the guy to build up the family as quickly as possible.  Some men count coup in how fast they can get their women to conceive again after each delivery.  This is a terrible thing, but it’s usually related to men not having proper outlets for healthier masculine expression.  But whatever the reason, it breaks the female body down faster and leaves her less to give to the raising and tending of the home and family in the medium and long term.  A lot of those historically fecund multi-great grammas keeled over promptly after finishing up with number 12 or 14 in their early 40s.

ETA, 5/2015: This guy writes a long book review concerning a book about the birth control debate among Protestants from 1870 to 1970.  The book review is not why I linked though, I linked for note at the end of the article, where he describes his fellow professors at a private Christian college as being fecund and gives the total number of children for 13 of them, totaling 63 children.  He boasts that the average is 4.84, but misses that the mode (most common number) is 3.  This isn’t the best post to tack this onto, but it is about natalism.  Part of practical natalism is understanding statistical reality as it reveals patterns of human behavior.  His colleagues are having one extra kid much more often than they are having 11 (one family).  Six of the thirteen professors have but three kids apiece.  This is more than the usual two, but it also means the average of about 5 is a bit misleading.  Also, related, the private Christian college in question has had a number of appalling scandals attach to it, ostentatiously left out by this smuggerson mcsmuggypants.  That link doesn’t cover the Ayn Rand acolytes peopling the college, but I can’t find that reference right now so I’ll just end here.