The pandemic taught me to see more children in a new way
I was thrilled to find out that the Pfizer vaccine was approved for 12- to 15-year-olds. One step closer to herd immunity and one step closer to a return to relative normalcy, especially for teenagers. I know many parents who are breathing a sigh of relief, and I want more than just parents to be happy about this. Taking care of our children is a communal project; that’s why we call it village parenting. And I am happy to extend the village to the public health officials and the doctors and scientists who made this vaccine possible. Together, as a group, we are loving and caring for one another. A rare moment of solidarity in our sea of individualism, a moment of collectivism and comraderies, despite our increasing atomization.
I am paying attention more to children lately, mainly because I’ve been with them at home, largely, for more than a year. Philadelphia opened schools to a hybrid option fairly late in the school year, so we opted to keep our oldest at home. I’m grateful she is both successful and relatively happy despite the obvious limitations she faces. But that time with her, and my youngest, has helped to see them in a new way. I admit that their diminutive stature, and how we see them generally as not very-equipped household contributors, has often left them ignored by me, and by our society. I am disappointed in myself for that, but I want to change it.
Children are truly essential for our country, our society, and our future. They are elemental to our churches too. The old adage is true, “If you don’t hear crying in the pews, the church must be dying.”
Children are miracles of life that help us to extend our lives and grow our society. But I think we basically ignore them. As soon as they were in our homes all the time, forcing us to work from home, rather than question whether our culture around work and learning was broken, we hustled to get them back into school buildings where teachers, or as we too often see them, child care workers, could take them off of our hands. (Let me say, though, as a former educator, I am happy children are back in schools, where they will undoubtedly have a better environment for learning.)
Our diminishment of women and children resulted in a population slowdown
But as a society, we too frequently don’t care for the children, or the people that have primarily taken care of them, women. So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. is experiencing a population slowdown, as The Daily reported last week. And if you think immigrants will bail us out, you’re mistaken. Children of immigrants (of which I am one), are having children at the same rate as the rest of society. Here’s how Sabrina Tavernise said it, “Their children were born in the United States. And they acted a lot more like everyone else who was born in the United States, which meant they had far fewer children and later. So this is a huge change from the immigrant generation to their native-born children.”
While we’re on the subject, the idea that immigrants will help us grow the population is rooted in racist orientalism. That is to say, the expectation that children of immigrants will grow up to act differently than their counterparts is rooted in prejudice. Society shapes us as much as it shapes y’all.
I think the population decline shows us what we value, and this is not the fault on any individual, but rather the messages we receive from the very institutions we enter into at a very young age. Careerism is a curse for community and the village of parents. The goal of education is to help earn a living and survive in this political economy. The fact is that has always been the most important value imparted to us, even when it was primarily imparted to men. Women served a subservient position, in service of this primary narrative about our society. Equality, then, meant that women would also be driven by their careers, in order to survive and thrive. That equality is essential, of course, and so is equal pay. There is no good reason, or just reason, for women to be paid less than men, and not to have the same professional opportunities as men (and that goes for their roles in churches too). My contention, though, is that we are too rooted in individual achievement to care about our greater society.
I think when we look at the potential consequences of a population slowdown, or even a dwindling population, we can see how devastating it can be. Japan is a case-in-point. Japanese communities aren’t seeing a slowdown, they are seeing a decline. Why is that decline happening? In my estimation: sexism. When a society does not value women, their labor, and their labor at home, we see less children. And you can’t blame women for that; it is not their duty to uphold a society that hates them. Here’s how it looks in Japan. Motoko Rich says on The Daily of women in Japan, “it wasn’t just that they were doing all the work at home, it was that the expectations of what moms should do were much higher than anything that I had experienced as a working mom in the States.” The pressure in Japan (and please listen to the whole podcast), is so high on women, it comes as no surprise that their population is dwindling.
Caring for children means caring for women
And that points us to a clear direction, if children are our future, and we will have no society, and no churches without them, then women are an incredibly important part of our society. All of this is really besides the point because children and women are valuable not because of the utility they offer us but because their very humanity matters, by itself. Children don’t exist for our society’s future, even if they are essential to it, and women don’t exist because they bear children. If we reduce them to either, we’ll be damned.
Unfortunately, when it comes to how we value women and children, we do not seem to express their importance. And so I find it not surprising, whatsoever, that despite her best intention, the enigmatic Liz Bruenig, of the New York Times, writes a sweet Mother’s Day column about the joys of being a mother, and gets torn up for it online. Now Twitter isn’t real life, I have been assured, but it does show us that women are tired of being pressured to have children as if it is their duty to save our society. No, it’s our collective responsibility to do that, and it starts, simply put, with offering dignity to children, their parents, and especially their mothers.
Of course, nice columns about parenting at a young age should not be a cause for outrage, but similarly, shouldn’t be a revolution either. It might be a revolution in Bruenig’s New York Times enclave, but most women have children at that age, and that’s just a fact of life for them, and not a newsworthy column. (But still, I appreciated it.)
No matter how well our society functions, it is essential that we emphasize that having children or not having children does not make you a more faithful follower of Jesus, nor a better citizen. That choice is personal and we need to respect it. If someone elects not to have children, they are not “anti-natalist.” Similarly, even if someone has children, they are not “pro-natalist,” as my own above confession reflects. We shouldn’t reduce this to an individual problem as if the sum of our parts are what makes up our society’s ills.
In our society, I think you can point to things like paid maternity and paternity leave, free pre-K and childcare, better education, equal pay, gender equality (including for trans folks) are all steps in the right direction. I’m not a pundit, though, so I will limit my comments here and suggest that you listen to other experts on these matters. Here’s Paul Krugman on why Biden may be good for families, and on Ross Douthat on why conservatives should agree with him:
But maybe what you need is both — to give families more money and parental benefits and to give them a long economic expansion whose gains are widely shared. Call this the Joe Biden-baby-boom hypothesis, which we may be about to test: If you spend on family benefits and run the economy hot enough, maybe fertility rates will finally begin to float back up.
So the pundits are coming to some agreement about what it means to care for families, and I would like to add that all these plans will fail, if we don’t also care for women. But again, my focus is elsewhere.
Jesus shows us the way forward
My concern is for the church and what Jesus points us to. Jesus was noteworthy and revolutionary for his attention to both women and children. If you think women and children are ignored in our society, it was even worse in the Ancient Near East. But the fact that Jesus related to women and paid attention to children shows us the right approach for how we may model it in our churches.
Right before Jesus addresses the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, he showcases that the posture and humility of children is exactly how one inherits the Kingdom of Heaven. Here’s our Lord:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
He similarly cares for and empowers women, who society has also discarded. Mary Magdalene finances his ministry. Mary of Bethany is a model for Christian discipleship. Mary of the Mother of God gives birth to him. The women are the ones who bear witness, first, to his resurrection. An incredible testament to the value and importance of women in our society.
So as Christians, let’s model Jesus, fully love our children and our women. The population slowdown? It can be solved by such an action as this.
A few basic ideas for us to consider:
For one thing, and I’m preaching to myself here, children should be a visible and knowable part of our community. We shouldn’t relegate their discipleship to mere curriculums, but rather incorporate them into a loving community. We should also make sure that children are not afterthoughts in our safety plans when we re-open our congregations.
For another, women should be equally empowered along with men. The brunt of childcare, even during worship, shouldn’t fall to women, either. We should normalize men staying home with their children, while women serve in the church. We should also normalize full dignity and honor for women who don’t have children and aren’t married (or aren’t cis het). And finally, we should believe women, when they tell us that our churches are oppressive and that our practices are repressive. When they tell us that men abuse them, we should listen, and change. Once more, the fate of our society and our churches are rooted in how we care for the ones that keep them going: women and children.