There are four things in America for which there is little forgiveness. The first is killing your wife, as O.J. Simpson discovered. The second is allegations of child molestation, as Michael Jackson found. The third is being old, as John McCain is rapidly discovering. And the fourth is having too many children, as I have found. Looking down at primitives with "too many" children is one of the last acceptable prejudices in the West. With our ninth child expected imminently, G-d willing, I find myself pitied and pilloried wherever I go. "Wow, that's a lot of kids," is a refrain I constantly hear. What a shame I didn't have instead, say, eight antique cars, or better, eight homes around the world, for which I would have been thought a success. But eight kids? That's proves your either a religious kook or someone ruining the environment by overpopulating the earth.
Enter the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday with a cover story called "Childless Europe" that claims that the Germans, Italians, the French and the Bulgarians are disappearing off the face of the earth due to a shockingly low birthrate, or what demographers call "lowest-low fertility." The truly ominous article relates that for the first time on record birthrates in many parts of Europe have dropped below 1.3 per family. "For the demographers, this number has a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country's population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover." In Germany "where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, the government's family minister declared 'that if her country didn't reverse its plummeting birthrate, "We will have to turn out the light."' Italy is dealing with the crisis by paying parents to have children and Russia has national make-love days where they encourage couples to go home and conjure up a child.
Pope Benedict summed it up best. "Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present."
While the article blames the falling birthrate on poor government policies that do not enforce maternity leave or subsidize post-natal care, as well as inflexible working conditions for women, a far more important reason is growing Western narcissism. As the west becomes richer it is also becoming more self-absorbed.
Children consume time and resources both of which young adults would rather focus on themselves. Better to have the availability, and the cash, to jet to Paris for the weekend then push a kid on some dumb swing. Not that we don't love kids any more. We do, but in an abstract as-long-as-it-doesn't-interfere-with-our-freedom kind of way. Having them in our thirties, and about one or two max, minimizes the disruption.
Never before in history has a civilization skewed more away from the needs of the community and toward the aggrandizement of the individual. In the United States, a warrior class consisting of about two percent of the population fights bad guys in Baghdad and gets blown up in Kabul while the rest of us go on Facebook to update our "friends" as to our emotional state. The regular flow of Facebook status updates telling us that "Jane feels like shopping today" or "Mort misses his ex-girlfriend Linda" feeds the Truman Show mentality of American youth who are taught to believe that the whole world revolves around them. Sacrifice be damned.
The most powerful TV show in modern American history is American Idol. The title is telling. It promises that you too can grow to be a puffed-up celebrity. Meanwhile, when I approached several television executive friends and pitched a family healing show for the brave military families that have to be re-integrated after a hero returns from Iraq, I was told that the military doesn't rate on TV. We simply don't want to be reminded of the selfish lives we are leading by watching the selfless lead theirs. Better to post the video of our vacation to the Bahamas on YouTube in the certainty that the whole world waits with baited breath to see us on a surf board.
So, when you ask twenty-something Westerners to contemplate parenthood -- with its diapers, school runs, and estimated $250,000 cost of raising a child to adulthood -- they think you fell off the moon. Spend my life focused on someone else, even if it is my own child, have you gone mad? When you later tell them that the very future of their nation depends on it, they gaze with the same incredulity. The idea of doing almost anything for their country, baby-making included, is utterly foreign to them. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jewish singles continue to attend a truly staggering variety of singles events in Manhattan in a never-ending quest to find the best. Do they deserve any less?
But look at what is lost when young people delay having children until their mid-thirties and then have one kid. At risk is not only the morbid disintegration of once great nations, like Japan and South Korea, both of whom average 1.1 child per family, or half the replacement rate, but something far more fundamental. When children have no siblings, they don't learn to share as much and they don't assume responsibility for taking care of one another. And the condition of being an only child runs the risk of fostering the very narcissism we decry, as the child becomes the epicenter of his parent's life with no other children to distract them. And is it good for boys to grow up without sisters, given that one of our society's greatest problems is growing male disrespect for women? The boy who feels a filial connection with a girl who is his sister remembers the feeling of how he wants her to be treated when he dates someone else's sister.
I know the complaint that too many kids in a family means that each will get less parental attention. The simple response to this absurd argument is that attention is a poor substitute for real love. Celebrities get attention, while family members get love. A child who is immersed in an environment where he is surrounded by the love of both parents and siblings is a child who never feels alone.
Everywhere you look these days, people are becoming grandparents at about seventy. But how many years does that leave a child to grow close to his grandparents, learn from their wisdom, and connect with an older generation? By the time the child is ten, his grandparents are already octogenarians who are often growing more physically dependent and infirm.
The Western cult of narcissism is spoiling our kids, making us neglectful of our elders, spawning an out-of-control material insatiability, and destroying us -- quite literally -- by having us die off without a replacement generation.
And of all the many remedies available that might free us from our growing self-absorption, having one more baby than we originally planned for our marriages is the best remedy of all.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts a daily national radio show on "Oprah and Friends" and has recently published The Broken American Male (St. Martin's Press) www.shmuley.com