Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, were probably surprised at the backlash on social media last week that accompanied their announcement of baby number five. I was surprised too.
Not because I disagree with their critics, who admonished the couple for having too many kids, but rather because it’s a sentiment so seldom heard in a society that generally celebrates procreation with almost militant cheerfulness.
While having a child or five is a very personal choice, it’s also a choice that affects everyone who inhabits our planet. So while many people might find the backlash unwarranted, it’s actually a conversation we need to have in order to challenge our uncritical acceptance of the life-fulfillment-through-procreation story.
Population control is a fraught topic, and carries with it associations with eugenics and other nasty historical events. But we still need to talk about it, and people who reacted strongly to the Gaines’ pregnancy announcement know this on some level. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the survival of our species depends on it.
In August of last year, New York Magazine published an article claiming we are living through a mass extinction. The article claimed that the earth will be uninhabitable within 100 years due to various consequences of climate change, food shortages and economic and political instability.
In fact, Stephen Hawking has encouraged humanity to find a new home within 100 years in order to survive. He cites “climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth” as reasons for this abbreviated timeline.
That said, I don’t think the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth is reason enough to abstain from procreating freely. But if by some miracle we do end up colonizing another planet within the next century, the logistics of transporting eight billion people are staggering, unless we also invent a Star Trek-style transporter. So let’s lighten the load, friends.
The best way I know of to change attitudes is to have an open conversation about them. The fact that people are starting to react to those who have many children is great, but we need to go much further.
Alternatives to motherhood
Now, as a feminist, I tend to oppose any cultural conversation that involves telling a woman what to do with her body. But women have long been told that they need to have kids to have a meaningful life, and they are groomed for motherhood from a very early age.
But we don’t often hear arguments for alternatives to motherhood. Women need to be presented with options for a fulfilling life that don’t involve taking 20 years of their lives to care for offspring. Changing the narrative around motherhood should help to offset some of the cultural conditioning we receive throughout our lives.
In the global West, where the environmental footprint of one person is far larger than in developing nations, it’s crucial that we begin to present all people with alternatives to the traditional nuclear family. This inevitably involves calling out people who have kids like they’re going out of style.
Shame is a powerful tool for changing behaviour: it’s how we introduce new and existing social conventions. It’s unfortunate that Chip and Joanna bore the brunt of changing attitudes, but let’s learn from the reaction and examine our own actions.
It’s not OK to have five kids without once considering adoption. There are so many children in North America and beyond in need of loving homes, yet adoption rates in many areas are lagging.
I get that humankind’s theoretical demise is not enough to justify abstaining from what is for many the most meaningful experience of a lifetime. But it’s not theoretical. Climate change is getting measurably worse, populations are multiplying exponentially and economic inequality is not getting better. And to top it off, Prince is dead. Don’t bring a child into this.
Procreation is becoming a global public health concern, rather than a personal decision. So when people do irresponsible things like having five children, we absolutely need to be calling them out.
And if the birth rate in Canada declines, so what? As old You-Know-Who cuts off aid to not-for-profits that educate on abortion, restricts immigration and stops sending money to countries that need it, we will have a steady supply of smart and talented immigrants. Their loss, our gain.
Anyway, here’s wishing Chip and Joanna the best!