“Most working-class men in one town greet the news of an unplanned pregnancy with a mixture of fright and excitement,” concludes an article posted by the Institute for Family Studies blog last month titled “How Unmarried Men Respond to Their Girlfriends’ Unexpected Pregnancies.”
The author, David Lapp, interviewed unmarried, white, working-class fathers about their views on having kids. The majority’s response: Having children is an intensely “meaning-making act,” as Lapp puts it. Most of these men express “profound reverence about pregnancy and fatherhood” and display a “heroism” that we should “admire and salute.”
Lapp shares the jargon-filled stories of young men who relate their reactions to unplanned, unmarried pregnancies. Some were angry or skeptical to the point of suspecting that their girlfriends were using news of pregnancy to “trap” them. But these were the minority. More common were responses like Ricky’s: “It seemed like it brought more of a point, I mean, more of a reason to my life, you know, to take care of a kid.” Or Elliot’s, who became a father at eighteen: “It’s just after you create something, you’re looking forward to having a kid. I was scared to death, but there was joy in it. It’s my little boy.”
The stories poignantly invite a recognition of what is indeed a kind of “heroism” in these men: The dutiful embrace of the demands that having a child—“we know what the consequences are” of having sex, James, a father at 20, explains with refreshing candor—asks of them. These are young working-class men, ill-prepared to father and many of whose marriages with the mothers will go awry, who make an honest effort to father their children nobly and with love.
Now, compare this phenomenon with another: Elected childlessness resulting in record low birth rates. Channeling Christopher Dawson, Jonathan Liedl has suggested at Ethika Politika that this decline in fertility rates is a fruit of the “the bourgeois mind”: “Following the German social scientist Werner Sombart, Dawson argues that the bourgeois mind corresponds to a ‘closed’ temperament, a disposition that is diametrically opposed to the ‘erotic life,’ understood as a radical openness and characterized by ‘the man of desire,’ such as St. Augustine.”
It views goods as internal, not exhaustible or mutually exclusive, not affected by “scarcity” or “opportunity costs”—the parlance of our day. This erotic temperament is opposed to the “spirit of calculation,” as well as to worldly prudence, self-seeking, and self-satisfaction, all bourgeois qualities that today are easily observable as the “reasons” more and more individuals are choosing to delay or forgo having children.
Alana Newman, writing for The Whole Story, agrees that the problem of fertility is a problem of virtue. Referencing Lapp’s research in small-town Ohio, she notes:
A theme in [David and Amber Lapp’s forthcoming book tentatively titled Love Like Crazy] is that these couples suffer from a rotten ecosystem—in which no family members, employer, public idol, or peer entity supports their efforts to build a healthy family. They don’t trust their partners to behave, and they don’t trust themselves to behave.
This lack both of moral standards and one’s own confidence in one’s ability to keep to them results in major insecurity and relationship failures. And where there are few stable relationships, there are few children.
We have, then, two phenomena. On the one hand, heroic working-class fathers who greet unplanned pregnancies with fright, excitement, and a commitment to mature through the undertaking of fatherhood. As unmarried fathers, these men have, as Catherine Pakaluk and many others have argued, presented their children with an enormously difficult life. Many subsequent attempts to marry the mother fail and the children grow up in a single-parent household. The heroic embrace of parenting, outside of (lasting) marriages, too often falls short.
On the other hand the “bourgeois mind” closes itself off from parenting, even amid relative marital stability and financial security. Here the “marriage” is intact, but the heroic embrace of parenting is missing.
Of course, even stably married couples can parent awfully, or refuse to become parents at all, or reject the challenge of parenthood by turning to abortion when contraception fails them. But research consistently bears out the obvious reality: Children fare best when raised by their biological parents in an intact, low-conflict marriage.
Lapp’s article reminds us that furthering a healthy marriage culture in which children know the stable and committed love of their married parents is a multifaceted endeavor. We can applaud heroic movements toward that ideal, or toward constituents of it, even if those movements fall short in some respect. Those who pledge themselves maritally but reject children, through abortion, contraception, or the decision never to conceive, do an injustice to their children (in the first case) and themselves and their marriages. The decision to share oneself sexually without first committing oneself maritally creates a host of problems for the children, who will most likely grow up without one of the parents who brought them into the world. And it creates a host of problems for the parents, who lose the benefits and joys of raising their own children, and of an enduring marriage.
Those who reject children either through abortion or the decision never to conceive can learn from these young men’s manly embrace of fatherhood: specifically, from an acceptance of natural consequences and respect for the duties that our decisions entail for us. “We know what the consequences are.”