When I was eight years old, I sat down to watch the evening news with my parents and learned that a little boy of the same age had died of an infection which spread to his blood. The infection began with a dental cavity. His mom had tearfully explained to the media how she couldn’t afford the $80 it would have cost her at that time — the late eighties — to have a dentist treat her son. The child died thanks to what, with proper care, should have been nothing more than a brief medical inconvenience requiring a shot of Novocain followed by a smiley-face sticker and orders to lay off the candy.
I’ve long wondered how those parents endured that trauma. If I had to guess, I’d say my reservations about one day becoming a parent began the moment I learned that, in America, it is possible to die of something as brutally mundane, common and reversible as tooth decay.
At forty years old, I now have a million and one reasons for remaining staunchly childfree. Frankly, the recent handwringing around our declining birthrate — down to a 42-year low, according to the CDC — is pointless when you fail to consider the truth about what it is to be American. Because no, it isn’t just the pandemic which caused this.
I grew up in a working-class family who lived hand-to-mouth. My parents were teenagers when they had me and my sister; they worked for New York City as manual laborers until their backs, discs, and muscles literally gave out from underneath them. Like many American families, we were never more than a small emergency away from financial ruin.
Living in a society that cares little to nothing about its average person showed me from an early age that having children was risky business — too risky for me to ever consider having my own (even though I could now very much afford to). I wouldn’t know how to prepare a child for a life of outsized risk and pain brought about by cruel politics, inhumane policies, and an ethos of toxic individualism that allows a child to die for $80.
Conversations about the declining birthrate have been pegged to a lack of parental support, the high cost of medical care, and the inequitable division of labor in the home, as well as the ever-present specter of Covid. But such arguments feel incomplete. Because in a country still contending with — and healing from — Trump, with a dangerously conservative Supreme Court, and in a time when herd immunity may as well be considered a pipe dream due mostly to willful ignorance, the pearl-clutching around fewer babies suggests that people are deciding against parenthood for practical purposes, and not for reasons stemming from profound trauma.
I vividly remember the state of my mental health during the last presidential election, and how it took nearly one week to learn that America was going to be given the gift of Trump’s departure. This news was followed by two full months of live-streamed litigation, topped with a violent insurrection. I looked at my spouse and asked, “Is this a new precedent? Are we supposed to endure this every four years? I don’t think I can handle that.” I spoke with a (childfree) friend who’d said she’d lost weight, unable to eat while the nation waited to learn of its fate.
Right before this, we watched as a religious zealot — the second in as many years — was gifted one of the highest seats in the country, mere days after Ruther Bader Ginsburg’s death. I was nearly sick with fear for the women and girls with decades of reproductive decision-making ahead of them.
And now we remain at war with a deadly disease and those unwilling to do their part to eradicate it. For more than a year, people have listened as bad actors at all levels of society promulgated discourse and propaganda that loudly encouraged Americans — all of us — to care as little for each other as humanly possible. We are told that refusing masks and vaccines is a personal choice, when the reality is that, of course, it is a choice which impacts everyone.
Perhaps our historically low birthrates might be owed not to practicalities, but to the fact that people are finally paying attention. If ever I were at risk of reconsidering the status of my womb, the last four years and all they wrought would have snuffed out any thought of parenthood like a flame to water.
In truth, I think I’d be a great mom. But I’m ill-equipped to raise a child in a country far more unforgiving than even the cruel one I grew up in. I could not, in good conscience, pass that legacy on to a child who deserves so much better than America is prepared to give.
Christina Wyman is a teacher and writer.Her work appears in Marie Claire, ELLE Magazine, Ms. Magazine, the Washington Post, and other outlets. Her first book is under contract with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and she can be found on Twitter @cheeniewrites
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