What’s Stopping Liberals From Having Kids

The Success Narratives of Liberal Life Leave Little Room for Having Children

By: Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman, originally published June 10, 2024, The New York Times/Opinion

For young, secular, politically progressive men and women, having children has become something of an afterthought. Liberal conventional wisdom encourages people to spend their 20s on journeys of personal and professional self-discovery and self-fulfillment. Children are treated as a bonus round, something to get to only after completing a long list of achievements: getting a degree, forging a satisfying and well-established career, buying a house, cultivating the ideal romantic partnership.

The standards of readiness for family are at once so high and so vague that it’s hardly a surprise when people fail to reach them. Indeed, the data suggest that people are having children later than they used to and are having fewer than they’d like.

For progressives, waiting to have children has also become a kind of ethical imperative. Gender equality and female empowerment demand that women’s self-advancement not be sacrificed on the altar of motherhood. Securing female autonomy means that under no circumstances should a woman be rushed into a reproductive decision — whether by an eager partner or tone-deaf chatter about ticking biological clocks. Unreserved enthusiasm for having children can come across as essentially reactionary.

Over the past four years, we’ve conducted interviews and surveys with hundreds of young Americans about their attitudes toward having children. These conversations revealed that the success narratives of modern liberal life leave little room for having a family. Women who want kids often come to that realization belatedly, at some point in their early 30s — the so-called panic years. If they are lucky, their partner (if they have one) will fall in line. If they are not, they face a choice of returning to the dating pool, freezing their eggs (if they haven’t done so already), single parenting or giving up their hope of having kids of their own.

In this way, the logic of postponement that has been promoted by liberals and progressives — and bolstered by overblown optimism about reproductive technologies — robs young people of their agency. How many children they have, and even whether they have them at all, is increasingly a decision made for them by circumstance and cultural convention.

This is not just a recipe for unhappiness; it also reflects a deep confusion. There is nothing inherently unprogressive about embracing the prospect of children. Even Simone de Beauvoir, the philosopher who was among the first to critique reproduction and family as instruments for the oppression of women, acknowledged that shaping the character and intellect of another human being was “the most delicate and the most serious undertaking of all.” While certain conservative visions of family life — such as “trad wives” and Silicon Valley pronatalism — no doubt have little to offer those on the left, our fellow progressives need to stop thinking of having children as a conservative hobbyhorse and reclaim it for what it is: a fundamental human concern.

The family — recognized as the seat of customs and traditional values — has long been central to the appeal of conservatism. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans and Democrats fought over who could rightfully claim to be the party of “family values.” Bill Clinton, while campaigning for president against George H.W. Bush in 1992, assailed the Republican Party’s commitment to families as little more than hypocrisy. “Where are they,” he asked, “when there is no health care for pregnant women? When too many children are born with low birth weights?” Mr. Clinton went on to announce a 14-point “American Family Values Agenda.”

But in time, liberals and progressives came to shy away from publicly embracing the American family as a symbol and an ideal. After Mr. Clinton was impeached in the wake of his own family-values hypocrisy and George W. Bush was elected with the help of energized evangelical voters, family-friendly rhetoric became anathema to liberals — perceived as phony, intrusive and toxic. (The notable exception was gay marriage, whose legalization was won with the help of arguments that promoted the virtues of families.) Today, the left proudly defends the sacrosanct right to abortion and reproductive justice while almost entirely sidestepping the question of whether having children is a worthy project to begin with.

The stark polarization of today’s public discourse has only heightened the left’s wariness of children, both privately and politically. Progressive policy defeats are often met with anti-natalist grandstanding. Members of the ecological activist group BirthStrike, founded in 2018, declared that they were protesting climate inaction by refusing to have kids. The following year, shortly after proposing legislation for a Green New Deal, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York broadcast progressives’ hesitancy to reproduce in the face of climate change to her 2.5 million Instagram followers when she said, “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?”

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, has also made liberals and progressives more uneasy with the idea of starting a family. A year after Dobbs, the reproductive-rights journalist Andrea González-Ramírez wrote that she had been contemplating having children in her early 30s, before the Supreme Court’s decision put an end to all that: “I have never been sure that I desire to be a mom, let alone that I desire it enough to assume the risks. These days, however, that door is shut. I choose myself.”

That choice is not uncommon. In a recent study, 34 percent of women ages 18 to 39 reported that they or someone they know had “decided not to get pregnant due to concerns about managing pregnancy-related medical emergencies.” That might sound like a worry about abortion access, but the study suggested that Dobbs intensified ambivalence about having children more generally. Indeed, of the women who said they were forgoing having children because of the Dobbs ruling, about half lived in states where abortion rights were still protected.

One can’t help noting the irony: In permitting the conservative movement to alienate them from the question of whether they want to have and raise children, these liberals and progressives are allowing the right to shape their reproductive agendas in yet another way.

But the partisan framing of the issue is flawed at a more fundamental level. The question of children ultimately transcends politics. In deciding whether to have children, we confront a philosophical challenge: Is life, however imperfect and however challenging — however fraught with political disagreement and disaster — worth living?

To be sure, having children is not the only way to address this question. But having children remains the most basic and accessible way for most of us to affirm the value of our lives and that of others. This is in part because becoming a parent represents one of the greatest responsibilities one human being can assume for another. And it is also because the perpetuation of human life is the condition of possibility for every other thing we care about.

Committing oneself to long-term leftist causes like economic, environmental, racial and social justice is more than just compatible with embracing children and family life. It presupposes a willingness to take personal and collective responsibility for the next generation — raising, nurturing and educating those who will decide the fates of our country and our planet.

Surely, progressives and conservatives will give as vastly different answers to the question of what raising children ought to look like as they will to the question of how American society ought to be governed. But progressives must not let partisan loyalties stop them from thinking about the ways in which having children does or does not express their values, and what shape they really want their lives to take. Children are too important to allow them to fall victim to the culture wars.

Anastasia Berg is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and an editor of the magazine The Point, where Rachel Wiseman is the managing editor. They are the authors of the forthcoming book “What Are Children For?: On Ambivalence and Choice.”