For many people today, having children is an elaborate life project. But what is behind our desire to have children?
Text: Roger Nickl
English translation by Caitlin Stephens
Sooner or later, most people feel an urge to have children. It is part of our evolutionary programming, passed on from generation to generation. It seems we simply can’t avoid it. At least that’s what the findings of a 2018 survey by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office suggest. The Swiss survey showed that more than 90 percent of respondents aged between 20 and 29 would like to have children – preferably two (61.4 percent) or three (25.8 percent). Only 4 percent would like to have just one child, and only 8.8 percent want to remain childless. That has consequences for the social norms: Around seven out of ten women and a good six out of ten men aged between 25 and 80 are parents of one or more children. In other words, a clear majority of the Swiss adult population have children.
But why do we want to have children in the first place? “Becoming parents is meaningful for many of us,” says ethicist and theologian Michael Coors, who has four children. “We want to pass on something of ourselves and be there for someone else.” This also means that the desire to have children is not only about the future offspring, but always about the parents themselves. For many people today, having children is an elaborate life project, almost an ideal to be reached in life.
Putting the desire for children on ice
Careful family planning has been made possible by the development of effective contraceptives. Since the birth control pill came onto the market in the 1950s, having children has become easier to plan. Progress in reproductive medicine, such as test-tube babies and freezing of eggs, have also contributed to this. The technique of social freezing enables young women to freeze their eggs and thus postpone the decision to have children, for example, until they have found a suitable partner or established a career. Some American companies now offer to pay for egg freezing for their female employees so that they can be there for the company during what is supposedly the most productive phase of working life.
“Unlike in the past, nowadays in the developed world starting a family is often an deliberate decision. But with that freedom of choice comes more responsibility. Parents today want to be good parents, and the demands on them have increased,” says philosopher Barbara Bleisch, who is the mother of two children. Together with UZH legal scholar Andrea Büchler, also a mother of two, she has written a much-acclaimed book on the subject of wanting children, which came out earlier this year in German.
In the past, children were hardly ever planned for, they just came along. People had lots of children, child mortality was high and many women died in childbirth. “Offspring mainly served as economic security,” says psychologist and father of three Guy Bodenmann. “The relationship with the children and the subject of having children was therefore much less emotional than it is now.” Quite unlike today, when children are a huge investment – emotionally and financially. They have become a life project in which we invest a lot of time, love and energy.
Our desire to have children comes not just from the biological impulse to pass on our genes and reproduce ourselves, but also from the social expectations thrumming in the background: “Many people only feel complete and fulfilled if they have children and a family,” says couples and family psychologist Guy Bodenmann. This particularly affects women, on whom society still strongly projects the role of mother. The great French philosopher and feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, however, argued that the desire to be a mother is not innate in women, but is rooted in our culture. Simon Teuscher, a historian at UZH, believes that that the idea of reproducing oneself through having children is also a more recent historical trend. “Today we want to realize our aspirations and replace ourselves through our children,” he says, “but in the Middle Ages the main motive was to populate this world and the world beyond.”
Gift of God
The topic of bringing children into the world also comes up frequently in the Bible. “You can often read Bible texts as a mirror image of today,” says Michael Coors. “Having many children was a blessing, a gift from God.” Thus, in a religious context, being blessed with children was in itself meaningful. In the secularized world of today, however, we make meaning for ourselves by choosing to have children. They are a sign of our faith in the future. “Parenthood is connected with the hope that, as Hannah Arendt puts it so nicely, a new beginning is possible,” says Barbara Bleisch.