Is having a child a good choice? ‘New York Times’ questions, author of book on childhood in the media responds

by Heather Newman on June 11, 2010

More book detailsEllen Handler Spitz is the author of Illuminating Childhood, a forthcoming book examining portrayals of childhood in film, fiction, and drama. She responds to a New York Times editorial this week that calls into question the decision to have children:

“Should This Be the Last Generation?” is a disquieting article.  Published online as an “Opinionator” column in the global New York Times, it asks, in the voice of its author, Princeton professor Peter Singer: “Have you ever thought about whether to have a child?”

This question, with its implicit subversive thrust, dovetails with the last chapter of my forthcoming book, Illuminating Childhood, to be published by the University of Michigan Press this November – a book that begins with a joyous celebration of Piero della Francesca’s pregnant Madonna, the exquisite and pensive “Madonna del Parto.” I was, therefore, fascinated to read it.

Although the challenges, vicissitudes, and ambiguities of being a parent are much discussed in the press these days and continue to form the subject of countless articles, films, courses, lectures, and self-help books, the question Professor Singer poses, that of becoming one, is rarely broached.  This is because we still take for granted the truism that the birth of a child is a good beyond question.

In “The Alien Child,” the final chapter of my book on portraits of parent-child relations in film, fiction, and drama, this is a question that bursts forth in a discussion of Doris Lessing’s horrific novel of 1988, The Fifth Child.

A monster baby appears in the midst of a London-based family in the sixties after the births in quick succession of four normal children, and Ben, grotesque, troll-like, unresponsive, and wantonly aggressive, enables Lessing to defy the axiom that babies are a summum bonum and that having children is a desideratum beyond all shadow of a doubt.

Her character Ben and her description of his mother Harriet’s excruciating pregnancy contrast dramatically with the ethos of Piero’s Madonna and with the cultural tapestry that envelops it. We are meant – as in Singer’s article – to ask ourselves troubling questions and to writhe under the discomfort of their implications.

For, even as – accompanied by three generations of my family – I delighted in the recent film Babies, I cannot fail to acknowledge the force of Lessing’s and Singer’s insistent drum roll.

Today, while a small percentage of human life on the planet is being prolonged to unprecedented lengths by miracles of modern medicine, sanitation, and nutrition, a vastly larger percentage is being mindlessly created without regard for its future welfare or even survival.  No longer can there be any cogent argument for the need to produce a biological heir.

That being said, is it possible to imagine human life devoid of the incomparable joys of a child’s first smile, first laugh, first awkward steps, first actual word?

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