There used to be a Mother’s Day tradition that the more children (and grandchildren) one had, the more recognition was deserved. Mothers and grandmothers would be given a carnation for each of their offspring. This was a post-war tradition meant to motivate women to repopulate the country since so many had died at war. I’m not sure an extra carnation is enough recompense for having one more child, but since affordable child care and financial support were apparently off the table, that was what was on offer.

I’ve noticed a correlation between talks about marrying early and having many children and a church leaders’ other views being on the political right. Why is fertility so desirable to some?

I was recently listening to a No Stupid Questions podcast called Is Having Children Worth It?. The population of the world is higher than it has ever been, so there’s no issue with “repopulation” or “replenishing,” meaning restoring what was lost (e.g. due to war). An accompanying fact is that individual family sizes are lower than before.

There are many reasons for this. The main one is that infant and childhood mortality rates are not the issue they used to be. It was so common for one’s children to die in childhood that titled and royal families (particularly in countries where primogeniture prevented women from inheriting titles and land) felt they needed to have both an “heir” and a “spare,” meaning at least two male children. This is how Henry VIII became monarch. His older brother Arthur died as a teen, and Henry inherited the throne. Henry was infamously obsessed with a male heir. His first wife Catherine of Aragon bore six children, but only one survived into adulthood, the Princess Mary. He divorced the aging Catherine to try for a male heir with Anne Boyleyn, who was pregnant four times; only her daughter Elizabeth survived into adulthood. Henry had her beheaded, mostly for failure to deliver a male heir, and nine days later, he married his already pregnant mistress Jane Seymore who bore the hapless Edward VI, Henry’s long-sought heir, and then Jane died nine days later from puerperal fever, a common post-childbirth infection. He didn’t give up on his need to have a “spare” son either, marrying three more times. But just to keep that total in mind, there were 11 pregnancies, and only 3 children who survived. Edward VI, Henry’s first successor, died at age 15, so not quite an adult. Henry also had an illegitimate son with his wife’s lady-in-waiting Betsy Blount; he named him Henry Fitzroy and openly acknowledged him, even considering adding him to the succession; however, Henry Fitzroy died at age 17 from consumption. So there was good reason for a focus on fertility at that time. Those things simply don’t apply to us anymore, even after a global pandemic.

Other reasons that large families are no longer as popular is that child labor is not allowed, and most people don’t run family farms. In other words, children must be financially supported, often through university level education. They aren’t adding to the family workforce; they are a financial liability. There are some other ways in which more children cost families more money that you might not be thinking about. The more children in the home, the larger the home must be. This is one reason people in cities often have smaller families, because real estate is at such a premium, and you can’t cram another person into your tiny two bedroom apartment. Another interesting factor from the podcast is that when car seat laws went into effect, requiring all children under 8 to have their own car seat that was buckled in, family sizes went way down. That third child takes a family from a sedan to a more expensive mini-van.

The podcast then asked whether having kids was worth these sacrifices, a question psychologists have attempted to answer through happiness surveys. You may have heard this one before. Child-free couples report higher levels of happiness than parents, but a twist I hadn’t heard before was that mothers report lower levels of happiness than non-mothers, but fathers report higher levels of happiness than non-fathers. Fathers also report higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression than mothers. So there’s a chilling Mother’s Day thought as SCOTUS plans to force motherhood on impoverished women.

Even when interacting directly with their children, fathers enjoyed the interactions more than mothers. Seriously, if any of you have children, you have to see why this is. Women are usually tasked with menial domestic chores that men avoid, such as managing the family calendar, doing dishes, cooking, cleaning up, being responsible for the children’s clothing, health, and happiness. Fathers mostly have higher quality interactions like playing with them in a stress-free environment. If we want mothers to have similar levels of happiness to fathers, we should quit forcing women to be the primary caregivers by telling them they are angelic nurturers and that they are not “real women” if they don’t. We should make day care affordable, provide health care to all, and eliminate the poverty gap between men and women.

But hey, I guess they get a candy bar once a year in recognition instead, so that’s enough.

I was thinking about the Primary songs associated with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and how they reinforce these messages that improve the lives of men at the expense of women. Consider the song “When Daddy Comes Home.” The song is playful and in a major chord. Daddy coming home is a special treat, a glad event that relieves the monotony of the daily routine. Daddy gets love and special attention, almost as if he’s an honored guest. There is no mention of the mother in this song. The Mother’s Day song we always sang when I was a child was “Mother I Love You.” This song is in a minor chord with a ponderous cadence to it. “Mother, I love you. Mother, I do. Father in Heaven has sent me to you. When I am near you I long to hear you singing so softly that you love me too.” So, we managed to insert a man into the short verse, and rather than the lyric being at all about the mother, it’s entirely about the child’s needs and wants. She is clearly the caregiver, and her role is to make the child feel loved. The daddy is a fun guest, and the child’s role is to make him feel important.

I know Mother’s Day is in the rear view mirror now, but I couldn’t help but think about these things as we celebrated it.

The Church’s motives in promoting fertility are pretty obvious. Church is truly for children and is one support for parents (it’s where you find babysitters and “good” friends for your kids). It’s also the easiest way to create more Church members. On the downside, the current war against LGBT youth that some church leaders are waging is a huge problem for retention of larger families. The more kids, the more likely some of them will be LGBT.

  • Do you like Mother’s Day?
  • Do you think these messages are harmful?
  • Why is the Church obsessed with fertility? Do they put their money where their mouth is with support for families?