Many years ago my mother warned my long-time girlfriend and I: “If you wait until you can afford kids to have them — you’ll never have them.”

Fueled by her desire for grandkids, my mom’s advice was a pointed rejoinder to my social and professional circle’s stubborn insistence on not sacrificing our hard-earned upward mobility to a whimsical decision or a cultural expectation to start making babies.

“If your father and I were that self-obsessed,” she said. “You and your brother might not be here today.”

Ouch.

But as the story of Nadya Suleman, the 33-year-old Whittier woman who gave birth to octuplets last week, continues to devolve into a media sideshow, my mother’s critique still resonates for me, as it highlights the fine line in society between selflessness and self-destructiveness.

The rising volume of anger directed at Suleman, an unemployed single mom who underwent fertility treatments and now has a total of 14 children, including the half-dozen kids she spawned before the octuplets, is understandable but misplaced.

Suleman is just an extreme example of the costly and corrosive reproductive malfeasance that far too many parents (a term I apply reluctantly) indulge today — becoming pregnant on a whim with children they can’t afford and all with an expectation that society will foot the bill.

It’s not this single mother of 14 that’s so devastating to our social fabric and public treasury. No, it’s the millions of mothers and fathers — both single and married — that are choosing to have two, three and four children when they clearly can’t afford even one. The real story isn’t Suleman’s bizarre wish to have more children, but rather a society and a government that have little enthusiasm for dissuading economically unsound childbearing.

To the contrary, we now accommodate it at virtually every turn.

While irresponsible baby-making is clearly not limited to any one ethnic or cultural demographic, its impact is indisputably more visible and more damaging in working class communities that have been reshaped by unrestrained immigration.

The public schools on the working class streets of Pomona that I attended more than a generation ago are no longer recognizable as the campuses where I was provided a solid education. The dramatic difference is not merely that the integration and racial balance that Pomona schools had achieved in the 1970s and early ‘80s has been completely erased, with the Pomona Unified School District student body now approaching 90 percent Latino.

At the schools I attended, which are now packed with nearly twice as many students, more than 90 percent of the children qualify for “free” breakfasts and lunches. The iconic brown bag lunch that my generation’s parents sent us to school with — just like the breakfasts they fed us in our own homes — are long gone. Day care centers for toddlers also abound on these public school campuses, including nurseries at the high schools for the students who are having babies.  

Far from carrying a social stigma today, reproduction irrespective of the parents’ socio-economic circumstances seems to be seen either as an act of cultural obligation or something divinely inspired that’s greeted with wide-eyed elation at yet another miracle in diapers. That magical assessment usually seems to vanish by the time the kid is ready for school and is left to become, in many respects, a ward of the state.

As the stigma of having children you can’t afford has vanished, trepidation is fading away to expectation now; the expectation that “The Village” — not the family — will pony up to raise the kids.

So as the convulsions continue over Suleman’s staggering feat of gleefully producing 14 children in the absence of a job, a husband and, quite frankly, a future, it might be worth our while to pause for a moment to consider the tens of millions of women and men in America today who are not yet as prolific as Nadya Suleman, but far more catastrophic for this country in aggregate. 

Nearly two decades ago, when our parents were agitating for us to give them some grandkids, my girlfriend and I were out of college, well into our professions and living in a house we bought together. We tried to balance the cost of having a child with our relentlessly tight checking accounts. Like so many other couples we knew, we just couldn’t make the numbers work.

We wanted to get ahead and we accepted that desire came with its own set of sacrifices.

I suspect my mom still thinks it was a selfish decision (and it was), but when she sees what’s happening across a California now packed with families and children dependent on the state, I have the feeling she wishes more people had made the same choice.

 

Mark Cromer is a senior writing fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization, which works to formulate and advance policies and programs designed to stabilize the population of California at a level which will preserve a good quality of life for all Californians.