Many left-leaning, middle-class Americans speak of kids as though they are impositions, or means to an end.

Jay Caspian Kang

A new book by Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman, “What Are Children For?,” is an engaging, literary investigation into why so many highly educated, financially comfortable women in the United States are ambivalent about having children, and how we should actually think about that decision. (I recently interviewed the authors on a podcast that I co-host.) To understand the reasoning of their contemporaries, Berg and Wiseman distributed surveys and conducted interviews with “dozens of Zoomers, millennials, and Gen Xers.” More than ninety per cent of their respondents had a college degree, they note, and nearly seventy per cent had a graduate degree. This focus on the middle and upper middle class might feel limiting, especially for a book with such an ambitious title, but the public conversation about the relative morality of having children has been shaped, to a great degree, by this demographic.

Within this larger discourse, Berg and Wiseman see a landscape of beleaguered people who have leaned a bit too far into their political and cultural beliefs, trading in the joys of life for an overly determinative belief that children will suffer inescapable misery. The thought of having children, in these mostly progressive circles, is often weighed against rising existential risk, whether stemming from climate change, the emergence of the far right, or even artificial intelligence. This, the authors point out, is a weird way to talk about kids. And they envision a near future in which that conversation becomes further polarized, with the anti-abortion right on one side and an increasingly anti-natalist left on the other. This outcome, they think, would be disastrous. “Simply put,” Wiseman writes, in the book’s introduction, “the question of whether or not to have a family is too important to allow it to be a casualty of the culture war.”