Casual listeners* to general conference may have come away with the impression that the Church, as represented by Elder Neil L. Andersen, really wants us to have more babies. There is plenty of reason for this, but I’m going to suggest that Elder Andersen was making a subtler and more nuanced point. The target of the post was not childlessness; it was selfishness.
First of all, I do think that the church (and Elder Anderson) would like us to have more babies. A few years ago, Elder Packer gave an address at BYU wherein he argued that the somewhat shrinking number of missionaries worldwide was due, not to “raising the bar,” but rather to the somewhat shrinking birth rate. Although the number of children per capita is always higher than the US national average amongst Mormons, it is also true that as a group acquires more education and a higher standard of living its birth rate drops.** The reasons for that are a little chicken-and-egg-y, and outside the scope of this post, but the correlation seems clear. As the Mormon corridor (and the US) in general has become a better place to live, it has also become a harder place for finding babies.
Now perhaps this trend could be offset by people joining the church in other countries, with a lower standard of living. However, thanks to the Perpetual Education Fund (and other forms of church welfare (and, arguably, God’s blessings)), the temporal lives of our members often improve as a result of their long association with the church, which likely means that they have fewer children than they otherwise would. We are educating ourselves out of children.
So, Elder Andersen is reinforcing God’s command to multiply and replenish the earth. There are people who, for whatever reason, are putting off having children. Some subset thereof is doing it for reasons of which the Lord would not approve. It is to these people that Elder Andersen directs the stories in the talk (Adam, Lehi, Jesus, and Elder Mason). Elder Anderson would like these people to repent, which is slightly different than wanting them to have children. Though slight, it is an important difference.
If we need to repent, that is because there is a sin involved. The key to the talk, I think, is the quote that Elder Anderson pulled from a blog. The non-LDS Christian blogger wrote:
Growing up in the culture, it is very hard to get a biblical perspective on mother hood…Children rank way below college. Below world travel for sure. Below the ability to go out at night at your leisure. Below honing your body at the gym. Below any job you may have or hope to get…
Motherhood is not a hobby, it is a calling. You do not collect children because you find them cuter than stamps. It is not something to do if you can squeeze the time in. It is what God gave you time for.
The quote comes in two parts that deal with two different issues. The first has to do with the effect children have on a life and a relationship. When you become a parent, all other priorities and dreams can (and should) take a back seat to caring for that child. In our American culture, this burden falls more heavily on women than on men, but even though it is currently an unequal yoke socially, it is one that must be born for the good of the child. So, the first question you need to ask yourself in figuring out if you are ready for children is “Am I willing to bear this burden?” Of course, you don’t really know that until you have children. But you should be realistic about yourself.
The second half of the quote deals with a different, although similar, issue. Why do you want children? Seriously So Blessed used to parody blogs to whom the second half of the quote applies. Do you understand having children as a means to improve your social standing? As a means to improve business opportunities? As a way to distract you from an ordinary live? The reasons for our acts are just as important the acts themselves.
And this leads to the several injunctions against judgment:
When to have a child and how many children to have are private decisions to be made between a husband and wife and the Lord. These are sacred decisions – decisions that should be made with sincere prayer and acted on with great faith.
Brothers and sisters, we should not be judgmental with one another in this sacred and private responsibility
and, further, to an admission of mitigating factors:
The bearing of children is a sensitive subject that can be very painful for righteous women who do not have the opportunity to marry and have a family.
The bearing of children can also be a heartbreaking subject for righteous couples who marry and find that they are unable to have the children they so anxiously anticipated.
There is, spite of the above injunctions, the tendency to judge in these things. Both to assume that people who don’t have children don’t want children and to assume that people who don’t want children do so for sinful reasons. What Elder Andersen makes clear is that both assumptions are sinful, but he also makes clear that we can be guilty of both.
I submit that he is serious when he says that this is a matter that is between the couple and the Lord. But that isn’t intended as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Elder Andersen is asking us to really consider why we have the number of children we have (or plan to) and what that number means to us. Judgment is intended, but it is the couple’s job to judge themselves.
One final note: Elder Andersen couches the birth process and the nurturing of children as gifts given to one’s spouse. Setting aside the ultimate appropriateness of that phrasing, it does seem to set the decision making regarding number of children in the woman’s court. I’m not certain what to make of that, but it seemed worth pointing out.
* I’m actually skeptical that there is something that can be called a “casual listener” of conference, but it seemed like a good way to start.
** I’m not actually qualified to make such statements. Please correct me, o sociologists, if I have my info and assumptions incorrect.