(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on April 17, 2021.)
In the early morning hours fifty years ago, serving as a young Army officer in then West Germany, I became a father.
On April 18, 1971, our daughter, Nicole, was born in the Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden, just across the Rhine River from Mainz, where I was stationed with the 8th Infantry Division.
My wife and I had arrived in West Germany only seven weeks before. I was 22; Geri was 21. We were young and resilient. I had faith in myself, us, the US Army, and the free, democratic West led by the United States.
When her water broke in the middle of the night, it was all frenzy to me. West Point had prepared me to serve my country as an officer and soldier; no one had prepared me to be a father. I hurriedly drove to the hospital, 20 minutes away.
Happily, I had already scouted the way to the exact building on the base, however, not the exact floor. I parked in front of the building, jumped out leaving my laboring wife, and dashed up the stairs, two-by-two, quickly reading the signage.
I finally reached the 4th floor and the Labor and Delivery ward. Out of breath, I sought to calm myself as I found the night nurse on duty. Playing the unruffled Cary Grant, I said: “I think my wife is having a baby.” The nurse looked at me and said wryly: “Well, I think you had better bring her up.”
Three days later, on a very sunny spring day, with ornamental cherry trees bursting their pink blossoms everywhere, we brought home our new daughter. Two years later came Thomas, and three years after Thomas came James. By the time I was 28, my wife and I had three children. Life for us was never the same.
Children are headaches. One had a serious medical condition which required major surgery at only18 months. One had crooked legs which required an awkward leg brace to be worn through the night. One slept so soundly that there were many bed-wetting incidents in the night.
Long, restful sleeps were no more. Our free time was no longer our own. If we stayed up late partying with friends, we would pay for it early next morning. We no longer joined festive parties on New Year’s Eve.
One of the many challenges that American Civilization faces is the demographic challenge. It is very elemental: If a civilization does not produce enough children, in the shorter term it has such problems as providing the social security net for its older population. However, in the longer term, it simply is pushed aside by other, more demographically vibrant civilizations.
Over the past century, the US total fertility rate (number of children per woman) has dropped below that required to sustain the population (2.1) only during times of economic strain: the Great Depression of the 1930s and also during the oil shocks of the 1970s.
Over the past few decades it has hovered around the 2.1 level until recently. In 2019, the fertility rate hit a 35-year low of 1.705. Last year’s rate was slightly higher at 1.779. The number of marriages does not seem to be a driving factor; the marriage rate over the past few decades has remained fairly stable. In 2017, Pew Research reported that about one-half of Americans, ages 18 and older, were married, although this figure is down 8% since 1990.
However, the drop in the fertility rate does seem related to the median age of the first marriages. In 2018, the median age of first marriages reached an all-time high of 30 for men and 28 for women, according to the Census Bureau.
However, I find another statistic most troubling for our civilization. In 2019 Pew Research reported that nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans say that society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and having children. This is up from 57% in 2016.
Happily my wife and I, having known each other since we were very young, having grown up in the same hometown and living just a few blocks from each other, in families who shared similar Roman Catholic, Italian-American cultures, did not have much to discuss regarding children. We both saw children as a given, the first order of married life.
Children are smelly handfuls, but also sweet-smelling sources of endless surprise and joy. They are heartache, but also happiness. They are tears of sadness but also tears of joy. They come to have not only your physical traits but others as well. They grow up, get married, and—with luck—give you grandchildren who become tremendous sources of pride, joy, and comfort. What was once our family of two, sitting on Sunday afternoons at a little table in an apartment in Mainz, West Germany, burgeoned 40 years later to a table in Portsmouth, with an array of tables, seating as many as 17 family members, eating Sunday dinner, laughing, telling stories, and passing on timeless truths.
It was President Ronald Reagan who in his farewell address stated: “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” I wonder if many of the challenges American Civilization faces today are best treated at the family and not the government level. Government can pass laws, allocate resources, and initiate massive programs, but it is not good at instilling enduring values like trust, faith, and hope, which a civilization needs to sustain itself. The family is.
When I come across Jimmy Rodgers’ hit of 1957, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” I chuckle in reflection on the last 50 years. In the last stanza, he sings: “Had a lot of kids, a lot of trouble, and pain/But then, whoops oh lordy, well I’d do it all again.”
A regular columnist, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.