The first command given by God to humankind was of the utmost importance to the survival of the species: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God had created one man and one woman, and the responsibility of filling the earth with more of their kind lay with them.
The Bible places a high premium on childbearing and childrearing. Childlessness was viewed negatively, and there are several examples in Scripture of women (and their husbands) pleading with God for the gift of children. The psalmist expressed it well: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3).
I think it is fair to say that this biblical outlook on children is being increasingly challenged today. One example of this was recently highlighted by the Wall Street Journal in an article titled “More Italian Women Are Choosing to Have No Children.”
The article’s byline credits “a precarious jobs market” and “dearth of child-care” as contributing factors to this state of affairs. The writer, Manuela Mesco, speaks of the fact that the Italian birth rate has been far below replacement rate for years. “A quarter of Italian women end their childbearing years without children,” she writes. The situation is so dire that Italy “already has 150 over-65s for every 100 people under 14…. That will rise to 263 elders for every 100 young people by 2050, according to Istat.” Clearly, this is an unsustainable pattern.
But why are Italian women choosing not to have children? Mesco notes at least five major reasons.
First, “Italy’s difficult job market is a leading factor.” The high unemployment rate leaves many women and couples feeling that they simply cannot afford children. Further, the inability to secure employment has left some 50% of Italians between 24 and 35 still living with their parents, clearly not an ideal situation into which to introduce a child.
Second, “more Italian women in their 20s and 30s are getting university degrees. By the time they finish and find a secure job, they are often reluctant to sacrifice those gains for children.” In other words, career is more important to them than family—at least in their twenties and thirties.
Third, “Italian women often find it daunting to balance work against the traditionally demanding expectations for mothers in Italy.” The article notes that “surveys consistently find that Italian men help less at home than their counterparts in other countries do.” Italian women feel overwhelmed by the pressure of caring for children in addition to pursuing a career, and therefore choose to forego having children.
Fourth, there is “a dearth of preschool centers in the country.” This is due largely, it seems, to childcare facilities closing due to economic pressure. The result is that working women have traditionally opted to leave their children with grandparents during the day. However, increasing financial pressure has forced retirement ages to rise, meaning that there are less grandparents available to cheaply look after their grandchildren.
Fifth, childlessness is simply more convenient. One 43-year-old woman decided to put of childbearing until she found a stable job but, when she did, the urge for children failed to materialise. “We’re now used to being just a couple,” she said of her and her husband. “We have the freedom to do whatever we want and I don’t want to change that now.”
All of this flies in the face of a Christian perspective of children and motherhood. The Bible holds motherhood in high regard. In fact, Paul said that women will be “saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Timothy 2:15). In the context, the apostle had just argued that only men are permitted to teach publicly in the church. Perhaps anticipating the question as to how women can contribute meaningfully to the local church (and thereby be “saved” from insignificance), Paul argues that they can do so by raising faithful children. In doing so, he places Christian motherhood on the level of public teaching in the local church. Mothers have an integral part to play in the life of the local church by raising children who will contribute meaningfully to the church in subsequent generations. Without godly mothers, subsequent generations of the church are in danger of falling away.
In an age in which motherhood is seen as a matter of little significance, and in which women are encouraged to pursue career and leave children till a more convenient time, the Bible thunders that godly mothers are vital to the furtherance of God’s kingdom on earth. Christians need to have a godly perspective on biblical motherhood.
But we do not need this biblical perspective only for mothers in our day. It is good to commend godly mothers in our own generation, and understandable to lament the worldly view of motherhood described in the WSJ article, but we must go beyond that. As parents, we must raise daughters who will have a high view of motherhood and sons who will encourage that high view. We must raise daughters who will become faithful mothers and sons who will become faithful husbands and fathers to encourage their wives in the high calling of motherhood. We can (and must) do this in a multitude of ways, and the WSJ article highlights some of them.
As husband to a stay-at-home mother, I am keenly aware of how the biblical philosophy of motherhood flies in the face of common perception. I am also keenly aware of the need to raise my daughters with a healthy understanding of motherhood. This has led me to think much about this particular article.
It seems to me that the five stated reasons that Italian women are choosing to forego motherhood fall into two broad categories.
First, career takes precedence over motherhood. There is an assumption, in the current economic climate, that two incomes are necessary in any stable home. Husband and wife must both work, and any children must be cared for by a third party while the parents are at work during the day. Without two stable incomes, couples simply feel that they cannot afford children.
Women spend years securing university degrees, and having worked hard to secure a degree, they are unwilling to sacrifice the career that these degrees are intended to secure for children. They feel that it is a waste to have spent so much time studying only to give it all up for motherhood. When there is difficulty finding daytime childcare for their children, there is evidently little thought given to the mother staying home with the children. Career is assumed; children are optional. Women would rather not have children than have them and struggle to find daytime childcare for them.
The second broad category of reasoning for not having children is selfishness. Women are reluctant to sacrifice university degrees for motherhood, and others find childlessness more convenient. Women want security in employment before they are willing to entertain the thought of children, but by the time they feel secure they have become so accustomed to a childless lifestyle that they are unwilling to embrace change.
Though this article is written from an Italian perspective and presented in a uniquely Italian context, the sentiments of Italian women are shared by many men and women in other cultural contexts. For Christians who have a nobler view of children in general and motherhood in particular, the challenge in raising daughters is to deal with the broad categories of career and selfishness.
If the Bible doesn’t explicitly instruct mothers to stay at home with their children it strongly hints in that direction. Paul encouraged younger women to “marry, bear children, manage their households” (1 Timothy 5:14) and older women to “train the young women to love their husbands and children … working at home” (Titus 2:3–5). Though the Proverbs 31 woman “works with willing hands” (Proverbs 31:13ff) in order to supplement the family’s income, there is no hint of her doing so outside the home. Indeed, her home is her clear priority (vv. 27–28). The weight of the evidence seems to suggest that women, at least while their children are in their formative (school) years, should prioritise the home. If she can do so while at the same time holding a career outside the home, God bless her, but some honest assessment is required in this regard.
If we will raise our daughters with a biblical outlook of children and motherhood, we must raise them to consider motherhood as their highest priority. Do children disrupt life? Absolutely. Can they be an inconvenience? Yes. Is parenting a difficult task? It is. Does it require you to sacrifice some things you enjoy? Indeed. But “children are a heritage from the Lord.”
It may well be genuinely necessary for a mother to work temporarily outside of the home, but the goal should surely be to have mom at home caring for the kids. This will, of course, necessitate living on a lower income, but it will also ensure less expenditure.
The ideal family situation is to have dad as the breadwinner and mom prioritising the home. Our daughters (and our sons) should be raised to understand this.
Italian women are reluctant to make the necessary sacrifices to stay home and care for the kids. They have studied hard and believe that they deserve to put their hard-earned degrees to work without children running interference. In other instances, they have become accustomed to the relative simplicity of life without children and having children strikes them as too much of a disruption.
As noted above, children can certainly be a disruption. But the “reward” (Psalm 127:3) is worth far more than the cost. Children, generally speaking, are no doubt more taxing on the mother than the father, but this is by God’s design. I’m not sure what it means that “Italian men help less at home than their counterparts in other countries do,” and I by no means would excuse passivity on behalf of fathers, but the reality is that stay-at-home moms will be busier with the children than working dads.
Any mother will tell you that “me time” is severely limited when children are introduced into the picture, and couples will relate the same when it comes to “us time.” We should raise our daughters to expect this and to prize the precious time they will one day have with their children. We do so by instruction and example.
None of this is meant to suggest that it is intrinsically wrong for women to have ambitions other than motherhood, but sure we should raise our daughters to understand that, should God bless them with children, they have no higher calling than to be a godly mother to their children. Some women will never have children, but those who do ought to prize them as treasures from God and take seriously the stewardship that God has given to them.
Jesus honoured his mother when, from the cross, he left her in the care of his closest disciple (John 19:26-27). And Scripture says of a godly mother, “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (Proverbs 31:28). Thank God for godly mothers, and may we raise our daughters to value this calling even as the world continues to view it as optional at best and a great nuisance at worst.