For a large part of this writer’s lifetime, the Wall Street Journal confined itself to business and business only. American political affairs were reported only to the extent that those matters affected business. Social issues garnered attention only in the context of how changes in society affected supply and demand in the market.
It has been 15 years since the Barcrofts sold their signature newspaper to Rupert Murdoch. And for those who read the Journal it has been a fascinating journey. Those who read the news portion of that paper have lived through a transformation which involves life and circumstances beyond Wall Street. Those who read the editorial pages of the very same paper see how Milton Friedman’s free market conservativism has been inundated with modern day populism. There are two Wall Street Journals intoday’s 40 page daily edition.
The front page of Friday’s August 4 edition contained an article that a subscriber of 20 years ago would have dismissed as unthinkable. The title: “New Mothers Face Tragic Reality in the U.S.: Mood and anxiety Orders are common-but for many help is hard to find.”
Setting aside where it appeared the article was both important and timely. The statistics are undeniable. Young Americans are not getting married. And whether they marry or not they are not terribly interested in bringing children into this world. You need only consult the Center for Disease Control and the Brookings institution to confirm the childbirth aspect of this. And we have reported recently on the continued decline in Pennsylvania marriages.
For those who have children, whether via marriage or not it is also no secret that a lot of decision making when it comes to bringing children into this world is driven by parental and peer pressure. By nature, parents want grandchildren and great grandchildren. Peer pressure is something different. Historically, if your classmates and friends started to have children, there was an implied sense of “Why not me, too.” My bridesmaid had an adorable child; why would I not share that seemingly beautiful experience? But if three of your bridesmaids have eschewed marriage and/or child bearing, that can change the dynamic. This is especially true in the 21st century where you are in your eighth month of pregnancy and reading about your classmate who is frolicking on the beach in Ibiza or celebrating appointment as Vice President-North American Sales for the company she joined after college.
The Wall Street Journal feature focuses on the fact that despite a booming job market, stock market (+17% YTD) and the perceived retreat of Covid, 800,000 American women are having mood and anxiety disorders that appear tied to bringing children into this world. More frightening is this sentence published in one of America’s leading conservative news outlets:
“The U.S. is already the most dangerous place among high income nations to give birth….” with a correspondingly high rate of deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth. The U.S. is seeing 33 deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest rate in 60 years.
The story reports many incidents where high performing, well-educated and otherwise upwardly mobile young women are not coping well with pregnancy and the months immediately after their child is born. Because they are well educated, insured, and aware of resources that should be available, they have sought support from the medical and psychological community, only to find resources wanting or unavailable. In many instances their anxiety is shared by the fathers of their kids, who now find the woman they married to be inexplicably altered by the pregnancy and motherhood experience. This was supposed to be among the happiest of life’s experiences. Yet, the Journal reported incidents where it yielded to long term depression and suicide despite a path that started with high academic achievement, early professional and “relationship” success.
How does this play into the world of family law? Here you go. Today, when we see young divorce or custody clients they are often 30-35 years of age. They deferred marriage and credit themselves for choosing a spouse more carefully because of that. They also did not instantly choose to become parents. They often are reliant on two incomes to support their lifestyle. So, 30-35 is the heart of today’s “child bearing years.” Many of these young people have been the center of their parent’s attentions. Now suddenly, a baby is the center of everyone’s attention. There are misapprehensions about what it means to raise a child, and what “co-parenting” responsibilities should be shared. There are questions about stepping back from professional responsibilities to put the baby first. And then there are grandparents who come with their own views and baggage. Some 30 something parents are adept at pushing back at opinionated parents. Some are not. All these issues can breed conflict and because they carried the child to term, mother’s typically feel a special responsibility to not only manage the child but the sudden avalanche of conflicting expectations. Not every case is the same. There are mothers with supportive fathers, sensitive parents and in-laws who are doing all the right things. They get caught in the undertow of post partem depression anyway.
If the cast of characters defined as mom, dad, and grandparents don’t see the problems in a constructive atmosphere, the result is often a custody fight in court. Aside from child abuse cases, these are often some of the ugliest pieces of litigation a judge will see. Typically, the father and his parents bring the case. The underlying theme is: “Mom is a failure and dad is having to do everything with the support of his parents.” A judge hearing the case will often sense that, by history, mom is a high performing individual who has been responsible from middle school on but who now seems to have lost her way. That’s what depression will do. The judge sees a person with a strong history of responsibility and who typically did everything right during her pregnancy. But that same woman now seems listless and disengaged. In a litigation world, it’s not uncommon for father and/or his parents to advocate: “Write her off, she’s a parental failure.” But now, put yourself in the judge’s role. What’s the impact on the young child if the judge does “Write her off?” And just how is the court supposed to do that in a responsible way? By the way, also not uncommon in these cases are a meddlesome set of paternal grandparents and their son, who “checked out” once mom began to have symptoms of depression and is slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of life as a male single parent.
There is no off-the-shelf solution here. But the Journal has identified an important issue. Until birth control became freely available, childbearing was an unavoidable reality. Today, bringing a child into this world comes “pregnant” with expectations-many unrealistic. And we have a kind of epidemic of post partem conflict and depression. Courts are not well suited to address this problem because courts can’t tell easily whether the problem is temporary or permanent and they also have difficulty assessing whether this is a matter of fault or circumstance. Wise families will approach this as a family problem and not a judicial one. Young mothers afflicted with these conditions need support and so do the father’s* of these children. While much as our society professes to want the best for young children, the article makes clear that our societal approach to this issue is, itself, wanting.
*Nota: I make reference to mothers and fathers as a matter of expedience for which some apology may be due. We live in a world where same sex couples are bringing children into this world in a variety of different ways. Many would ascribe post partum depression to hormonal imbalance. I am not adequately trained to make that call. What I have seen is that parents of all genders have had difficulty making the transition from successful adults to successful parents. You can meet corporate quarterly sales expectations with regularity but fail abjectly at getting the kid to sleep through the night or perform in the bathroom. It’s an entirely different set of skills and couples otherwise happy with each other as non-parents often fall prey to huge conflicts over how to share parenting responsibilities and manage parenting expectations.