Every day some 370,000 babies are born worldwide. Of those born on July 22, 2013, 369,999 went unnoticed outside their immediate circles. The exception was a royal prince, third in line to the British throne. His first photos show him blissfully unaware of the vast excitement he was causing. He’ll come to know of it in time. What he’ll think of it we will not presume to guess. We’ll know soon enough, if the course of his life gets anything like the coverage his birth did.
The commotion seems oddly out of keeping with the modern temperament, which professes to despise celebrity based on blood rather than talent or achievement. There must be something in us that longs for tradition even as we shred it. Very little is left of that once very wide sphere. “Good riddance,” say most people most of the time. Then something like a royal birth comes along to expose a hidden aspect of our collective personality. Deep down, maybe we’re all closet traditionalists.
How else has the institution of marriage survived all the powerful modern challenges to it? Marriage rites are at least as old as civilization. No culture is without some form of them. Even our own culture — with its rampant individualism, sexual liberation, instant gratifications, ceaseless change, unappeasable restlessness, eager readiness to flout all received wisdom — has a place in it, large though shrinking, for marriage.
Probably it has to do with the little beings that result from the instinct marriage was meant to govern. Children need, or seem to, a stable, artificial little world to grow up in. Another name for that world is “home,” and the builders of it, traditionally, have been two people joined in marriage and selflessly committed to their offspring’s care. It’s a sanitized image, easily scorned, and yet the global outpouring of joy and affection for the British royals suggests how much it moves us.
Moves us how, though — as an ideal to aspire to, or as a fairy tale, the sort of bedtime story that begins, “Once upon a time…”?
Single parenthood has solid roots in the modern anti-traditional West. In the United States, nearly half of first-born children are born out of wedlock; in France, more than half of all children are. In Japan the figures are miniscule in comparison but rising fast — to 2 percent of all children, up abruptly from 1 percent, the latter figure having held steady for some 50 years. The weekly Shukan Post introduces a new character on the Japanese stage: the single mother who is such by choice. Marriage, typically, interests her not at all. Nor does a man, except for one thing only — his sperm.
“My womb wants a baby!” cries “Ms. C,” 43. It never had before, and remained quiet while she got on with her career, which nets her ¥18 million a year. Then last year it suddenly grew clamorous. Not only her womb: “My brain’s telling me, ‘Make a baby!’ Anybody will do,” she adds, referring to the seed provider.
She outlined the situation to her latest boyfriend, eight years her junior. “I will have nothing to do with the baby,” he told her bluntly.
“That’s fine,” she shot back, “just do your part.”
He’s willing, but eight months on she is still not pregnant.
Increasingly, men are distasteful to women. “A husband’s just an overgrown child,” sniffs 34-year-old “Ms. A,” thinking of a man she had figured on marrying before a trial period of living together showed his — and the gender’s, as far as she’s concerned — true colors. Selfish, overbearing, helpless creatures, men. Why saddle yourself with one? She dumped hers, and now, like Ms. C, wants nothing from her current boyfriend but fertilization.
Two facts of life have conspired to bind the sexes together, mismatched though they may be: a social structure that kept women economically dependent, and the male’s indispensable biological contribution to reproduction. The first fact is steadily eroding. The second still holds, but no longer necessarily points to marriage. Social disapproval of extramarital sex lingered longer in Japan than in the West, but was pretty much exhausted by the late 1970s. Then came the rise of the sperm bank. They’ve been proliferating in Japan since the mid-’90s. Today, says Shukan Post, “supply can’t keep up with demand.” The banks fall into two broad categories. Some provide seminal fluid that the mother-to-be inserts herself with a syringe. Others will send a man to your door for copulation timed to coincide with ovulation.
Shukan Post foresees an explosion in Japan of single motherhood. It cites several factors in addition to the ones already mentioned. One is the increasing tendency of men to bolt on learning their girlfriend is pregnant. Accompanying women’s financial rise has been men’s financial fall. If more women than ever are able to afford single motherhood, fewer men than ever seem able to afford paternity.
Then there’s this, which may be quite new: women who are already single mothers of one — either by choice or by force of circumstances — sometimes find they want to be single mothers of two, or even three. All children want siblings, don’t they? Why shouldn’t they have them?
Thus our relentless march into an unknown future, with its expanded and expanding possibilities, its new freedoms, its proud defiance of taboos. It’s all very exhilarating, but somehow it’s the birth of a baby prince into an ancient and largely discredited institution known as a “royal family” that brings joy to the world.