Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the baby bust

It’s about time I wrote something. Otherwise my blog is going to go mouldy…

…So I’ve dragged this article out of a remote bookmark file and dusted it off…

…It’s all about the rapidly declining birth-rate in Western Europe – how and why women are not having babies. It’s a decline so vertiginous that new terminology has had to be invented to describe it. What was previously referred to as ‘very low level’ fertility, a rate set at 1.3 children per family and which used to be the lowest recorded fertility rate, has been undermined by some places in Europe, so that now there is ‘lowest-low’ level fertility applied to places where the birth-rate has, for the first time, dropped below 1.3.

I like this article. It basically dismisses the conservative/religious “told you so” attacks on the availability of contraception, the ease of abortion and our apparently shallow, selfish, secular lifestyles and suggests instead that it is, to a large extent, conservatism that is in fact responsible for suppressing the baby numbers.

Research has revealed that within Europe there is another divide between birth-rates: a South/North divide. Apparently records reveal that more babies are being born in the north of Western Europe than in the south of Western Europe. Superficially, this shouldn’t make sense. In the southern countries of Italy, Greece and Spain, traditional family structures still endure. Despite levels of education comparing equitably with their northern sisters, women still tend to forgo careers for housewifery, while their husbands go out to work. Generally, you’d predict then that it would be in these traditional family frameworks that the most babies were being born. However, the opposite is true: far fewer babies are being born in Italy, Spain and Greece than in northern Western European countries.

In contrast, in the north, in Germany, Holland, Denmark and Sweden, the average couple both work fulltime jobs, and yet, somehow, women are finding the time to have more babies than in the south.

Social and cultural surveys have revealed that in traditional family frameworks, in Italy and Greece for example, men who work while their wives and girlfriends stay at home, are much less likely to help with the housework or assist with the practical elements of raising their children. This has had a tendency to put women off having more children once they’ve had one and then subsequently discovered they have to do everything themselves. What a surprise. This isn’t rocket science, is it!

So you can probably guess, without reading the rest of the article, why women seem keener to have babies in Denmark and Sweden where – guess what? – men are much more likely to help their wives and girlfriends, who are also holding down fulltime jobs, with domestic chores and childcare. It would seem raising a family, as a collaborative and equal partnership between two people, is a much more appealing prospect for a woman than effectively running a household and family alone.

What interests me though, and what isn’t really questioned in the article or anywhere else it seems, is what else can be read into this beyond the logistics? I’m glad that the article lays to rest the usual religious hysteria about modern attitudes to life with very practical answers to the question of our diminishing European demographic. But it doesn’t ask if there is anything else besides the practicalities. We are socialised to believe that women have a maternal instinct that kicks in at some point in life to induce the drive to reproduce. If this drive is as inherent and instinctive, as we have been socialised to believe, then logistics and practicalities should not, alone, be able to have such a widespread and devastating affect upon it.

Logistics involves processes of rationalising: the situation is evaluated and deemed unsuitable for reproduction and child-rearing. But the maternal instinct is not a rationalising negotiation… it’s an instinct… that’s the point! It’s supposed to be integral to being human. It’s supposed to be an essentially defining characteristic of being a female human. It’s this drive that’s supposed to undermine reasoning in order to ensure the survival of the species, no matter what – no matter what the economic situation, or the cultural climate, or whether your husband is helping out around the house or not – isn’t it?

If women are evaluating, reasoning, rationalising the decision to have babies or not, what has happened to the so-called maternal instinct? Is there one? Has it gone?... Did it ever really exist??

My 50p’s-worth is this: when the social, economic, cultural climate is right, or when there is no choice – when contraception is unavailable (or illegal) or cultural expectations heap value onto childbirth – then the “maternal instinct” suddenly blooms into being, masquerading as innate, internal ‘nature’. But without these expectations and pressures, without the cultural or religious pressures, when the social climate is wrong (e.g. when the father of your children chooses the pub over bedtime stories), or in an environment where there is so much else going on for women (and men) – where there is the freedom of a life that is not dependent upon supposed biological functions – then the “maternal instinct” mysteriously disappears.

I cannot believe that the maternal instinct is inherent at birth. I can only believe that it is socialised into existence – that it comes from outside and is then absorbed, and not the other way around – with the presence of certain social and cultural factors. The human drive to reproduce is less biological, more manmade. And I would argue that the survival of the species has its conditions – that perhaps it discerns between quality and quantity… The smatterings of only children playing by themselves in playgrounds will have plenty of time and space to reflect upon this…

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exoteric said...

Your theory sounds a lot like the biologists reasoning of how some animals lower their reproduction rates in times of scarce food and water - though presumably this is not the case in South-Western Europe.

From a different perspective, it could be seen that women playing the stay-at-home mother role but refusing to have more than one child are being selfish and not pulling their weight in society.

From another perspective, it could show that families in which parenting is a shared task, not a job just for women, is beneficial to society and should be encouraged.

Yet another way could be that women who work outside the home have more extra-martial affairs as their jobs bring them into contact with more men, and these affairs lead to higher birth rates.

From yet another perspective, it could be read from these numbers (not entirely convincingly) that birth rates would improve dramatically if it were men who stayed home to play the nurturing role. This could be due to the decrease in the proportion of paid jobs requiring physical strength, which has opened up career opportunities to women. having the opportunity to develop their talents has shown that men are better at caring for children than women. Or that women would be happier to have more children if they didn't have to take care of them.

Personally, I prefer the shared-parenting interpretation.

hpjknight said...

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