Preg­nant pause: why more peo­ple are choos­ing not to have chil­dren

The num­ber of child­less Euro­pean lead­ers is re­flec­tive of a wider so­ci­ety where fer­til­ity rates have fallen dra­mat­i­cally

The Irish Times - - Parenting Children - Larissa Nolan ‘‘ Par­ent­ing is not so des­per­ately at­trac­tive when there are other ways to get ful­fil­ment

Theresa May (Bri­tish prime min­is­ter), Em­manuel Macron (pres­i­dent of France) and An­gela Merkel (chan­cel­lor of Ger­many). World lead­ers, and child-free. Add in our own Leo Varad­kar, Scot­land’s Ni­cola Stur­geon and the Nether­lands’ Mark Rutte and the link is an EU lead­er­ship pow­ered by heads of gov­ern­ments that are not par­ents.

It’s a sce­nario that would have been un­think­able just a gen­er­a­tion ago. And it re­mains aber­rant in North Amer­ica (Don­ald Trump has five chil­dren, as has En­rique Peña Ni­eto, with Justin Trudeau hav­ing three). So how has this era of child­less lead­ers in Europe emerged and what does it say about our so­ci­ety? And what does it mean for women and men go­ing into pol­i­tics, and for the elec­torate?

It is a pat­tern law lec­turer at Maynooth Univer­sity Seth Bar­rett Till­man noted re­cently, when she wrote: “Have you no­ticed the num­ber of western lead­ers with no chil­dren? Odd.”

Till­man be­lieves politi­cians are re­flec­tive of a wider so­ci­ety that is sim­ply not re­pro­duc­ing. Re­ports re­veal a loom­ing fer­til­ity cri­sis across Europe, as birth rates fall below re­place­ment rates. Ire­land has the sec­ond high­est birth rate in the EU, with 1.92 live births per woman, com­pared with the EU av­er­age of 1.58 – but a rate of 2.1 is needed to main­tain pop­u­la­tion size.

“It’s an im­por­tant is­sue,” says Till­man. “It may very well be the defin­ing is­sue of our time. The de­mo­graphic im­plo­sion of the western world: peo­ple just aren’t hav­ing kids. The whole sys­tem was built on the pre­sump­tion there would be a pyra­mid in terms of work­ers, with fewer go­ing into re­tire­ment than com­ing into the work­ing world, so state pay­ments can be sup­ported by an ever-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. That pre­sump­tion has been proved wrong.

“Politi­cians are re­flect­ing a so­ci­etal shift towards not hav­ing chil­dren, or wait­ing too late in life to do it. The idea of hav­ing two chil­dren – and just be­ing at re­place­ment level – let alone three or four chil­dren, is lost. Not hav­ing chil­dren is part of a larger trend of de­lay­ing mar­riage, de­lay­ing chil­dren, not hav­ing chil­dren at all, or putting it off un­til you’re in­fer­tile. It’s not where western so­ci­ety was even a short time ago.

“One of the in­ter­est­ing things about Trump is he has lots of kids. That didn’t hurt him at all with the sort of peo­ple who live in the key states he was try­ing to win.”

Praised Trump

Dur­ing the elec­tion de­bates, even Hillary Clin­ton praised Trump for rais­ing good kids, say­ing: “I re­spect his chil­dren . . . that says a lot about Don­ald.” Laura Per­rins, co-ed­i­tor of po­lit­i­cal web­site the Con­ser­va­tive Woman, says it can be a con­tro­ver­sial topic, re­call­ing how the New States­man cover show­ing fe­male UK lead­ers look­ing into a cot con­tain­ing a bal­lot box “went down like a bucket of sick”.

Dur­ing the Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship con­test, Theresa May’s ri­val An­drea Lead­som stepped down shortly af­ter sug­gest­ing that as a mother, she had more of a stake in the fu­ture than May, who is not. Sim­i­larly, there was out­rage here when Sinn Féin leader Mary-Lou McDon­ald told the Taoiseach she was able to un­der­stand fam­i­lies strug­gling with child­care costs, as she was rais­ing two chil­dren her­self. Per­rins points out it’s an is­sue that af­fects both sexes. “The in­ter­est­ing thing is it’s not just stereo­typ­i­cal uber-ca­reer women, it also in­cludes men. They are a re­flec­tion of their cul­ture. Some would go as far as to say Europe is dy­ing: all of the Euro coun­tries have a neg­a­tive fer­til­ity rate. There is an el­e­ment of self-se­lec­tion about it.”

Some crit­ics say po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who have not raised chil­dren can­not have a proper un­der­stand­ing of free will, which par­ents are con­fronted with daily. They be­lieve those with­out this ex­pe­ri­ence are sus­cep­ti­ble to the idea that hu­mans are blank slates. Oth­ers pon­der whether the child­less can have a true in­vest­ment in the fu­ture. Per­rins says not hav­ing chil­dren is un­likely to af­fect pol­icy de­ci­sions. “To politi­cians, cul­ture is far more im­por­tant than pol­i­tics. They will do what the loud mi­nor­ity, or the over­all ma­jor­ity say. Pro-fam­ily poli­cies will still mat­ter be­cause there are ob­vi­ously a lot of fam­i­lies, but if there was a big tip­ping point where child­less­ness ri­valled those with chil­dren, then you would see the poli­cies shift – but only be­cause there are votes in it.

“If you don’t have chil­dren, you have a lot more time to de­vote to be­ing a politi­cian. It’s an ag­gres­sive, cut-throat, com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment. There is al­ways a price to be paid when it comes to any pro­fes­sion that de­mands huge amounts of time and en­ergy, and it’s not help­ful to pre­tend oth­er­wise.”

Aca­demic stud­ies show women lose out in pol­i­tics, whether they be moth­ers or child-free. Fam­ily obli­ga­tions con­strain the po­lit­i­cal ca­reers of moth­ers, but not fa­thers. Vot­ers rate child­less fe­male can­di­dates sub­stan­tially lower than child­less male ones, or par­ents. This judg­ing of women was ev­i­dent in the 1990 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, when then Fianna Fáil min­is­ter Pádraig Flynn sneered at Mary Robin­son for hav­ing a new­found in­ter­est in her fam­ily.” Fe­male vot­ers re­sponded by putting her into Áras an Uachtaráin.

But why are so many of us choos­ing not to have chil­dren?

Chang­ing per­cep­tions

Psy­chother­a­pist Stella O’Mal­ley says it is about chang­ing per­cep­tions of life hap­pi­ness. “The very suc­cess­ful are view­ing par­ent­ing as one choice of a multi-choiced life, so they might want to travel, have a great ca­reer and then want chil­dren. They time it, or put it off, and some might get hit by in­fer­til­ity as a re­sult.

“In pre­vi­ous times, you didn’t have such choices. And it’s a choice a lot of suc­cess­ful peo­ple might not take. Par­ent­ing is not so des­per­ately at­trac­tive when there are other ways to get ful­fil­ment. And that’s valid.”

Po­lit­i­cal ad­viser and PR spe­cial­ist Terry Prone be­lieves women still sac­ri­fice more than men for suc­cess­ful ca­reers in pol­i­tics, point­ing to re­search that shows child-free women cor­po­rately out­per­form those with fam­i­lies. Prone says it’s not al­ways a life­style choice. “One of the most suc­cess­ful women I know is child-free and dev­as­tated by that sta­tus. She and her part­ner have spent a for­tune on fer­til­ity treat­ments. She has had her choice made for her, and her com­pany is the ul­ti­mate ben­e­fi­ciary.”

Our shift towards less con­ven­tional lead­ers means we have be­come more open­minded about politi­cians, and so we have more of them with­out chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to so­ci­ol­o­gist and au­thor Tom Inglis. “The pub­lic’s con­cept of a good a leader has moved away from the stereo­typ­i­cal male fam­ily man to in­clude an ar­ray peo­ple out­side of this tra­di­tional norm,” he ex­plains.

The New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern bucked the trend ear­lier this sum­mer when she gave birth to a baby girl while in of­fice. Ruth David­son, leader of the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tive Party, re­cently an­nounced she is ex­pect­ing a baby with her Ir­ish part­ner Jen Wil­son in Oc­to­ber.

Maybe fu­ture politi­cians could take a leaf out of Mar­garet Thatcher’s book, the leader ac­knowl­edged as the first to bring par­ent­ing into pol­i­tics. She changed the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship ter­rain by us­ing the fam­ily to por­tray a cer­tain im­age.

Back in 1960, Thatcher was ca­pa­ble and con­fi­dent enough to do her first tele­vi­sion in­ter­view with her six-year-old twins on the arms of her chair. She also knew about balance and tim­ing, es­sen­tial skills when juggling a high-pow­ered ca­reer with kids. She had a strict rule: week­ends are for fam­ily, and when asked about her am­bi­tions early on in her ca­reer said prag­mat­i­cally: “It will have to wait un­til these two are older. I couldn’t take on any more po­lit­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

But when the time was right, she changed his­tory by be­com­ing the first fe­male prime min­is­ter in Bri­tain – as well as the most di­vi­sive one.

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