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
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.”
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?
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.