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Making a minefield of motherhood

Why are fewer women having children? Exposure to endless panics about the dangers of parenting might have something to do with it.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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In recent months there has been considerable discussion and angst regarding Europe’s declining fertility rate.

Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, the average family size has declined from 2.4 children to around 1.7 (1). In countries such as Germany, some 30 per cent of women will remain childless (2). Social commentators believe greater female independence, individualist lifestyles and worries regarding the financial cost of parenthood are to blame.

Those changes are undoubtedly contributing factors, but alongside the alarmist panics over population decline, there appears to be little or no positive identification with childbirth and childrearing these days. Could the dire risks and predictions attached to parenting by academics, analysts and commentators also be making adults cautious about procreating?

Back in April, there were two cases in the UK that highlighted today’s negative attitudes towards motherhood and parenting. The first was the case of 63-year-old Patricia Rashbrook, who conceived after receiving infertility treatment from controversial Italian doctor, Severino Antinori. The second involved a perhaps more familiar press folk devil – a girl of 12 becoming pregnant and deciding to keep the baby.

The ‘extremities’ in age of conception is relatively unusual, and thus justifiably newsworthy. But the cases also provided an acceptable cover for some rather unacceptable views. So instead of marvelling at the wonders of reproductive technology, Antinori’s breakthroughs have only generated scorn and derision from all corners. Josephine Quintavalle of the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics argued that Ms Rashbrook was ‘being selfish…. It is extremely difficult for a child to have a mother who is as old as a grandmother would be.’ (3)

No doubt there is a degree of self-centeredness involved in having children; but the idea of motherhood being ‘selfish’ is a novel one. After all, one of the factors pushing adults away from parenting is the commitment and self-sacrifice that goes along with it. In the case of Rashbrook and her husband, some believe the couple’s advanced years means they either won’t be able to cope or will leave their child orphaned. Either way, the Rashbrooks are seen, in the words of the ironically titled Pro-Life group, as ‘irresponsible’. The irritation here is with a couple who are potentially placing burdens on others and society.

A very similar response was notable in the case of the pregnant 12-year-old in West Lothian, Scotland. One Scottish journalist argued: ‘They (the state) will be expected to pick up the pieces when the baby is born and disappears into a chaotic mess of domestic childcare arrangements supported by a raft of benefit payments.’ (4) Reading such articles, it is hard to work out who is most ill-suited for child-rearing in this case: the young girl, her ‘chain-smoking mother’, or Scotland’s welfare services. The journalist described this story as ‘the saddest thing I think I’ve written about’ (5). Presumably mass fatalities through famine and earthquakes aren’t quite as horrific as the birth of a new baby. Presented like this, is it any wonder that parenting might not be quite as attractive as another foreign holiday?

Although the rare cases of pregnant 12-year-olds and pensioner mothers will be used to amplify all kinds of ‘irresponsible parent’ fears, women in their twenties, thirties and forties are not exempt from motherhood panics either. If women have children in their twenties they are said to risk falling off the career ladder and having to bring up their children in poverty (as well as being considered ‘too young’ to raise children). If women have children in their thirties and forties there are numerous reports and articles to tell them they are putting their own lives at greater risk and are more likely to give birth to a child with Down’s syndrome (6).

Whichever way it’s discussed, it almost seems sensible and advisable for women not to give birth at all. It is telling that in Britain investment in IVF treatment is not a priority for the NHS, as some of my friends have found out. And it says something about contemporary attitudes that legislation on ‘the right to die’ seems to be greeted with more enthusiasm in commentary circles than parenting stories are.

In a Guardian/ICM poll on attitudes to giving birth, it seems that most respondents wanted to ‘get rich and have fun rather than start a family’ (7). While these attitudes are probably a contributing factor to declining birth rates, what hasn’t been established is why child-rearing has lost its appeal in recent years. It is worth remembering that until recently, parenting established individuals as adults to be taken seriously. The problem today is that nobody in authority takes adults very seriously – particularly on the very issue of how to raise their children.

It is often automatically assumed that parents will make a bad job of socialising their children, thus leading to future generations of delinquents with ‘low self-esteem’ issues. Previously, such ideas were targeted at the poorest sections in society; now they are applied to any aspiring parent, regardless of social background. The upshot here is that some individuals have internalised notions that they’re naturally unfit parents. In a recent set of interviews in the Guardian, some respondents admitted that for years they considered themselves ‘incapable’ of raising a family. Perhaps what some commentators found so appalling about both the Rashbrooks and the pre-teen mum case is their refusal to stick to today’s self-doubting and self-loathing script.

At no other time in history has parenting been held in such low regard. In fact, it’s hard to find any positive discussions surrounding parenthood. Although there are practical concerns regarding Europe’s declining fertility rate, there are bigger concerns that useless people will only raise gormless children. As humans are constantly re-cast as a troublesome burden to society, the state and environment, it only makes sense to argue for having fewer children, not more. To do otherwise, it seems, is just plain irresponsible.

(1) Guardian, 3 May 2006

(2) Guardian, 27 January 2006

(3) Guardian, 3 May 2006

(4) Evening News (Scotland), 18 May 2006

(5) Evening News (Scotland), 18 May 2006

(6) Guardian, 4 May 2006

(7) Guardian, 2 May 2006

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Topics Politics

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