Fertility has been a hot topic in 2004. From the Federal Treasurer Peter Costello advising women to have a child for the nation; to the high-profile Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull using his maiden speech to promote marriage as a means of increasing fertility; to recent ABS figures showing a 3% increase in the number of babies born last financial year; Australians have spent considerable time and effort attempting to understand and control our demographic destiny.
There is no doubt that sustained low fertility is a problem for Australia. Despite 2004's increase in the number of children born, the nation’s fertility rate is stable at 1.75, a figure far below that necessary to replace ourselves. Indeed, experts suspect the levelling out of the rate is a statistical blip caused by the entrance of the last mega-generation - the kids of the Boomers - into their prime childbearing years. “All my friends from school had a baby this year”, says demographer Ann Evans from the ANU’s Centre for Social Research. ”But just because this generation is having their one or two babies now, doesn’t mean that overall we will end up with more children.” This is because succeeding generations will be increasingly small, and unless the structural problems leading women to have less children later in life are reversed, downward pressure on the fertility rate will remain.
The standard reason for fretting about low birth rates is the imbalance it causes in population spread. Too many older people and not enough young, means a shortfall of taxes to pay for pensions and medical care, while inadequate numbers of children sees the closure of the schools, maternal-health centres and crèches that parents need, further contributing to fertility decline by increasing the difficulty of raising children.
But the real cause for concern about low birth rates is that they represent many women’s thwarted maternal ambitions. In Australia and other parts of the western world, women are simply finding it impossible to have either any children, or the number they want. Women with more education experience the largest gap between the number of children they want and those they have.
Is this choice? Not by a long shot. Research repeatedly shows that antiquated or biased tax regimes, unachievable definitions of what it takes to be a “good” mother, family-unfriendly workplaces and absent, reluctant or sexist men all constrain women’s freedom to choose motherhood. Without a change to such institutional constraints, says ANU demographer Professor Peter McDonald, women’s expected fertility will continue to outpace the fertility they achieve.
But despite the lack of control women exhibit over key components of their reproductive lives, they continue to bear the brunt of social anxiety and condemnation for the nation’s fertility woes. One reason is biases built into demography as a discipline. The overarching interest of demographers is in the actual number of babies born, and demographers have long believed this can only be known by studying women. Research into men, as Margaret Greene and Ann Biddlecom argue in a biting critique published in one of the discipline’s leading journals, is not thought “inherently important for understanding reproductive behaviour”. Yet because demographers don’t in fact limit themselves to counting babies, but “also attempt to explain and to predict fertility behaviour”, the absence of men from their theories continues to ensure that the full story of why babies are, and aren’t, born remains untold.
Ironically, another source of woman-blaming is the feminist movement’s assertion that women have a right to choose. This assertion is a statement of political demand, not a description of reality, as last year’s political foment over abortion clearly demonstrated. Yet, confused punters are likely to believe that if women do (rather than want) to control their bodies, then the number of children they have, or don’t have, is their choice.
Women also tend to blame themselves for all things reproductive. Studies show that women take full responsibility for being childless, and even for miscarriage, despite having done all they could to avoid these outcomes. This may be because liberal western societies teach that (competent and deserving) citizens do, and should, control all aspects of their lives, making those who don’t “victims” or “losers”. Understandably, women want to avoid these derogatory tags and so describe what might be more accurately called their reproductive fates as “choices”, despite being fully aware that all options were not available, and they were not fully free to choose amongst those that were.
This year will see a continuing need for debate about Australia’s fertility rate. If these discussions are to be productive, all charges of female selfishness need to be dropped and attention turned to rectifying the complex, structural reasons why Australian women and men are finding it increasingly difficult to both partner and to have the children they want.
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