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To baby or not to baby?

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Tuesday, 14 February 2006

Last year the issues of work, life and the balance were investigated and debated across government, business and media. However, the lack of male voices in those discussions means that there is still more to be said. The challenges of balancing life in our complex society won’t go away and in 2006 men need to have their say.

Becoming a dad is an important decision in any man’s life. It is a major event that helps shape and mould the rest of their lives. Yet, while there is no shortage of debate surrounding the issues of fertility, men are eerily quiet. The fertility rate of men is decreasing just as rapidly as women. In 2000, men’s fertility rates had dropped to 1.67 children per male. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the average age of first time fathers is over 33 years of age.

Having children later in life is not a decision being made by women alone. As Leslie Cannold pointed out in her book What, No Baby? men must take some responsibility for the declining number of Australian babies. “It is surely unarguable that men's desire and decisions have a significant impact on whether women who want to have children actually wind up being mothers,” she says.


A recent paper, I Think We Should Only Have Two: Men and Fertility Decision-making, by Dr Andrew Singleton highlights that men are involved in the decisions about whether or not to have children and how many to have. Just like a majority of women, his research agrees with work on fertility-decision making from the Australian Institute of Family Studies that shows a majority of men want to have children. And, that they spend time thinking about the issues associated with raising kids.

Just because men don’t have the same biological time constraints as women, doesn’t mean their delaying of parenthood should be taken any less seriously. Does our society really want the average age of first-time dads to be pushing 40? Older parents bring a valuable set of skills and experiences to parenting, but the men in Dr Singleton’s research indicated that “lifestyle” and “the physical toll associated with caring for children” were factors when considering having another child.

Men must contribute to the debate by speaking up about such concerns. They don’t want dependant children as they head into retirement. Men are well aware of the physical demands of the fathering role and wish to be able to do that job well. One of Dr Singleton’s subjects said, “I felt there was a need to be not necessarily old so I could go running with them and go cycling with them, just enjoy life with them and not be the old person sitting on the sidelines”.

The lack of men’s involvement in caring and domestic activities contributes to the public perception that they shouldn’t speak up about having babies because it is an issue for women only. It isn’t.

In February last year Pru Goward noted, “If our gender roles fail to catch up with the modern reality of paid work and family pressures, we will continue to see our fertility rate falling and men unable to be primary caregivers, particularly after divorce”.

Greater involvement and advocacy by men on the issue of having children, raising children and being involved in the muck and rigour of domestic life is crucial.


Too often the work-life balance debate is seen as a feminist issue about women’s access to work and childcare. It is much more than this. This year Australian men must start getting involved in the broader debates about having children, family and work.

Understanding men’s perspectives on these issues is integral to the public debate about the fertility-rate and family issues. Men must start taking the opportunities to share their experiences and help shape the agenda if we are going to achieve progressive social change that is meaningful to men, women and their kids.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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