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So You Want Me to Breed?

Fertility crisis fretting misses how lots of women really think.

By Vanessa Richmond 29 May 2007 |

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor on The Tyee. You can find her previous stories here.

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No simple equation.

Contradictory messages about women's fertility are breeding like rabbits this week. In largely-Catholic Brazil, the government is subsidizing birth control pills so poor women can afford the contraceptive, despite a recent visit by Pope Benedict XVI, who mainly used his time to condemn abortion, contraception and sex outside marriage. In China, officials are rounding up rural, pregnant women and conducting forced abortions to enforce the mandatory one child policy.

In Canada, on the other hand, I'm the problem. Thirty-something. Childless. And a threat to Canada's future economic well being. The nation's fertility rate has plummeted to 1.53 children per woman, and Maclean's has published the latest cry of alarm: "Hey Lady! What will it take to make you breed? Your government needs to know."

The culprits, according to the article, are female education and fiscal autonomy, secularization, birth control, Sex and the City, a heightened desire for personal freedom and the angst that comes of bringing a child into a dangerous world. "In a hyper-individualistic, ultra-commodified culture like ours, motherhood, for better and worse, is less a fact of life than just another lifestyle choice."

You don't have to read much between the lines to discern the big class bias behind all of this hand wringing. Stats actually show that young, unmarried, uneducated, non-professional women are doing just fine in the baby department. The elitist worry seems to be that the "right" kind of woman is forgoing kids. Read: middle class and up.

Baby economics?

The Maclean's story goes on to crunch the economic equation such women face -- and believe me, I've done the numbers myself.

The cost of a kid ranges from $260,000 to $1.6 million depending on whom you talk to. Women lose income when they have a child, unlike men, the "motherhood penalty," of about 20 per cent per year. Kids are the "new glass ceiling," only 74 per cent of women who leave the work force are able to return, and only 40 per cent of those return to full time, professional jobs. Mothers are 44 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers with the same resume, experiences and qualifications. So not surprisingly, while the majority of male senior execs have kids, the majority of female execs don't. In short, women bear the costs -- financial and career -- of having children. "These days, it's not just a matter of a woman wanting children, it's a matter wanting them at the expense of everything else she's worked for."

What solutions flow from this analysis? Cash incentives don't work to address the problem, (paging Mr. Harper) but the French experiment does. Among many other benefits, the government provides an extensive, free child care system where parents can leave children on a moment's notice, a calibrated income-tax rate for families, and a tax deduction for in-home child care help. The fertility rate has soared to 2.0 from 1.8 in just two years. And some feminists say the real victory is that women no longer shoulder alone the social burden of reproduction.

Fine, let's say we wave a magic wand and make all that happen in Canada. The financial and career barriers have disappeared like a stinky diaper in one of those diaper genie things. There's stimulating, free daycare. I can keep working part time and spend time with my pretend child. I can keep climbing the career ladder, rung per rung, with my child-free sisters....

All well and good. But next time my friends and I get together to discuss the baby question, I'd invite the editors of Maclean's, and any wonk they'd like to bring along, to join us. They would hear a conversation very different from the one reflected in their input-output, incentives-driven analysis.

They would hear women struggling to reconcile head and heart.

Real conversation

When my other child-free but child-keen friends get together we don't talk about having kids to stimulate the economy, provide skilled workers and pay for boomers to have hip replacement surgery. We don't consider it our duty to solve the "crisis" caused by boomers retiring without enough young people to pay for their medicare. We don't lie awake at night fretting over the looming labour shortage, even if Canada does wind up, as projected, 1.2 million workers short by 2020.

We don't imagine it our purpose in life to produce labourers, consumers and taxpayers.

What we talk about a lot is whether it is morally right to have a child, given what we know about the state of planet.

My friends and I talk about how people like us in developed countries are vacuuming up the world's resources. We belong to the 10 per cent of the world population who consume 90 per cent of the Earth's resources. We talk about global overpopulation. We talk about children in other countries who don't have enough to eat or access to medicine.

Kind friends have soothed some of those concerns. Some have offered, brightly, that we might find real solutions to looming environmental apocalypse quicker than we think. Others have told me I should feel entitled to do what makes me happy. Hey, you're only here once! And some have provided this reassurance: if I create and raise a happy, healthy person with a small footprint who respects others then that's a kind of service to the planet.

Thanks, everyone. So far, though, your lullaby is still not quite strong enough to convince me.

What I would need to breed are reasons based on ethics not economics. That's how I've approached other personal decisions like which career to pursue, or even what clothing to wear.

So I invite you to weigh in with a comment here. Tell me your best ethical reasons for having a child. Or for remaining childless. I'm paying very close attention, and so are my friends. We are listening with our heads, and our hearts.

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