March 4, 2007
The Motherhood Experiment
By SHARON LERNER
To the dismay of pundits and politicians alike, women in industrialized countries and elsewhere have been bearing fewer and fewer children. More than 90 states have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, and the trend, which began in the early 1960s, is already leading to fewer workers, graying populations and dire predictions about vanishing peoples. While scholars blame several phenomena, including greater access to birth control, later marriage and a drop in what one researcher calls “hopefulness about the future,” many researchers agree that at least part of the problem is due to the particular burdens women face in the work force. If becoming a mother requires a woman to take a huge financial and professional hit, the thinking goes, she will be far less likely do it.
Could it be, then, that easing a woman’s ability to hold a job and raise children simultaneously will nudge her toward having a bigger family? At least 45 countries in Europe and Asia are betting on it, having instituted government programs to maintain or raise their fertility rates. Contrary to the rhetoric of many family-values champions, their example suggests that the promotion of larger families and the promotion of women’s careers may go hand in hand.
In the European Union, all countries require employers to grant parity in pay and benefits to part-time workers — allowing women more flexibility in their work lives. In Scandinavia, extensive public child-care systems offer a slot to virtually every child under 5 whose parents work. Do such programs have an effect? Some experts have linked changes in Sweden’s birthrate to paid-maternity-leave policies. And according to Ronald Rindfuss, a sociologist, Norwegian women who live in towns with more day-care slots available have more children and become mothers earlier. The timing of births is important, because lower fertility rates may owe something to the fact that many women inadvertently delay becoming pregnant until it’s no longer biologically possible. (One survey showed that Western Europeans, on average, said they wanted two children, even though in reality the regional birthrate was only 1.4.)
Accommodating working mothers isn’t a new idea, of course. Sweden has offered paid maternity leave since before World War II. And there’s also a long history of using public policy for natalist purposes — some of it morally repugnant. Mussolini’s government instituted a special tax on bachelors. In the 1980s, Singapore introduced a series of measures to encourage its better-educated citizens to start families, while at the same time discouraging poor and less-educated women from doing the same.
Curiously, Europe’s lowest birthrates are seen in countries, mostly Catholic, where the old idea that the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the child-raiser holds strong. Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece have among the lowest fertility rates in Western Europe. Meanwhile, countries that support high numbers of working women, like Finland, Norway and Denmark, have among the highest birthrates. How did what’s been called “the fertility paradox” come about?
One explanation is that the more traditional countries face particular challenges when their women do start to work. In these countries, the welfare of the family is still typically seen as the responsibility of individuals rather than of the government, according to Peter McDonald and Francis Castles, who are demographic theorists. And with little public support for working mothers forthcoming, women are likely to think they must choose work or motherhood. At least for now, it seems, many are choosing neither. Statistics show that women in these countries are both less likely to work and less likely to bear children than their counterparts in, say, Scandinavia.
Looking at America’s fertility rate, which now hovers around replacement level, you could assume that the U.S. has escaped such problems. But in fact, it’s the relatively large families of new immigrants that are staving off a population crisis — and masking the difficulties women face when they try to “have it all.” With a largely hands-off approach to family policy, the U.S. spends far less than other wealthy countries on child care while guaranteeing no paid parental leave. As a result, being an employed parent may be more difficult here than in countries now experiencing even the most severe baby droughts.
Sharon Lerner is writing a book about the struggle to balance work and family in the United States.