Making Moms: Can We Feed The Need To Breed?

Lianne George, Macleans (Toronto), May 28, 2007

They’re fit. And rich. Mary Hart would say they positively glow. They’re never strained for time or help, and their kids look like they’re out of a Polo ad. They are celebrity moms—Gwen, Reese, Gwyneth, Katie—and they’re the reason $12 California Baby massage oils, $95 “Mummy and Me” reflexology treatments, and $1,200 Bugaboo strollers have come to seem not wholly unreasonable for a family of average means.

Despite the obvious fact that the actual work of mothering is no less gruelling than it ever was, the popular concept of motherhood has never been more rarefied. Celebrity tabloids that make motherhood look as breezy as Jennifer Garner taking her little daughter Violet down a park slide have helped spawn a multi-million-dollar industry of high-priced Blissful Mommy props: organic baby foods, boutique onesies, designer furniture and pink, camouflage diaper bags. To look at it all, one might think procreation itself was a fad, newly invented by Hollywood. Pregnancy has been fetishized to the point where right now, designers high and low are modelling their fashions after maternity wear—with empire waists and fabrics that billow to make a woman with even the tautest abs look about five months along.

How strange, then, that just as the mommy industry is booming, we’re in the grips of a baby bust. Canada’s fertility rate has been in a free fall for decades. In recent years, though, it has hovered at an all-time low of roughly 1.5 children per woman (we need 2.1 if we’re going to replace ourselves). Social analysts pin it on some jumble of female education and fiscal autonomy, secularization, birth control, Sex and the City, a heightened desire for personal freedom, and increasing uncertainty about bringing a child into a world plagued by terrorism, global warming and Lindsay Lohan. 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.

All over the developed world, the same pattern is apparent. Russia, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Italy and dozens of other countries are contending with fertility rates well below replacement levels. Forty per cent of female university graduates in Germany are childless. In Japan, where the birth rate has sunk to a record low of 1.26, family planning groups are blaming the Internet, charging that fertile men and women are spending too much time online, and not enough having sex.

In Canada, economists and demographers are already noting dysytopian, Children Of Men-tinged scenarios. Across the country, women on average aren’t having their first child until the age of 31. Elementary schools and daycare facilities, without enough kids to fill the nap mats, are closing for business. Ontario’s Ministry of Education predicts that, by 2010, total elementary and secondary school enrolment will drop by nearly 100,000 students from 2002 numbers. In New Brunswick, the province’s death rate has overtaken its birth rate. And the economic implications of a disappearing population are substantial: analysts are estimating a shortage of 1.2 million workers by 2020. “For every two people about to retire in the coming decades,” says Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, “there will be less than one person to take their place, which will put significant strain on the health care system.” Alberta, B.C. and the Maritimes are already feeling the crunch. “Demographers have known for ages this is coming,” she says. “An issue like this takes decades to solve and we’ve really pushed the envelope on starting to deal with it.”

In a quest to hold on to older workers, the Canadian government expunged the mandatory retirement age in December. But this move alone will not avert a labour crisis. Who, after all, wants to work a full-time job much past the age of 65? (Currently, only about six per cent of Canadians do so.) In any case, says David Ellwood, a professor of political economy and dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, “it’s not traditionally a group you think of as a highly flexible labour force of the 21st century that will be able to compete in a high-skill environment.”

Nor will immigration be the solution. At the moment, Statistics Canada reports that Canada’s average of 240,000 new Canadian immigrants per year more than compensates for our dismal fertility rate. However, those studying long-range trends say this is nowhere near enough, particularly as global competition for skilled labour becomes more aggressive in the coming decades. “The numbers that we’re talking about are phenomenal,” says Duxbury. “Half a million to two-thirds of a million per year. I wonder, where are we going to get those immigrants from? Because most of the industrialized world is going through this same set of problems we are.”

Faced with this odd conundrum—a supply-and-demand crisis in which the suppliers (women) theoretically have the capacity to meet demand (for babies) but are opting not to—economists and demographers are left scratching their heads. By now, just about every country in the developed world has implemented some policy or monetary incentives, ranging from baby bonuses to tax breaks. Still, the numbers fall. Short of establishing a Handmaid’s Tale regime, they’re wondering, what will it take to make women have babies? (And they’re not talking just one.)

The short and not very pretty answer is, money’s a start. Babies are expensive, after all. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2006 report on family expenditures on children estimated that, to raise a child born in 2006 to the age of 17, an average middle-class family would spend US$260,700 on housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care and education. Factoring in such modern-kid paraphernalia as iPods, computer equipment, PlayStation 3, cellphones, summer camp, braces, birthday parties, Bratz dolls and bicycles, the Wall Street Journal pushed that number to anywhere between US$800,000 to US$1.6 million. That’s not even including post-secondary tuition, which many parents feel obliged to pay, a by-product of living in a credentials-obsessed culture. Not all of these extras are essential, of course, but increasingly, parents—working long hours, plagued with guilt and grown-up peer pressure—have come to think of them that way.

Exacerbating the financial hit for women is the fact that they, unlike men, lose income when they have a child—a phenomenon Ellwood calls the “motherhood penalty.” In a study he co-authored, Ellwood tracked women’s income over time, beginning in 1979, and determined that the salaries of university-educated women plateau after childbirth, resulting in a loss of 15 to 20 per cent in income during the subsequent 10 years. Men’s wages, on the other hand, don’t appear to be affected. “Why are the most educated women postponing children the most?” says Ellwood. “The answer is, it’s not because they can’t afford child care. They’re in a better position to afford it than most people. I think a lot of it is more fundamental than that, which has to do with what having children does to their own economic futures and opportunities.”

Disparities at work are no longer a male-female issue. These days, they are most explicitly expressed between the women who have children, and those who don’t. Kids are the new glass ceiling. According to U.S. economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, only 74 per cent of “off-ramped” women seeking to rejoin the workforce are able to, and only 40 per cent of those return to full-time, professional jobs. A Cornell University study found that mothers are 44 per cent less likely to be hired than non-mothers with the same resumé, experience and qualifications. “It’s no accident that the majority of male senior executives have kids and the majority of female senior executives don’t,” says Ellen Bravo, a renowned American feminist and author of the newly published Taking on the Big Boys. “It’s a requirement for the job.”

But it’s not only women’s lost income that policy wonks are going to have to consider. It’s also that, although child-rearing is a multi-pronged job which, if done properly, benefits the family, the nation, and everyone in between, the bulk of the responsibility for undertaking the whole thing still sits squarely on a mother’s shoulders. Even as we bemoan our plummeting birth rate, and the grim economic future it may bring, everything about the way we’ve organized our culture is designed to force women to choose between work and kids—and to penalize them if they choose kids. And so, these days, it’s not just a matter of a woman wanting children; it’s a matter of wanting them at the expense of everything else she’s worked for.

To date, women have tried to cope with this impossible framework by establishing a concurrent model of work and family. Everything at once. But younger women—who witnessed their own supermoms getting the shoulder pads kicked out of them in the ‘80s and ‘90s—are choosing a more manageable sequential model. They’re focusing in their 20s on career and deferring even the thought of family and kids until well into their 30s. At this point, the thinking goes, they’ll have enough cash and job-related goodwill socked away to “opt out” of work for a few years to raise the child.

The reality, however, is that a professional, highly educated woman is less likely to take that route once she hits her 30s, for a whole host of reasons. By then, she has invested years of her life in attaining a certain level of education and career success. She may or may not be married. She has established a standard of living, and is less willing to take the career and financial hit involved in having a kid. “So many women in their 30s, they like their lives,” says Duxbury, who specializes in work-life balance issues and co-authored a study last year to examine the major factors that influence professional women’s decision to have (or not have) children. Many don’t see themselves as childless, but child-free. “They’re accustomed to control and motherhood is not associated with control.”

Then, of course, there are the physiological factors. By the time a thirtysomething woman feels the stars have aligned—that her career is secure enough, that she’s in the relationship she wants and in a house she likes, and has enough money in the bank—her body may have other ideas. It’s another cruel modern irony: every year, as more women choose not to have children, other women, desperate to conceive, spend millions of dollars on reproductive technologies that offer no guarantees.

The decision to have kids or not is further complicated by a dizzying climate of ideological warfare: an entire library of volumes has been published in recent years, dedicated to the seemingly unanswerable question of how a righteous modern woman lives her life. (Have it all. Give it up. Hire help. Take more than you need. Or less. Run a company and master crewel work. Stop complaining. Blame your mother.) Is it so surprising, then, that given such a pinched range of options, so many millions of women would choose to sidestep the entire ordeal?

None of this changes the big-picture fact that demography is destiny. At least it doesn’t for demographers. In Vienna, researchers at the International Instutite for Applied Systems Analysis have developed a disquieting hypothesis called the “low fertility trap,” which suggests that the causes of low fertility are self-perpetuating. They foresee the potential for the baby bust to spiral out of control for three reasons: first, negative population growth means there will be fewer women of child-bearing age in the future to produce more children. Second, young people have been socialized to believe that the ideal family size is a small one, which means fewer couples will have more than one child. Finally, the aging population will place tremendous financial strain on younger cohorts—who have been raised with higher material aspirations to begin with—which will translate into fewer children, or none at all.

“In the next 20 years,” says Harvard’s Ellwood, “there will be no net new native-born workers in the so-called prime age of 24 to 55 in the United States. The only new workers will come from two places: older workers and immigrants. And most immigrants in nations like the U.S. have been low-skill. Canada has had more higher-skill immigrants.” The issue is made more difficult by the fact that, among Americans in particular, there is wide-ranging discomfort with a liberal immigration policy right now. “[Immigrants] are in a world where there’s concerns about terrorism, and worries about jobs being sent abroad. So it’s a real challenge.”

Here is where we bump up against the dark underbelly of the demography discussion: the fact that it’s not so much about urging women to have babies as it is about urging the right women to have them—and to preserve Western civilization in the process. As it happens, the group whose fertility rates are declining the fastest are those with the greatest social and financial prospects. That is, Western (well-assimilated, if not white) professionals with university degrees. “What’s interesting about fertility and child-bearing patterns,” says Ellwood, “is that high-skill women tend to have babies later and they’re usually always married when they have them so there are two adults to support the child. Low-skill women tend to have children very early and they’re generally unmarried so they tend to have one adult who doesn’t earn very much money to support the child. Neither of these patterns is very good for society.”

It’s this type of economic reasoning, paired with an underlying xenophobic angst, that is spurring pro-fertility policy initiatives in developed nations around the world. In Poland, where the population has fallen by half a million since 2000, the government has begun offering up a modest sum of 1,000 zlotys (roughly $400) for each child a woman produces. In Italy, officials are offering a reward of $1,500 for each second child—and even toying with the possibility of paying women not to go ahead with abortions.

Amazingly, the evidence suggests that the most successful policies have one thing in common: they don’t try to pay women to procreate. Rather, they facilitate the careers of working mothers. They are premised on the idea that, the more value a society places on women’s work inside and outside of the home, the more likely she is to want to contribute meaningfully in both spheres. In other words, take some of the load off of her shoulders and spread it around so that children become everybody’s responsibility. Who would have thought that the most economically sound solution to a fertility crisis would be rooted in good old-fashioned feminism?

The most promising recent case study is that of France, where the government has successfully sparked a baby boom by implementing a series of extraordinarily generous benefits and incentives for parents. There is a calibrated income-tax rate for families whereby the more children a couple has, the more money they keep in their pockets. The state offers a monthly allowance of roughly $400, which is bumped up when the child reaches the age of 11. Parents are entitled to a tax deduction for in-home child care help (which Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who stepped down this week, recently announced will be doubled). There is an extensive state-run crèche system, where parents can leave their toddlers at a moment’s notice, for free. Families with three or more kids are deemed “famille nombreuses” and are eligible for zero income tax, heavily subsidized rent and transportation, and state-funded parental leaves that can extend for years. They also get free access to many public amenities, and about $325 per year toward extracurricular arts and athletics programs for the kids.

In only two years, France’s fertility rate has climbed from 1.8 to 2.0, and only a quarter of its overall population growth last year was attributed to immigration. It’s not a matter of finding ways to get women to stay home, either. Quite the opposite. In France, almost 80 per cent of women work. “What you’re really promoting is women’s ability to stay attached to the workplace,” says Bravo, “and the more you do that, and the more you let people have whole lives, the more they’ll be able to care for their families and advance in their professions. We know that the countries that have the worst work-life policies are the ones that also have falling fertility rates.” So far, France’s success in this area doesn’t appear to have come at the expense of other things. According to a new study by the Institute for German Economics (IW), France is now on track to become Europe’s most powerful economy by 2035, supplanting Germany as the titleholder.

In light of France’s success, many countries, including Canada, are looking to emulate its model. Last January, the federal ministerial advisory committee on the child care spaces initiative, commissioned by former human resources minister Diane Finley, issued a 10-point list of recommendations. Among other things, it determined that Employment Insurance benefits should be extended from 50 weeks to 18 months, and later to 21⁄2 years to encourage parents to stay home longer to bond with the baby. That would also reduce demand for limited child care spaces. Employers should have government incentives to top up EI benefits so women don’t feel financially pressed to return to work. It also suggested an increase in child care expense deductions and flexible work arrangements. And parental leave should be given to both mothers and fathers, not either-or. Even grandparents should get a 60-day leave.

As of yet, these are just ideas. “The budget that the government put forward attempts to address the issues indirectly,” says the committee’s chair, Gordon Chong, “but our recommendations have not been taken up at all. I think it’s primarily because of financial constraints.” Moreover, the budget follows the current government’s principle of giving funds directly to families. Observers like Bravo would argue that throwing cash at the problem is an abnegation of real action, preserving the fallacies that women have substantial choice and are the architects of their destinies, and that Canadian families don’t need—nor should they want—any outside help.

In this sense, applying the French model in North America is not so simple. The issue here is not just about economic incentives, or costs and benefits. It’s about attitudes. In an immediate sense, North Americans—even Canadians—are generally less inclined to be strapped with other people’s problems. “I think the countries that are doing reasonably well in Europe have an attitude that it takes a community to raise a child,” says Duxbury. “The European model is, ‘We have to make it possible for those people who can afford to have and raise kids to have them.’ Our model in North America is, ‘Well, you decided to have a child. That was your personal decision, so don’t expect us to help you.’ ”

The great hypocrisy of this model is that we extol family values and the role of the at-home mom, says Bravo, and yet we make it virtually impossible for women who aren’t independently wealthy to stay home. We expect middle- and lower-class women to work and, when it comes to parental responsibilities, we expect them to figure it out on their own dime. Then we label it a choice, so we can say, ‘If she had only chosen differently, she’d have more money, and more time with her kids.’

The choice, then, is a non-choice. We speak of opting out, but in fact, most women are forced out by impossible work-life expectations. Only the elite truly “opt” out. The personal fulfillment or “choice” model, Duxbury says, is a fancy way of deflecting the onus onto women. “Employers always say no one made you have a kid,” she says. “They say, ‘We’ve got operational responsibilites. If you can’t be here for us, don’t expect us to treat you the same. Don’t expect to have work-life balance and be promoted and be a star.’ Women have taken that to heart and they haven’t had kids.”

The one exception is Quebec, easily the most progressive province in Canada in establishing work-life balance support for families. After a slow climb since 2001, the province’s birth rate spiked last year, with 82,500 babies born in 2006, an increase of 10,000 births over 2002. This is an important development, as the province has been actively trying to boost its native population since the late ‘80s, when its birth rate dropped from among the highest in the world to among the lowest. In 1988, the government introduced pro-natalism policies—including a payout of $500 for a first child—but by 1997, the birth rate hadn’t budged.

Many see last year’s population mini-boom as the result of new, more progressive policies put in place by the former Parti Québécois and then Liberal governments. First, there’s the famous $7-a-day child care program. Then, in January 2005, the Liberals instituted a non-taxable monthly child benefit for families (a sliding scale starting at $2,100 per year for one child and increasing with each subsequent child to a maximum of $5,700). Finally, in early 2006, Quebec opted out of the federal government’s employment insurance plan in favour of devising its own more expansive plan.

“If I said to you, I’m going to give you $500 to have a baby, you’d look at me like I was nuts,” says Catherine Krull, associate professor of women’s studies at Queen’s University. “When Quebec’s policies were overtly pro-natal, they were a dismal failure. But when it started concentrating on really supporting families and giving them viable solutions for integrating family responsibilities with paid work, what happens?” Of course, the program is by no means cheap: subsidized daycare alone is costing $1.6 billion a year. The province is betting on long-term gains.

But governments, vulnerable as they are to public opinion, at least in principle, are easy enough to convince that they need to take action. The corporate sector is going to need a little more incentive. “Organizations will say, ‘Well this is all very interesting but it’s a social issue, it’s not us,’ ” says Duxbury. “One organization doesn’t want to put itself at an economic disadvantage right now so that other companies can reap the benefit 20 years from now of having a labour force.” And so, many employers have no work-life policies in place, and even where they do, the culture is often such that there is tremendous internal pressure for employees not to take advantage of what they’re entitled to. For instance, Duxbury’s study found that the average leave taken by Canadian women who were eligible for 50 weeks was only 43 weeks. Only a third say they took the maximum time allowed, mostly for financial reasons, but also because they felt their employers wanted them back.

But now, economists have assembled a litany of arguments for why it is in employers’ best interests to help working mothers. The most obvious is a coming labour crunch in which they will be competing to retain their top employees, male and female. “It’s not a favour to women to do this,” says Bravo. “It’s a better way to run a company. It helps cut down on turnover costs, which is so expensive. It helps retain talented people. It improves productivity and quality when people feel invested in their work.”

Although the costs of implementing such programs are still theoretical, Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, two U.S. social welfare policy analysts, calculated the price of implementing what they call a “dual earner / dual-career” model on a national scale in a book called Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment, and placed it at roughly 1.5 per cent of the U.S. GDP. “We right now spend five times that much money on corporate welfare,” says Bravo.

Perhaps more important than any single factor in combatting the baby shortage will be to find ways of effectively integrating men into policy so that the onus is not entirely on women to keep civilization going. In Canada, at least, the evidence suggests men would be amenable: 15.4 per cent of new dads took advantage of EI parental benefits in 2005, up from only two per cent in 2001.

On the other hand, in Germany, which now has the highest proportion of childless women in Europe, the “mommy wars” are just starting to heat up. Recently, a bestselling book called The Eva Principle: For A New Femininity by Eva Herman, a former TV news reporter, fuelled a national controversy by suggesting that women’s emancipation was a horrible miscalculation and that men and women would be happier and society would thrive if women would just shut up, stay home and raise the kids. Meanwhile, the country’s new family minister, Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven, introduced a number of progressive proposals, including one requiring men to take a two-month work leave upon the birth of a child, or risk being denied state-funded child support. Not surprisingly, male politicians balked. Even those within von der Leyen’s own party don’t like the idea of being shunted home to change dirty diapers. Evidentally, they think men have better things to do with their time. Surely most women would invite them to join the club.

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