Thursday, 20 September 2012

Where Have All the Babies Gone?

(Statistics Canada has just released new census data. For the first time since census data has been collected in Canada, there are more couples living without children than those that are. And 27% of households, the highest thus far, are single person households. I have had this written for some time but I haven't posted it because my daughter read it and suggested it was fairly controversial and would make people mad at me. But, this seems an appropriate time. So, here goes....)

Where have all the babies gone?

Canada's birth rate dropped off dramatically in the late 1960s. After the Second World War, with all the young men coming home to all the frustrated young women who had been waiting, a baby boom occurred. And continued for 20 years or so. Then things happened.

Women had the pill. They no longer had to rely on male co-operation in the birth control process. They could control their own fertility for the first time ever. This was a BIG DEAL. And it opened a lot of doors to young women. They did not have to have children until they were ready. They could enjoy the sort of sexual freedom men have always had. Like I said, A BIG FUCKING DEAL.

At the same time, women were entering the workforce, not as fill-ins for the men away at war, but as workers in their own right. Striving to be equal competitors for jobs and equal pay. We still haven't achieved parity, some 40+ years later, but it was a start.

It was a challenge, to compete against, maybe even beat out, their male counterparts for the good jobs. And women work hard. They are smarter than they have ever been given credit for throughout history. They can match or exceed men in any profession except sperm donor. In the 70s we heard we could have it all. The husband, family and rewarding career.

But wait... Full stop.

The way organizations are set up, to rise to the top ranks you have to work hard. You have to work long hours. You have to be able to travel or relocate. You have to put the company before everything else. You have to be consistently available to work. Or you get the ladder kicked out from under you.

Beginning in the 80s, when women were finally beginning to see that they might, maybe, be able to crash through that glass ceiling, the whole house of cards came down. No. You cannot have it all.

Women who have babies usually want to be with their babies. Even the most career oriented woman often finds after giving birth (what with all those pesky hormones and all) they do not want to leave their child. And 3 to 6 months maternity leave is all you get in most jobs. And even in those 3 to 6 months, promotion decisions are made in your absence and you miss out. And you get branded a “mother”, which in the minds of a lot of employers (even now), makes you unreliable. Your child might get sick and you will leave work. You may have childcare issues that restrict your availability to travel and put in long hours. You may have other things on your mind (i.e. your children) which distract you from work. It is viewed as a liability by many employers. It is important to note that the same is not true for “fathers”, whom companies expect to actually work harder now that there are more mouths to feed.

Young women start to see their female colleagues' careers derailed by motherhood. “That is not going to happen to me”, they say. “I am not going to have children until my career is well-established”, they say. And so they hold off on having children until their late 30s or early 40s. Unfortunately, unlike men who produce new sperm every 90 days or so, we are born with all the eggs we will ever have. And as we age, so do our eggs. And a 40-year-old egg is far less likely to result in a live birth than a 25-year-old egg. It is simple, stupid biology. That proverbial biological clock is ticking. So women who aspire to great things in their careers and hold off having children, may never have children, or will have far fewer children than women who start their families earlier. Maybe two children, maybe only one. And then the couple have not replaced themselves in the population.

There are other aspects involved as well. During the Depression and the Second World War, people were deeply grateful for anything that went right. Most people did not feel entitled to a good life, only blessed when life wasn't too hard or terrible. Since then, with the absence of truly dreadful events (Viet Nam War and other foreign wars and natural disasters excluded) people's expectation of a good life increased. Enter the age of mass television and the celebrity mythos. We saw the stars living the life of the Rich and Famous. We envied them and began to, somehow, feel we should have all that. We got choosier about who we would mate and reproduce with (remember, women have the pill and control over their fertility so most shotgun weddings are a thing of the past). We no longer were prepared to settle. Give me a god-like man or I will stay single until one comes along! After all, I can have casual hook-ups and not get pregnant.

Then came AIDS. By the early 80s, people got scared. No glove, no love. Even the nicest people could have the HIV. More reason to be really, really careful about getting into a situation from whence a baby might emerge. It required a lot of certainty, a lot of commitment. More than most women were willing to make, given the field from which they had to choose.

You see, young men seem to have gotten lazy during the heady days of the sexual revolution and disco and women who were finally free to explore their sexuality without risk of pregnancy. Before the birth control pill, courtship was a serious business. Men wanted sex. Women held the key. They needed to be impressed. Their fathers needed to be impressed. “What are your prospects? What are your intentions for my daughter?” There needed to be a ring and a pastor and a ceremony and the whole community turned out to witness it all. Guys had a lot of motivation to be on the up and up. To be trying to build a career that could support a family. To be honest, sober (most of the time), hard-working, generally someone a parent would want for their precious daughter.

Somehow, this changed. Young men, bit by bit, over the years seem to have become dissolute. A lot of them seem to occupy vast amounts of time playing video games, prefer casual hook-ups to relationships because they are cheaper and don't really involve any serious investment of time or interest. Young women, on the other hand, still want their prince to arrive and sweep them onto the horse and ride off with them.

What I am saying is, people seem to have become more selfish, more self-interested. Compromise is not an option. Women want their careers and see relationships and children as impeding that. Men can't fathom why they would put out all the effort involved in nurturing a long-term relationship when they can get laid after buying a few drinks. And a women earning her own way doesn't need a man. Apart from sexual encounters, if she is so inclined. And they don't have to be amazing guys, just available and willing and not gross. He can be out of your life tomorrow. And many more men are willing than women at any given time in any given location, so it's really her choice. Most women who want sexual gratification don't have to look very far. And so the standards for sex go down and the incentive for relationships and marriage and children go down as well. And there is the total commitment that goes with having a child. I have heard many young people complain that they cannot even keep a plant alive, what on earth would they do with a little human being who is totally dependant? It's all instant gratification and no responsibility for a lot of people for a good chunk of their reproductive lives.

Of course, some couples do fall in love. Some marry. But...more barriers. Child care is expensive if you can find any at all. Some couples sign up on waiting lists for good day-cares years before they have a child. And women still face the reality that someone has to pick up baby at a set time before the day-care closes. Someone has to be able to pick up a sick child from school. Someone has to deal with in-service days and summer holidays. Someone has to sacrifice their career for the family. And often, because men still generally earn more, it is the mother. Yet another dis-incentive for women to reproduce.

In an ideal society, both parents would have parental leave of a reasonable period of time, a year or more at least. In an ideal society, companies would accommodate parents who have to work from home because a child is sick or off school. Companies would have on-site day-cares for pre-school children so parents could spend their breaks and lunch-hours with their children and see first-hand that they are being well cared-for. Companies would recognize a need for work-life balance and parents would not be penalized for child-related issues. In an ideal world the pace would slow down across the board so people would have time to have relationships with their significant others, with their children, with themselves.

But we do not live in an ideal world. We are not reproducing at a rate that replaces ourselves and so our population will decline. Unless it is replenished by immigrants and refugees.

My own story, which might illuminate some biases you may perceive in this blog...
I think I always wanted to be a Mom. I love babies and children. I am enthralled by witnessing these little beings discover the world. I cherish and treasure all the little triumphs – finding your toes, rolling over, pulling yourself up holding on to something, standing alone, taking those first steps, discovering grass and flowers, chasing a butterfly, learning to skate and throw a ball, learning to read, learning to create, learning the multiplication table, figuring out how to understand the world...

These things are joy and ultimate beauty to me.

After a shaky economic start, during which our first child, a daughter, was born, we set a course. I mostly stayed home with the children (we added a son and another daughter over a number of years) and he aggressively pursued his career. He worked stupidly long hours. He travelled a lot. He was seldom around and all the child-care and household maintenance fell to me. He worked hard. I worked hard. He saw ever-increasing gains in his career. I got a lot of personal satisfaction from the things I did – making clay things with the kids, taking parts and reading Shakespeare with the kids, watching them develop all kinds of skills and abilities, some of which far exceed my own. I volunteered with their schools and on their sports teams. I ran a number of home-based businesses over the years. We made sacrifices. For a long time we never went out for dinner. We only vacationed where we could drive to in our beat-up old car and relatives would house and feed us. We didn't go out. And I endured the scorn of those who would say, “Do you work? Or are you just at home with the kids?” The denigration of parenting and running a household in the common psyche has also probably played a huge role in the decline of birth rates.

Now my children are all young adults. I have no illusions that grandchildren are imminent, as much as I would adore that, some day. Oldest daughter – very focused on a career in music, has very little tolerance for poor behaviour. The guy she winds up with will be something special, indeed, if he exists. Son – good-looking, eloquent, probably one of the most charming young men you are likely to meet, attracts many young women, does not appear prepared to get serious about any of them, and is pursuing a career in acting (Shakespearean roles being his favourite and he has played several, including Sir Toby Belch, Oberon and Hamlet – yes, yes, it's my fault, giving them all a deep appreciation for the bard at an early age). Youngest daughter – Artist with strengths in jewelry-making, painting, dress and costume-making, and creating amazing confections in the kitchen. In a long-term relationship, but deeply dislikes children (they are smelly and noisy and demanding) so, unless she has an epiphany or forgets to take her pill, not much hope there in the near term anyway. Which is fine. They are all young yet. Although I was pregnant with my second child by the time I was my older daughter's age and had my first at the same age our son is now. We had reasons for starting a family so young. My parents were elderly and not well, and I really wanted my children to have the chance to know them. But our kids are still young (and so are we) and they still have lots of time to decide if they have found The One they wish to have children with.

I should add that our plan worked, in a way. We went from living below the poverty line to being quite comfortable. We get to vacation in Mexico and Jamaica instead of the family farm or the cousin's spare room. We have a beautiful home and beautiful, smart, talented children. And two fabulous dogs. And an amazing property in NW Ontario. Life is good. My Sweetie still works and travels more that I think is good for him. But, our children will graduate from university without student loan debt. I went back to school a couple of times after the kids all were in school, and wound up with a couple of graduate degrees. But by the time I got the PhD, he was a partner in a major firm and my earning power was negligible by comparison. He has a lot of power in his workplace and custom-made suits and a fast car and I think he likes that. And he is beginning to have more time for things he enjoys, like travelling, skiing, spending time at the lake, playing guitar...

He is not quite as close to the kids as I am. That was a big sacrifice he made. I was the one holding them in the ER in the middle of the night when they had a bad fever. I was the bandager of skinned knees and the hand-holder when something difficult was happening. I listened to the rants and dried the tears. I gave them the opportunity to finger-paint and helped them papier-mache, and taught them all to read. I nagged about cleaning their rooms. I drove them all over the place for years and years and years. I gave advice on dealing with bullies and made them do their spelling and piano practice. I listened to my girls talk about boys, and helped them learn how to put on eyeshadow (subtle, not garish). I went to all their soccer and hockey games and practices and coached my daughters' teams at various points. Now my youngest plays hockey with me on a team in a women's league. I am most fortunate indeed. I learned how to fix leaky faucets and toilets. I learned to paint rooms and grout tiles and fix the automatic garage door opener that messed up over and over. I learned to build things. I learned compassion and ferocious defensiveness (you think a mother bear is tough? Just you try to mess with my kids). And when my parents became more ill, I learned a lot of other things. How to advocate for someone in the medical system, how to safely transfer someone who weighs more than I do, how to simply sit with someone who is just glad to have you there, how to let go. I would never have experienced these things if I had adamantly pursued a career and relinquished my family to institutional care-givers, or if I had not had a family at all.

I was not a perfect parent. If I find myself lying awake in the middle of the night I can torture myself for hours over things I could have done differently. But I don't believe there are any perfect parents. I do know, when I took a full-time job outside the home when my youngest started grade one and was going to school full days, things began a slow crumble. Entropy and chaos began to take over. I got behind in the laundry. Getting lunches made became an ordeal. I had less patience for homework hour after school, or piano practicing. It may have been partly because I was working in a horrid toxic environment, in a role for which I was grossly overqualified, where I was penalized for every time I had to take a phone call from one of my children, never mind having to go pick up a sick kid from school. But the last straw hit when I came home one summer evening and found a line of ants marching through a crack in the window frame in the dining room, through to the kitchen and into the area under the sink where the garbage bag had split through having stuff crammed into it long after it was full. It was clear as a bell that this wasn't working. I was appalled that my home had become a thoroughfare for insects because I had neglected stuff. It wasn't worth it. The meagre $20K a year I was earning was not worth having vermin in the house.

I made sacrifices and there are still people who regard me as inferior because I do not have a “career” (although I have been able to find that a bit amusing since I got my PhD). I would never suggest my path is right for everyone, or even most people. But I do think our society has to change in terms of its acceptance of different paths. For men and women. Some men are definitely more nurturing and suited to child care than some women. And workplaces have to become more accommodating of people choosing a healthy work/life balance.

To achieve lofty heights in a career in our society, one must be able to work relentlessly. Eschew the comforts of home and hearth and embrace the job whole-heartedly. There needs to be a strong support system to look after details like laundry, grocery shopping, taking the vehicle to the shop, getting the hot water heater fixed, and looking after the children. Not to mention countless other trivial day to day things. Someone needs to remember relatives' birthdays and send cards. Someone has to do the Christmas shopping, someone has to go to parent-teacher interviews and hockey practices. Someone has to take the kids out to get school supplies and new clothes. Someone has to pack lunches and feed the guinea pigs, and shovel the driveway when it snows. Someone has to mow the lawn in the summer, and weed the garden. Someone has to put up the Halloween decorations, and make sure each child has a costume that transports their imagination, and fill a bowl with treats for the neighbours' children. Someone has to put up the Christmas decorations and make the house nice for company. Someone has to listen to lines in the school play being practiced, scales being played on the piano, check the math homework, and read out endless lists of spelling words. Someone has to teach the children how to read shelf tags in the grocery store so they can compare prices. Someone has to make sure the children have baths and brush their teeth and comb their hair. Someone has to sweep and vacuum and scrub peanut butter off the counters and sticky fingerprints off the walls and light switches. Someone has to read bedtime stories and chase the monsters out of the closets and out from under the bed. Someone has to make sure children have presents to take to their friends' birthday parties, and someone has to host birthday parties as well, making sure a crowd of little hooligans is entertained for several hours, or (gasp) overnight, as girls reach the age of the sleep-over party. Someone has to spend hours waiting to have a broken bone set after a sports injury, spend hours tending a sick little one and carrying bowls of puke to the toilet. Someone has to get up in the night when there has been a bad dream, comfort the frightened during a thunderstorm, and admire the latest artwork before sticking it to the fridge door. Someone has to arbitrate disputes, offer the wisdom of Solomon, and remind people that they are no longer 3 (still doing that when all the kids are home for holidays – seems everyone regresses around their siblings!) Raising a child, or children, and managing a household is a full-time job. A lot of it is tedious, some of it is heart-breaking, and then there are brilliantly rewarding moments. But it is clearly incongruent with being able to embrace a career whole-heartedly.

Imagine if all those trivial tasks were eliminated from your life. If you came home from work to supper. Whatever time it might be. You had clean clothes without ever getting near the washer and dryer. Your lunch (if you took one to work) and your travel mug with coffee was ready by the door after you had a breakfast that you didn't have to make. If you didn't have to think about having to pick up the kids and get them to a practice and make sure they eat along the way. If major holidays just happened around you. If there were always groceries in the fridge. If you could totally focus on work while you were at work. How high could you rise in your career?

Every high-level executive you see who has a family either has a partner who has carried the family side while the ladder was climbed, or didn't have children until they could afford nannies and housekeepers. Which, as I mentioned before, works ok for men who can biologically afford to wait. But it is less viable an approach for women. You can't have it all.

I do not mean to minimize the work of single parents struggling to put food on the table and keep everything chugging along. Or two parent families who have 2 parents who are doing their best to juggle everything. What I am saying is there are other ways. If one of you is home and making supper from raw ingredients, if you aren't paying daycare fees, if someone is around for in-service days and summer, depending on what you earn, if you don't have to have someone come in every week or every tow weeks to clean the house, you may find you you have been working to pay the cleaning lady and buy take-away food. If you find it rewarding, great. But if it seems like survival, take a good look at what you spend money on and if one of you would be more valuable as a homemaker while the other takes a run at the big time. I also feel at this point that I should say I am totally in favour of women attaining the greatest heights in the workforce. There are far too few women still in boardrooms and in government. I believe women can change the game in both the corporate and political world. Men can be temperamentally suited to be the parent at home just as readily as women. But, if we are to address the issue of our declining population growth, someone has to take up the challenge.

I could go on and on about how young men really need to get their shit together, because right now, statistically, they are under-performing academically and losing ground in the work force, and generally not exhibiting traits that might be attractive to a young woman's evolutionarily defined check-list. Because, now that women are confident wage-earners, independent and self-sufficient, you guys better have something special to bring to the table. They don't need you anymore, so you better try to make them want you.

But I won't.

I will try to sum up by saying that changes in society changed the path most people had expected their lives to take. Courtship, marriage, children. Isn't that how it works in the fairy tales and romance stories? That doesn't even come close to the current reality. Our workplaces and career aspirations and activities and expectations no longer leave any options or time (without conflict, stress, or making up time at work) for the parenting of children, elder-care, or maintaining a home and sustaining a relationship. And that is just really sad.