The UK’s total fertility rate is 1.82, way below replacement rate of 2.1. Our population is shrinking. Not so fast as in some other European countries, though, where the overall rate is 1.59. Today’s average household size in the UK is 2.3 persons. 50 years ago it was 5. Ask around to find out why young women in the UK are so reluctant to get pregnant, and you’re likely to get the following answers.
1. ‘Supposing I lost my job, what then?’ – is the main fear. Then comes:
2. ‘You have to be rich to have a baby. I read a headline which said the cost of rearing a child was £220,000. It’s unthinkable.’
3. ‘I like my life as it is. Good job, holidays, freedom. A baby would be such a drag.’
4. ‘What about my figure? My boyfriend might go off me.’
5. ‘I’d like one but my partner says no. Anyway we don’t have a spare room. ’
6. ‘But childcare takes up 43% of family income. We struggle as it is, just the two of us. After the house, the car and food, there’s nothing left. ’
7. ‘I’m not brave enough. Having a baby hurts. And supposing there was something wrong with it? One in every 33 babies, they say, is born with a birth defect.’
8. ‘I couldn’t bear being pregnant. I’d have to stop drinking and smoking. And I might put on weight.’
9. ‘A baby? No thank you. Lots of couples go off sex after a baby. A quarter actually split up.’
Given all these fears, it’s surprising that any babies are born at all. Who would, rationally, want one? It’s the practicalities that daunt us – I suspect the blind urge to procreate is strong enough. Half the known pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, the morning-after pill taking care of unknown numbers of the speculative unwanted. Today’s woman needs to spend about 30 years of her life avoiding an unplanned pregnancy, and if she sometimes fails, that’s not surprising either. What she does next is up to her – 60 years ago an abortion would have sent her to prison.
Ask today’s young woman why she wants a baby and having thought about it first she’s likely to reply ‘Because I want to fulfil myself,’ which is a fairly meaningless answer but describes a vague yearning for motherhood in general. No-one ever comes up with the reason so often given in my youth –‘because I love him and I want to create something that’s half him and half me.’ These days, alas, such an answer would seem rather sad: self-interest predominates.
If the vague yearning is thwarted, women can get terribly distressed and obsessive. These days they turn to the fertility clinic for the solution, or look for a surrogate mother to carry the child. Only if all else fails do they consider adoption. What they want is the fruit of their own personal wombs. (In the US women might seem somewhat less concerned with genetics – fertility clinics don’t necessarily make the fuss we do about getting the right egg back to the right mother so long as it’s healthy and of the desired ethnicity, or so one gathers.)
And as for the childless woman – get her past sixty-five and she’s not so sure she made the right choice. She’ll tell you the pleasures of the career and the single life fade – that someone else now fills her desk and it’s as if she was never there; friends have drifted away; films are too noisy to bear, theatres are uncomfortable, drink gives you indigestion, holiday sun’s too strong for the skin; and the nights are lonely. She has a dog or a cat but it’s not the same as a family would be, people with a shared past and present. And who will look after her in her declining years?
I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. To have babies is perilous, not to have them is equally so.