Hans Rosling of the BCC’s statistical team tells us we don’t have to panic – world population is levelling out, and will stabilise at about 11 billion. The size of the average family the world over is now 2.5 children, as the news spreads that the larger the family, the poorer and lower life expectancy. Well, it s good to know, though I can’t help feeling sorry for all those unborn little ones. And I suppose one good long life is better than lots of little short ones? The charming and persuasive Dr Rosling certainly thinks so.
The Daily Mail also tells us that one in every four of young marrieds go off sex once the baby comes along. I daresay in another generation this will help flatten Dr Rosling’s leaping population graph even more: I hope he’s taken notice of the fact. Fewer children, more wealth. Me, I’m surprised the number is as low as one in four. These days a girl has her first baby at around 30, and the first flush of sexual energy, when girls ran round from man to man searching for Mr Right, is beginning to pass. Bodies are stiffer and sorer, passion less immediate, breastfeeding more horrendous – and takes longer – than it would have done when she was 22, the age at which her mother – statistically speaking – would have slipped out her own first baby.
In her twenties a girl’s sexual energy runs strong and powerful: by her thirties she has more sense but less strength, and by her forties, well, it’s always good to have a strong girl around to help carry the baby. For a twenty-year-old sex is all important, for a thirty year old less so. (Everyone’s different, I hasten to add, and just because it’s true for the generality of the population doesn’t mean it’s true for you, just all those other people!) I speak as someone who had their first baby when I was 22, my second when I was 32, my third when I was 40 and my fourth when I was 46.
The twenty year old sees the baby as an adjunct, not a replacement for a man. The thirty year old, her heart already broken in several places, is all too likely to fall in deep sensuous love with the baby, and reject the man other than as the other parent, who will share the burden of parenthood. She will shake off the tentative, enquiring hand. Men are no longer the recipients of the deep adoration they once roused in the female heart – all have feet of clay. (‘Oh, men!’ with an irritable sigh is bandied about as once was ‘Oh, women!’ in my pre-feminist youth.) As for the father, if he’s witnessed his baby’s birth (and more than 80% of fathers now do) and his partner’s pain and distress, he may well be reluctant to risk putting her through all that again, or even, as anecdotal evidence tells us, is so traumatised that he vanishes to a mistress with more mystery and magic and less reality.
None of my children had their father around to witness their birth; the eldest because it was in the fifties, and in those days fathers paced or boiled unnecessary pans of hot water (most births were home births) and only got to see mother and child when it was all over and she had combed her hair and put on her prettiest bedjacket, and baby had been washed and dressed and put in her arms. (In those day. when nurses were cheap and plentiful, you weren’t meant to put foot to floor for three whole weeks, and post-natal depression was extremely rare.) The second and third were lightning births in the hospital corridor and I never got as far as a labour ward, and the fourth was an emergency caesarean.
The fashion for having fathers present at the birth only came along in the seventies –humans are the only mammals who don’t give birth in private – and always I thought contained a punitive element– now see what you did to her! Face it! Listen to her screams! – along with a belief, so far unproved, that fathers who witnessed the birth would bind more closely with their child, and a very practical understanding that if fathers were brought into the labour ward money could be saved on midwives. Fathers could do the keeping-company part of the midwife’s job. A few obstetricians argue that life’s actually easier for the woman if the father isn’t there: his anxiety added to hers can mitigate against a quick and easy birth. Many a mother finds herself saying, ‘He was there all night but he didn’t see the actual birth – he’d stepped out for just a minute to go to the loo. And bingo!’
Add to Dr Rosling’s flattening graph of family size the fact that men who are good and attentive fathers suffer a drop in their testosterone levels while engaged in child care – and this make them – arguably – less attractive to women – and I marvel that any second children get born at all. The fathers can’t be bothered and the mothers don’t care. The Neo-Darwinists claim that their being less likely to ‘stray’ suggests that men are cut out for fatherhood: I’d just see it as nature’s way of bringing down world population.