Monday 22 April 2019

No one told you life would ever be this way

This article first appeared in Malta Today

There is a running joke that Malta would be a really great place to live…if it were not for the Maltese people themselves. 

It is an example of our typical, often stinging, self-deprecatory type of humour which likes to take pot shots at anything and everything related to Malta and its people, and it seems that, at the rate we are going, those who like to crack this joke might just get their wish. 

The implications of our country having the lowest birth rate (1.26) in Europe means that if Maltese families don’t start having more children, the Maltese population will eventually die out.  This information only really came as a surprise to those who have not been paying attention to demographic trends.   All we need to do is to take a look at our own family tree or photos: there is Grandma with eight or more children all lined up in a row (not counting those who died at birth), then our parents’ generation which averaged 3 – 5 children, followed by my generation where two or three children were the norm and now, those who are in their 40s/30s, where one child is the norm and a deep breath was taken before trying for baby number two.  These days it is not uncommon to hear those in their mid-20s debating whether they will ever have any children at all.

This downward trend is not unique to Malta, which is simply following a pattern already seen in other countries, although as usually happens, it has caught up with much later. What we are experiencing now was first noted in other parts of Europe, particularly in countries such as Germany, where the birth rate was plunging so fast that it ended up having the lowest birth rate not only in Europe, but in the world.  

The reasons given for the diminishing birth rate in Germany were due to a combination of factors: women delay marriage as well as the decision to have children until their 30s (when fertility becomes more problematic), the fact that many couples rent apartments so they do not have the space for more than one child and the upwardly mobile aspirations of the Germans themselves who enjoy a good lifestyle. It was also pointed out that women with a higher education in well-developed countries tended to have less children in general. 

An article published by Deutsche Welle in 2015 quoted researcher Stephan Sievert who described the scenario: “….for a very long time women really faced a stark choice: career, or kids. For years, relatively few women in Germany worked, especially if they also had children. The political class is now trying to change this, and it’s already the case that many more women are both working and raising children. But, of course, it’s difficult to change this completely, because it’s become a kind of social norm. Not having children is considered completely normal here…”

Then, alarm bells started being sounded that unless the trend was reversed, Germany’s economy would suffer. In 2017, the Bundesbank central bank warned that a wave of retirement among the post-war baby boomer generation could begin sapping economic growth from the middle of next decade, as there will be fewer young workers to replace them. A combination of two factors, however, saw the birth rates rise to the highest level in four decades – first was the dramatic increase in births by migrants, and second was a moderate increase in births by women of German citizenship.   

The latter increase has been directly attributed to family-friendly measures made available to either parent by the Government, which seem to have worked: Parental leave allowance was raised to two-thirds of income for the first year (along with two extra months that can be taken by both parents or carers at the same time).  Parents have the right to a nursery place once the child turns one years of age. Parents could now also work part-time and still receive children’s allowances.   However, it has also been pointed out that companies still tend to be too rigid in allowing flexibility. One recent article on this issue bluntly stated that: “For years, having a child was widely viewed as a career killer for a woman. While perceptions are changing for the better, the German labor market continues to throw major obstacles in a family’s way.” 

I have used the German example because I have found a lot of striking similarities to what we are currently experiencing ourselves now, except perhaps for the ‘not having any children being considered normal’ part.  To date in Malta, being childless is not the norm, so much so that people think nothing of being tactless and intrusive on this issue.

In all other respects, however, we seem to be heading in the same direction which plagued Germany, and this also includes the number of births by migrant women as well as other EU nationalities superseding that of Maltese women. The writing should have been clearly on the wall about this: you can hardly stop other nationalities from procreating just because Maltese women are having less children, for whatever reason. 

The Government policy to encourage more women to go back to work by providing free childcare was a success in economic terms, but did not factor in what would happen once female participation in the workforce increased. With the extra income coming in, the decision to have another baby became even more of a dilemma for many women.  Should she bring another child into the world, only to have to drop them off at daycare when they are just a few months old once her maternity leave finishes?   If there are willing grandparents in the picture who are already acting as child carers, is it fair to lump them with this additional responsibility?  Or should she stop working for a few years to enjoy her baby while the family goes back to being on a single income?   (I am not including fathers in this scenario because, come on, let’s face it, in our culture, a father giving up his job to stay at home with baby is rare). 

As in Germany, a dwindling birth rate can also be traced to young women choosing to continue their education well into their late 20s, understandably wanting to embark on a career after years of study, thus delaying marriage and childbirth as a result. It is the predictable trajectory, in a tale as old as time, which launches a woman on an upward career path at the very same time as her biological clock keeps reminding her that it might soon be too late.   Then there are the other unforeseeable stumbling blocks – she might not meet the right man at the right time who wants a family as much as she does, or the relationship might fail, forcing her to put her desire to be a mother on hold or else maybe the one thing she always took for granted, that she could fall pregnant, just does not happen.  It is often the height of irony that many young women spend their teen years and 20s terrified of getting pregnant only to find themselves in their mid-30s praying every month, that they are.

There are also, of course, more straightforward reasons, such as when a woman feels she can only cope with one child, which is a legitimate and perfectly rational decision to make. Better to use contraception rather than bring a child into the world who is not truly wanted and loved. Financial constraints and just sheer fatigue are also a major deciding factor, and if a woman or a couple feel that the stress of another child would be too overwhelming, then that is the best choice to make.  No one can make these decisions for you, and certainly it is better to have good family planning, knowing your own limitations, rather than a multitude of children you cannot afford to raise. 

All the forks in the road we choose to take and all the circumstances we find ourselves in lead to consequences and biologically it is the woman who has to make the most difficult choices when it comes to her childbearing years.  It’s not like in a fairytale and there are no guaranteed happy ever afters.  No one is advocating for women to be like the maidens in A Handmaid’s Tale, reduced to bearing children as their sole purpose in life. Sometimes women only come to the realization that they are not really maternal after they have had their first child, in which case it is better for all concerned if she does not have any more. However, for those who choose to be mothers (and fathers) I think it is about time that we stop looking at children as something on a checklist which we tick off as part of our life’s must-haves, but who then become a bothersome nuisance because they have interfered with our previous lifestyle. 

As for the state, rather than pushing children into childcare at a younger and younger age, why not take some of the money being spent on childcare centres and carers and invest them in stay-at-home mothers instead who would prefer to care for their own children? Emotionally and psychologically it would probably benefit society all round, giving women time to develop a healthy bond with their children rather than popping them out and handing them over to strangers to raise.

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