Saturday 1 October 2016

Why has Ireland so many childless women?

Our birth rate is the top in Europe, but nearly 18pc of Irish women have no children. Sarah Carey thinks she knows why

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

BUT IS HE FATHER MATERIAL?: Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, decides to give Ben, Seth Rogen, a chance when she gets pregnant by him, despite the fact he’s an irresponsible slacker. Nearly 18pc of Irish women in their mid-40s are childless
BUT IS HE FATHER MATERIAL?: Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, decides to give Ben, Seth Rogen, a chance when she gets pregnant by him, despite the fact he’s an irresponsible slacker. Nearly 18pc of Irish women in their mid-40s are childless

Well now. Isn't this interesting? According to classical economic theory, when people have less money, they have fewer children. But several years ago I suggested that Irish women were responding to the financial crisis by getting preggers. A life-affirming, opportunity-cost thing.

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Sure enough, the census figures and a Eurostat report out last week have backed up my instincts. Ireland's birth rate is the highest in Europe. Hurrah! To hell with the recession! We've just kept going, churning out the babies: money or no money, childcare or no childcare.

And once Irish women get going, there's no stopping them. Throughout Europe, it's usually poorer people who have larger families. But across all social classes, Ireland has the highest number of families in Europe with four or more children.

This proves another point I've been making. You'll never hear a good word about Ireland from the disciples of the Failed-State School that dominates the media. All you ever hear about is the high cost of childcare, the awful standards, the desperate schools, the absent hospital, the killer maternity services, and sure, when you can't even find a house, why would you have a child if it's got nowhere to live?

Fortunately, most of us ignore all that and get on with the evolutionary imperative to reproduce.

Meanwhile, in other European countries such as Germany, women refuse to have children no matter how much maternity leave, paternity leave, free childcare or winning Lotto tickets the government bribes them with.

On my Newstalk show last weekend, Ursula Tipp, a German lawyer who moved here 20 years ago with her Irish husband - and with whom she has four children - explained that it's a culture thing. She told me about a friend and new mother who was visiting here from Germany and was amazed that total strangers would stop to admire her baby. Back in Germany, she and her baby were ignored. She couldn't get over how warm Irish people were towards children.

And yet, this is a country of glorious and occasionally inexplicable contradiction.

Alongside these fecund women embracing life, we top another league table. Our high birth rates might beat Germany solid, but we have something very peculiar in common. Those women with three or four or more children disguise the fact that many Irish women have no children at all. Nearly 18pc of women in their mid-40s in Ireland are childless. Only Germany beat us. With such radically different cultures, why have we so many childless women?

There can only be three reasons. They can't have children. They don't want to have children. Or, they'd like to have a child, but circumstance has worked against them.

Infertility problems should be the same across Europe, so that can't be a factor. Culturally, Ursula told me that German mothers are expected to give up work to mind their children, so it's not unusual for career-minded women to decide against having any children. I'm not saying no Irish woman would explicitly choose their career over having a baby - or indeed that there's anything wrong with that - but since working mothers are quite normal here, that choice would be rare.

That leaves us with circumstance. The last time we had such a high rate of childless women was the 1930s when the marriage rate was very low. Back then, single-hood was a severe barrier to child-bearing. But with sexual liberation, that's not a problem now.

And yet, UCD sociologist Tony Fahey told me that a significant factor influencing whether or not a woman has a child, (or if they had a baby young, goes on to have more children) is the presence of a man. Not merely for the act of conception obviously, but one who'll stick around. Apparently, for all the giving out women do about men and for all our liberation, secularism, feminism and individualism, it turns out that our priority is establishing a stable relationship before creating a family. Marriage is no longer an imperative, but a secure relationship still is.

So I'm going to go with my instincts again and suggest maybe a lot of women would like a child, but can't get a man. Or at least, get one in time.

I checked the census to see if this was a supply problem, but there's a reasonably even number of men and women in the State. Why won't they settle down together?

Given my bitter experience at the hands of commitment-phobe men who were in no hurry to give up their free wheeling-bachelorhood, I'm inclined to blame the lads. The security of being loved is wonderful, but domestic life is constraining and boring. Why wouldn't you put it off for as long as possible? Without a biological clock, there's just no imperative for men.

Meanwhile, my single female friends never made any secret of the fact that they were very much in the market for a partner. The Sex and the City mode of the search for Mr Right has become a cliche, albeit a horribly consumerist, materialistic one. But I'm sure there are men who'd say that women are the problem.

Society's obsession with Mr Right puts an awful lot of pressure on Mr Wrong. As women's independent economic circumstances improve, so does the bar for a potential husband.

A friend of mine who married late enough in life used to say "It takes a mighty man to be better than none". I thought that was both funny and wise.

But still, it's odd to think that even though it's not 1930, there are women out there who would love to have a child, but can't, because it's the one thing you can't do on your own. It makes you wonder if the key to fertility is compromise?

Sunday Independent

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