Europeans are dying out like dinosaurs no longer accustomed to their environment. Since right-wing populists have once again started to announce the decline of the occident, the media is doing the best to feed the public’s fears with possible reasons: immigration, islamification, decline of the birth rate! The latter is especially interesting as it concerns not so much the ”others” (meaning immigrants) but ourselves (meaning white middle class academics because that’s what Europe should look like, right?). We simply suck at reproducing ourselves! Day-in, day-out we have to confront ourselves with statistics claiming that every couple has to produce at least something like 0.6 more children to prevent the European race from extinction. And now this: the ”Childfree” movement!
More and more single individuals and couples decide not to have children of their own, and not due to physical or other incapabilities but voluntarily. The movement is spreading all throughout Europe, North America and even India. The reasons for staying childfree are manifold and usually legitimated as being the individual’s choice only. However, I would like to argue that this choice is to a large extent the product of systemic problems that need to be addressed, not in order to ensure the survival of Europe ”as it used to be” and not because our current economic systems may be unable to deal with the challenges of an overaging population and a decreasing workforce, but because I would like the Childfree movement to be seen as a means of resistance rather than just another libertarian decision.
Here are some of the major reasons for people’s decision not to have children:
Reason # 1:Women decide to be childfree because they lack the ‘maternal instinct’.
I’m not sure how valid this argument is, because isn’t the maternal instinct something that sets in once you actually have a child and not before? Maybe I’m still too young to know what it’s like but I doubt that women these days can rely on hearing the ticking of their biological clock all of a sudden to know when it’s high time to have children. I believe that ‘baby fever’ is a myth when related to the majority of women. In Eastern Germany, for example, it was considered normal for women to have the first child in their early twenties and I doubt the majority of them were guided by maternal instincts but rather economic advantages and social recognition. Otherwise how can it be explained that these days the biological clock starts ticking ten years later than it used to? Considering how a large percentage of women has been taking hormonal contraception for almost half of their lives, I am convinced that this must at least alter if not completely muddle up their experience of fertility.
This strikes me as the most probable and honest reason for being childfree and a perfectly valid one in today’s society, which has seen major changes in the role of the family, marriage, men and women, and self-fulfilment.
Rather than a commonly expected goal, the decision to have a child has become more a matter of preference, an outcome of a careful weighting of the pros and cons of parenthood, and a ‘derivative’ of a personal quest for self-realisation. In contrast to ‘Western’ societies, the social acceptance of childlessness as a matter of choice and personal lifestyle has been spreading only recently in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. (Sobotka, 2004)
The last sentence should not be misleading: state socialism does not necessarily result in a higher birth rate. In the GDR, birth rates kept declining despite strong pro-natalist policies. But higher divorce rates and lower birth rates can be considered private means of resistance to a political agenda that put pressure exclusively on women and failed to address men’s role at home and in the family. However, it is far from the truth to make women’s advancement on the labour market responsible for declining birth rates. Studies show that ”working mothers are having more babies than stay-at-home moms’, as the comparison of Sweden and Italy in terms of birth rates and women’s employment illustrates.
Today, under neoliberalism, the pressure put on young women and men concerning their future plans has become even more severe:
Increased individual aspirations and a new image of a dual-earner family as a benchmark serving to evaluate one’s living standard have further strengthened career orientation in women’s lives. Partnerships have become more fragile, with more young people remaining single or cohabiting and marriages being eroded by rising divorce rates. Furthermore, the decision to become a parent has been increasingly seen as a matter of personal choice. Coupled with the growing demands of the labour market in terms of qualification requirements, competitiveness, and flexibility, high levels of childlessness may be viewed as the inevitable consequence of recent societal transformations as well as the competitive character of liberal market societies. A single individual ‘unhindered’ by any commitments is the winner in the race: Beck proposed that “the ultimate market society is a childless society.” (Sobotka, 2004)
That having children is viewed entirely in economic terms and considered a financial liability becomes evident when reading comments by childfree individuals concerning their decision. Statements such as ‘‘children are a non-refundable deal” are all too common. Unfortunately, in a society entirely driven by the market logic, I don’t find those statements very outrageous.
This argument actually repudiates the European population crisis I have mentioned above as a global issue. In fact, globally, the human population is nowhere near extinction, that’s for sure, and since ressources are scarce and unequally distributed, people in developing countries are suffering from starvation and unacceptable living conditions. It seems logical that one person living in an industrialized Western society will do more damage to the environment and use up more of the world’s resources in a lifetime than several people born in Africa. Therefore, having less children could affect the world positively in greater dimensions (especially if childfree people devoted their extra time and money to volunteer work and helping their community, which a lot of them claim they do). So I’m wondering: why do childfree people not openly state that their choice is based on issues in today’s society? What could possibly be a stronger measure for claiming that there’s something wrong with the world we live in, than refusing to bring a child into it? Being childfree is a choice, but it also means resisting the norm and should therefore be expressed as a critique of current conditions in order to improve them for everybody, regardless of whether they are going to have children or not.
Note: I do not mean to offend any parents nor convince anyone to be childfree. Rather, my intention has been to ‘out’ the Childfree movement as not only critical of the idea of and social pressure behind becoming a parent, but critical of society as a whole, and that it should be voiced as such.