Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Books | No kids please, we're selfish

No kids please, we're selfish

The population is shrinking, but why should I care, says Lionel Shriver. My life is far too interesting to spoil it with children
Lionel Shriver
Saturday September 17, 2005

Meet the Anti-Mom. A story of motherhood gone dreadfully wrong, my seventh novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, has drawn fire from Catholic websites for being hostile to "family", while grotesque distortions of the book's underlying theme ("It's all right to hate your own child, and if they turn out badly it's not your fault") have spored from article to article like potato blight. Devastated mothers send me confiding letters detailing horror stories of offspring just like the wicked boy in my book. Women who'd declined to have children flock to my readings, raising the novel as proof they were right.

Yet even as "Kevin" won the Orange Prize in July, when my role as poster-girl for "maternal ambivalence" jacked up yet another power, something strange was starting to happen. I sometimes departed from script. When a Sunday Times reporter (who clearly thought me a chilly, arrogant creep) asked if I didn't think that declining to reproduce was essentially "nihilistic", I piped readily, "Of course." And when a reporter from Birmingham asked tentatively in a phone interview, "Wasn't refusing parenthood a little ... selfish?" I bellowed into the receiver, "Absolutely!"

The truth is, I had started to feel guilty.

Childless at 48, I'm now old enough for the question of motherhood to have become merely philosophical. Still, I've had all the time in the world to have babies. I am married. I've been in perfect reproductive health. I could have afforded children, financially. I just didn't want them. They are untidy; they would have messed up my flat. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.

Nevertheless, after talking myself blue about "maternal ambivalence", I have come full circle, rounding on the advice to do as I say, not as I did. I may not, for my own evil purposes, regret giving motherhood a miss, but I've had it with being the Anti-Mom, and would like to hand the part to someone else.

Allusion to Europe's "ageing population" in the news is now commonplace. We have more and more old people, and a dwindling number of young people to support them. Not only healthcare and pension systems but the working young will soon be overtaxed, just to keep doddering crusties like me alive. Politicians sensibly cite age structure when justifying higher rates of immigration, and not only because Europeans so fancy themselves that they refuse to clean toilets. Even if the job appealed, there are already too few of the native-born of working age to clean all those toilets.

Yet curiously little heed is paid to why the west is "ageing". Our gathering senescence is routinely discussed as an inexorable force of nature, a process beyond our control, like the shifting of tectonic plates or the ravages of a hurricane. To the contrary, age structure is profoundly within human control. Remarkably resistant to governmental manipulation, it is the sum total of millions of single, deeply private decisions by people like me and a surprisingly large number of people I know.

We're not having kids.

Western fertility started to dive in the 70s - the same era when, ironically, the likes of alarmist population guru Paul Ehrlich were predicting that we would all soon be balancing on our one square foot of earth per person, like angels on the head of a pin. Numerous factors have contributed to the Incredible Shrinking Family: the introduction of reliable contraception, the wholesale entry of women into the workforce, delayed parenthood and thus higher infertility, the fact that children no longer till your fields but expect your help in putting a downpayment on a massive mortgage.

Yet all of these contributing elements may be subsidiary to a larger transformation in western culture no less profound than our collective consensus on what life is for.

Statistics are never boring if you can see through the numbers to what they mean, so bear with me. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the number of children the average woman will bear over her reproductive lifetime. The TFR required to maintain a population at its current size is 2.1. ( It takes two children to replace the mother herself and her partner; the .1 allows for the fact that, in a fraction of births, the baby will not survive.) Higher than the European average, the UK's TFR is 1.7. Yet that's well below replacement-rate, so the seven million extra Britons predicted by 2050 will almost entirely comprise immigrants and their children.

The figures on the continent are even more striking. Italy, Greece and Spain, countries once renowned for their family orientation, all have a meagre TFR of 1.3, as does Germany, where a staggering 39% of educated women are having no children whatsoever. The cumulative TFR for all of Europe is only 1.4, expected to translate into a net loss of 10% of the population by 2050, by which time eastern Europe is likely to experience a population decrease of 22%. By 2000, 17 European countries were recording more deaths than births, and without immigration their populations would already be contracting.

Elsewhere, couples still heed the Biblical admonition to be fruitful and multiply. Niger, currently suffering from famine, has the highest TFR in the world at 8.0. By 2050, Yemen - a little smaller than France - is projected to have increased its 1950 population by 24 times, exceeding the population of Russia. At 3.0 (3.5 without China), the poor nations' TFR is twice that in the wealthy west, and these countries will provide virtually all of the extra three billion people expected to visit our planet by mid-century.

As for what explains the drastic disparity between family size in the west and the rest, sure, we have readier access to contraception. But medical technology is only one piece of the puzzle. During the industrial revolution of the 19th century, fertility rates in the west plunged in a similar fashion. This so-called "demographic transition" is usually attributed to the conversion from a rural agrarian economy to an urban industrialised one, and thus to children's shift from financial asset to burden. But what is fascinating about the abrupt decrease in family size at the turn of the last century is that it was accomplished without the pill. Without caps, IUDs, spermicides, vaginal sponges, oestrogen patches or commercial condoms. Whether through abstinence, backstreet abortion, infanticide or rhythm, people who couldn't afford more children didn't have them. Therefore the increased availability of reliable contraception around 1960 no more than partially explains plummeting birth rates thereafter. The difference between Germany and Niger isn't pharmaceutical; it's cultural.

I propose that we have now experienced a second demographic transition. Rather than economics, the engine driving Europe's "birth dearth" is existential.

To be almost ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising. We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life. We are less likely than our predecessors to ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask if we are happy. We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty as the pitfalls of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don't especially care what happens once we're dead. As we age - oh, so reluctantly! - we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not 'Did I serve family, God and country?' but 'Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat?' We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun.

If that package sounds like one big moral step backwards, the Be Here Now mentality that has converted from 60s catchphrase to entrenched gestalt has its upside. There has to be some value to living for today, since at any given time today is all you've got. We justly cherish characters capable of fully inhabiting "the moment", of living, as a drummer might say, "in the pocket". We admire go-getters determined to pack their lives with as much various experience as time and money provide, who never stop learning, engaging, and savouring what every day offers - in contrast to dour killjoys who are resentful and begrudging as they bitterly do their duty. For the role of humble server, helpmate and facilitator no longer to constitute the sole model of womanhood surely represents progress for which I am personally grateful. Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.

Yet the biggest social casualty of Be Here Now is children, who have converted from obligation to option, like heated seats in the car. In deciding what in times past was never a choice, we don't consider the importance of raising another generation of our own people, however we might choose to define them. The question is whether kids will make us happy.