In 2005 I was struggling with a divine newborn baby boy who only slept for twenty minutes at a time and only while being carried. One day the voice of the then Treasurer Peter Costello cut through my fugue like state. On the radio he called on Australian women to breed “to have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”.
I remember thinking, "Peter if you can come around here and breastfeed at 1, 2, 3 and 4am and if you can carry my darling boy all day long, I will indeed do this all again."
Peter never showed and I stopped at two. But his plea and the Howard government baby bonus introduced in 2002 (and increased in subsequent years) did in fact lift the birth rate in Australia. There was indeed a baby boom with our fertility rate rising from 1.76 births per woman to 1.96 in 2008 – the highest since the 1970s. Twelve thousand extra little Australians were born between 2004 and 2006 alone. This baby boom is still playing out in our schools – with bumper school years from Kindi to year 2 at the moment.
There is dispute about whether the baby bonus worked. It had a pre-natalist intent but some researchers felt the booming economy made parents more confident to breed not the cash.
Now Tony Abbott knows better than to call on Australian women to have a kid for the country but I suspect the Opposition Leader’s paid parental leave scheme has a similar motive. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Year Book reports that the number of couples without dependent children has risen 30% over the last 10 years and is rising faster than all other family types. Couples without children are projected to outnumber those with children next year. Being childless by choice is now an explicit social trend. Yet we need more taxpayers to pay for our ageing population.
But will it work? A recent study by AMP/NASEM and University of Canberra found kids cost between half a million and just over a million bucks a lifetime. Paid parental leave will help keep women on leave for their baby and then stay in the workforce but it doesn’t come close to giving us the confidence to raise that money.
But perhaps it’s not all about the money.
In the United States the latest Time Magazine had fun with similar statistics on breeding. It coupled childlessness with that tired old concept we’ve banned here at ‘Daily Life’. You know that one that we always ask of women but not men; ‘having it all “. Have no fear - I’m not going there. No one has it all. Yet watching a discussion about the issue recently I was entranced by a proposed theory about the role of ‘expectations’ and indeed the pull for unattainable perfection that may be putting us off kids. Perhaps it’s not all about money or maternity leave.
On ‘The Drum’ Journalist Catherine McGrath quite rightly pointed out that there’s such a modern day anxiety about having kids and sculpting them into perfect beings that it’s often seen as something just too hard.
Now I’m not arguing that people who don’t want kids should have them. Heck no. I can see from the outside that my life does involve some servitude, compromise and financial kneecapping. Children may be at the core of meaning in my life, but they are not the only way to find purpose. I adore my children beyond words but I admire women who have the empowered maturity to buck social pressure to breed if they don't want to.
Yet I worry what it says about our society that so many young women feel that having kids is now seen as all too hard, messy and chaotic to even consider. Perhaps by fetishising motherhood and by professionalising parenthood we are indeed making it a standard too impossible to reach and too easy to fail. A study into the reasons for being childless by choice in Western Australia found a third may do it later (when is a ‘right’ time?), a third didn’t feel maternal or paternal and many thought kids would ruin their lifestyle.
Clearly our expectations of lifestyle have changed somewhat. My parents had kids before they had financial security, a home, or even finished studying. They muddled along as best they could. My mother didn’t tell us to do our homework or take us to music lessons and while she wanted the best for us there was not such a competitive insanity about schools, academic performance, sporting ability or raising successful children.
In comparison my generation wanted to be settled before they stopped birth control. My younger brother wanted even more - a renovated home with a nursery. Both of us feel far more judged and anxious about our role as parents and are surrounded by much more conflicting advice than the trusty bible of our babyhood written by Dr Spock. Combined with a want and a need to work and that relatively new concept of ‘parenting’ we often feel we’re failing on all tasks.
My two-year-old niece came to stay with me recently and I laughed at the two pages of typed notes in her bag stipulating everything from putting her hair up in the bath to her pet word for poo. I remembered the thoroughness of having one small child – the belief you could almost be in charge and on top of things. It didn’t last long for me and had truly gone by the time I had my second. I learnt life is imperfect, messy, chaotic and I was rarely in control.
It seems there’s a competition for perfection in parenting and in life. Yet I find it bizarre that we even think it exists.
Because we all know there’s no perfect picket fence or house. All children are flawed in some way. As are their parents. So if you are considering kids my advice is rather different to Peter Costello’s. I’d say take a deep breath and ‘let go’. Embrace the chaos. You are not in control. Parenthood is not all about giggles, cuddles and a calling. It’s also about embracing imperfection, questioning and a lack of control. And only then does it become fun.
Life is full of uncertainty, love, despair, danger and desire. So have a child or don’t. But don’t expect life to be neat and perfect. To always make sense. Embrace fate. Embrace chaos. Embrace the mess.
Or as Salvador Dali said, "Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it."