Oh no children, we forgot motherhood, did we?

Pru Goward, Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Anne Manne Motherhood: How Should We Care for Our Children?, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2005 (392 pp). ISBN 1-74114-379-9 (paperback) $29.95.

Deirdre Macken Oh No, We Forgot to Have Children! How Declining Birth Rates Are Reshaping Our Society Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2005 (232 pp). ISBN 1-74114-477-9 (paperback) $26.95.

Childlessness is one of Australia’s current national preoccupations. Our interest in the topic is kept alive not only by our uneasy feeling that this is both unnatural and undesirable, but also by disturbing econometric and demographic projections. Demographers predict that by the middle of this century one in four of us will be over 60 and the taxes of the rest will need to rise dramatically to support the largest generation of the elderly in history. The decline in fertility to 1.8 children per woman (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005) and our scientifically enabled longevity are officially to blame.

Without anything like consensus on the remedies for low fertility, neither government nor opposition is yet decided on a clear course of action. Perhaps our elected representatives are not certain that this decline is a bad thing; on a number of counts, including environmental sustainability, Australia might well be suited to a lower population. Yet the country remains concerned and fertility is never far from the nation’s front pages in some guise or another.

It is surprising, then, that it has taken so long for the appearance of these two books about childlessness in Australia. Journalist Deirdre Macken accepts the premise that the fertility decline must be addressed in the national interest. She argues that the availability of oral contraception, the emancipation of women and the failure of market economies to recognise and accommodate the family responsibilities of workers combine to produce an anti-child culture that, as children become less common, reinforces itself. Her public policy solutions—such as industrial regulations that allow parents flexible working arrangements, improved child care, and financial support for families as well as a cultural shift and better appreciation of the importance of children—are not unfamiliar. They are predicated on the belief that most women wish to be able to combine motherhood with working but that if they are forced to choose between them, an increasing number will forgo children.

Anne Manne, social philosopher and maternal feminist, would not, I suspect, agree that her book is concerned with childlessness. Rather her focus is the children who are born, the poor mothering to which they are then subjected, and the impact of this on child development. However her list of causes for poor motherhood is almost identical to Macken’s causes of childlessness. Perhaps unsurprisingly an economic, social and cultural structure that promotes childlessness might also downgrade motherhood, ensuring mothers themselves become part of this hegemony.

Australia might well be suited to a lower population.

This collusion of mothers in poor motherhood is exemplified, says Manne, by the current use of child care. In particular, she accuses women of putting very young children into child care knowing in their hearts that this is harmful. Nonetheless these women do it by rationalising that it is in not only their own best professional interests but also in the best interests of their child, or that while children may suffer they are not harmed. Manne’s anecdotal evidence is compelling and familiar. Her horror of child care is undisguised and her visceral account of the damage it does to children’s emotional and intellectual development in later childhood, supported by copious references, is chilling for any parent to read. Essentially Manne argues that what is often defended as the development of a child’s emotional resilience is, in fact, a damaging emotional shutting down. Only a mother, she pleads, can provide very young children (those under three years old) with the kind of care they need.

Maternal guilt might be considered a defence in some quarters; but not, I sensed with disappointment, in the righteous world of Anne Manne. Reading it made for much self-reflection; as the Dr. Spock child of a Truby King mother, I for example, was told and accepted it was important for my weeping, shuddering toddler to learn emotional self reliance and that our separation each morning at the child care gates was a necessary part of my daughter’s growing up. Just as I had accepted it at the Maternity Hospital, when my first born was whisked away from my bedside at the age of three days to be stood in the corner at the Nurse’s Station and left to scream alone, because, as the nurse sternly admonished me, I had spoilt her with too much picking up. New mothers are so timid. So she cried and I cried until an astonished hospital visitor could bear it no longer and brought her back to me. Several times I muttered aloud to the Manne book that at least I thought I was doing the right thing, but perhaps this is a poor excuse if your heart is breaking when you leave a child sobbing huge, world-shaking sobs but you leave her all the same.

Manne’s analysis of modern motherhood does not ignore childlessness; she recognises the importance of the fertility debate as an important weapon in the struggle of women to reclaim their traditional roles.

Manne and Macken agree that the principal villain in the fertility/bad mother tragedy is capitalism, but Manne couples the Invisible Hand with what she argues has been feminism’s repudiation of motherhood and disregard for the rights and interests of children. In the Manne world, New Capitalism has joined with Eva Cox to cruelly force children and mothers apart. A curious alliance, you would have to admit—and it is worth restating that every family-friendly flexibility ever won by women in the workforce has probably been won by feminists. So much for their disregard, but that is another story.

Manne's horror of child care is undisguised.

The roles of fathers are rarely mentioned by either writer, surprising considering the anecdotal evidence that young men are also consciously avoiding marriage and parenthood. This is a major flaw in my view; so long as the debates about childhood development and fertility are framed as women’s issues we are at risk of overlooking some very obvious solutions.

Although Macken and Manne may disagree on the solutions to these modern dilemmas of childlessness and maternal neglect they argue from the same premise; that motherhood is a primeval, almost religious calling . In the final chapter of Oh No, We Forgot to Have Children!, Macken, having struggled to find a reason to have children and then realising that her inability to identify one was emblematic of the entire fertility question, finally lets herself go: ‘when we speak about having children, our language tips into old territory … metaphysical maybe, other worldly perhaps, but whatever it is it comes from somewhere deep within, from sometime a long time ago’. Manne also makes a passionate defence of full time motherhood, at least for the first few years of life.

What neither writer admits is that low fertility and the downgrading of motherhood are class issues. This explains the preoccupation of the so called chattering classes, almost certainly including Macken, Manne, Goward and anyone reading this, with fertility. It is the women of this class who are not having children or are leaving them in child care (at great expense and after great effort). As in all things, if it is happening to the chatterati then it matters to the nation.

This is not to dismiss the significance of our falling birth rate but to more precisely position it as an issue for tertiary educated, higher income earning women. Unemployed women, poor women, and those who left school before Year 12 do not have a problem with childless or low fertility. Nor are they heavy users of formal child care, especially in the first year of a child’s life.

Current Household Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) data confirm that the proportion of childless women with tertiary degrees is twice the national average and that almost a third of women earning more than $50,000 per year remain childless by their mid forties (Fisher & Charnock 2003; Parr 2003; Tesfaghiorghis 2005). This is not true of well educated or high income earning men, which perhaps explains why the loud and persistent commentary from women journalists, academics and social commentators is tinged with resentment as they see their peer group brothers and ex-husbands happily go on to have both stellar careers and more children than they do.

Low fertility and the degrading of motherhood are class issues.

There are exceptions, like Anne Manne, who chose motherhood over a professional career and for her trouble considers she was forced to the periphery of her socioeconomic peer group. Consequently she takes an outsider’s view of her sisters’ mothering decisions. Her critique is not always easy for the sisters to swallow, which may explain the veil of censorious silence which has descended on her book.

Appreciating childlessness and neglectful mothering as class issues, how then do we regard them? Perhaps as eugenicists concerned not to see middle class virtues of intelligence and deferred gratification bred out? As geneticists concerned about loss of diversity in the gene pool? As economists committed to the principle that the way to optimise satisfaction (economist-speak for happiness) is through the maximisation of choice? Or as psychologists, sad for the women themselves? Perhaps we see class-differentiated fertility as an efficient outcome: those who can work should work to the maximum capacity while those of limited skills or ability perform the equally important task of populating the country. Perhaps it is right for women to separate out into worker bees and breeder bees.

Even if we prefer the idea of encouraging the chattering classes to breed on grounds of that most neutral of objectives, diversity, it is difficult to see how public policy can address the problem of neglectful mothering. Yes, workplace flexibilities and paid parental leave can enable the working mother to spend more time with her children and reduce demand for child care. But without either a determination to put motherhood first or the private decision to partner with a man who wishes to be an involved father, there will always be a limit on the capacity of a working mother to put her children first and a risk that she will resent the enormous social and opportunity cost she has paid for having children, a cost not born by her partner. Perhaps this is why Australian working women increasingly seem to opt for a single child (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996; Craig 2005).

Parenting, of course, is more than loving a very young child. Parenting is also concerned with teaching and training—doing the teaching and training as well as providing the resources for others to do it. Take the case of children with special needs. The report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training’s Inquiry into the education of boys, Boys: Getting it Right (2002) suggests boys with learning difficulties do better in well educated higher income households (frequently obtained through having two parents in paid work) than in poorer homes. For a variety of reasons these families (mothers but also fathers) are more likely to be aware of, seek to manage, and be able to afford special treatment for their children’s difficulties. Boys with dyslexia from poor homes are more likely to grow up to be illiterate, unemployed, and socially marginalised than boys with dyslexia from wealthier families.

It is difficult to see how public policy can address the problem of neglectful mothering.

All this does not mean that children can be left in poor child care, distressed and frightened, or at home ignored by mothers who are there but not there. But it does mean that every mother is herself a mixed blessing who brings pluses and minuses to the upbringing of her child. Being well educated yet choosing to be a full time mother is no guarantee of a perfectly happy and well brought up child; equally better quality child care, better and longer parental leave provisions, better family-friendly protections, and reduced working hours all round can enable a working woman to be a more effective mother. There are risks for children, whatever their mother does. As Manne’s account of the tragic upbringing of Kathleen Folbigg demonstrates, full time motherhood is no guarantee of even normality.

Consider class, fertility, work and motherhood again. While the absence of parental attentiveness and effort may affect a child’s opportunities and outcomes, these effects are clearly modest compared with the strong correlation between socio-economic background and children’s outcomes. Indeed socio-economic inequality has been identified by analysts ranging from the OECD to Dr. Fiona Stanley as a key explanation of the differences in children’s life outcomes. For Australian families, higher socioeconomic status means two working parents required to pay the school fees and attend to special needs. Yet paid work requires uninterrupted effort; if it is casual and low paid it can only make a limited contribution to family living standards. Women who leave the workforce for five years are, with exceptions like those who can write from home, signing their professional death warrants. With our user-pays system of education and training, retraining is frequently unaffordable. For the class of women we are talking about, this is a cruel dilemma and it is simply not fair or sufficient to dismiss their concerns as selfish or uncaring.

There are a range of solutions Australia could attempt if it considers it important for educated women to have children and bring them up satisfactorily. They are clearly more complex than Deirdre Macken’s industrial utopia for parents or Anne Manne’s pastoral vision of mothers with babies crawling in their laps, accompanied by shocking warnings to women that their children will otherwise grow up damaged. As Macken and Manne agree, it also needs a repositioning and a revaluing of children and family life by everyone, not just mothers. I would add that fathers, in particular, need to value children and family life more highly.

If the challenge of my generation was the right to work like men, then the challenge of this generation is the right to live like women, to bear and raise children, but with men, not in spite of them.


Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996, Family—Family formation, trends in fertility, Australian Social Trends 1996, Cat. no. 4102.0, ABS, Canberra [Online], Available: http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/b2d40fe49306cc67ca2569d00016436e? [2006, Jan 23].

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, Australian Demographic Statistics, Cat. no. 3101.0, ABS, Canberra, June [Online], Available: http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/1020492cfcd63696ca2568a1002477b5/ [2006, Jan 23].

Craig, L. 2005, A cross-national comparison of the impact of children on adult time, SPRC Discussion Paper No. 137, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Kensington [Online], Available: http://www.sprc.unsw.edu.au/dp/DP137.pdf [2006, Jan 23].

Fisher, K. & Charnock, D. 2003, Partnering and fertility patterns: An analysis of the HILDA survey wave 1, paper presented at the HILDA Conference, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 13 March.

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training 2002, Boys: Getting it Right, Report on the inquiry into the education of boys, Parliament of Australia, Canberra, October [Online], Available: http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/edt/eofb/report/front.pdf [2006, Jan 23].

Parr, N. 2003, Family background, schooling and childlessness in Australia: What HILDA tells us, paper presented to the 2003 British Society of Population Studies Conference, University of Bristol, 10–12 September.

Tesfaghiorghis, H. 2005, Australia’s fertility: A HILDA based analysis, paper presented at the 9th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Melbourne, 9–11 February [Online], Available: http://www.melbourneinstitute.com/hilda/Biblio/cp/Tesfaghiorghis2005.pdf [2006, Jan 23].

Pru Goward has been Australia’s Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner since 2001. She is an economist by training and a broadcaster and journalist by practice. She worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for nineteen years. She has also been a freelance writer, a high school economics teacher, university lecturer and media consultant. She has three daughters and has worked full time since her second child was two years old.