Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Kristen Gyles | ‘No kids yet?’

Published:Friday | May 24, 2024 | 12:08 AM
Representational image of a mother and her children unloading furniture.
Representational image of a mother and her children unloading furniture.

Many young people, particularly women, get the privilege of seeing smiles shrivel under the awkward weight of disappointment when they can’t answer the “No kids yet?” question. We live in an intergenerational world, characterised by people of different ages and backgrounds and consequently, different sets of experiences and expectations. For the Baby Boomers, for example, it might be not only disappointing but strange that one could actually decide not to have children, or be 30 years old and still waiting on the ‘right’ time to have children.

Some would have been surprised to learn that Jamaica’s total fertility rate (TFR) is now below the replacement birth rate of 2.1, which is the average number of live births a woman would need to have in order to keep the population constant. Our population is on the verge of decline because people aren’t having enough kids. Imagine that.

The national reproductive health survey conducted in 2021 and released by the National Family Planning Board earlier this year, revealed the stark contrast between the 1975 total fertility rate of 4.5 births per woman and the 2021 total fertility rate of 1.9.

Hopefully, we can have a frank discussion on why fewer women are having children and why those having children are having fewer children. It isn’t coincidental or perchance. There are fewer planned pregnancies and fewer unplanned pregnancies.

We know why there would be fewer unplanned pregnancies in a modern world. But why are so many planning not to have children? (Or not planning to have children?)

The most widely repeated explanation surrounds the cost of living. It takes more than just a few shillings to provide even the bare minimum for a child in the 2024 Jamaican economy, and the sad reality is that some have nothing more than poverty to share with a child.

LIFE HAS CHANGED

Life has changed drastically over the past three or four decades when life was not characterised by expensive things like college education and daily transportation. Home ownership was not a pipe dream for so many working persons and there were fewer fancy gadgets to buy. Life was cheaper overall and much less money centric.

Much unlike over 40 years ago when education was free, a parent who wants to see their child survive life has to budget for educational expenses all the way up to the tertiary level. Without a tertiary education, will the poor child earn enough to buy a patty for lunch when it costs $700 in the next few years?

On a more serious note though, when did schooling become so expensive? Even public schools have adopted a rather entrepreneurial thrust in which it is the norm for parents to be taxed with all kinds of miscellaneous expenses that are fabricated out of thin air. On Jeans Day parents have to pay money for their children to wear jeans. On Breast Cancer Awareness Day, parents have to pay money to let their children wear pink. On Fun Day, parents have to pay money for their children to enter the compound.

Schools are money-making machines now, especially with co-curricular activities that sometimes require a greater investment than the academics itself. Many parents would hate to know that their children have developed any interest in certain sports or activities, were it not for the fact that they need the kids to stay occupied during the afternoon hours leading up to the end of the work day – which leads to the other issue.

Life in the rat race is very hard when you have a baby on your hip. Life has become overwhelmingly busy for people working to find the money to pay for all of life’s many expenses and well, children make life busier, especially for women.

So, yes, it does seem like people have become more self-centred and less willing to volunteer for a lifelong duty of child-rearing.

SELFISH REASONS

But it is hard not to also point out that people have children largely for selfish reasons too. We certainly don’t have children because we are doing anyone a favour. We have children because we expect to live a happier and more fulfilling life with children in the picture or because we take pride in seeing a miniature version of ourselves running around the house. At the end of the day, we have children because of selfish reasons, and we also don’t have children because of selfish reasons.

And so, there’s no reason to think the declining birth rate is on account of growing self-centredness among women. Maybe just a shift in values. More and more women see themselves as more than just their ability to have babies and consequently, do not have starting a family as a priority. Instead, they have had to prioritise education and work in order to survive in a harsh economy, and they increasingly make that their focus.

Furthermore, many women just don’t like the way society treats mothers. While we applaud mothers for their noble and self-sacrificing efforts, we continue to put unkind and unrealistic expectations on them. Can we really expect a woman to be the traditional head cook and bottle washer at home while maintaining a thriving career? Definitely not without bouts of burnout and exhaustion, and certainly not if she has no help at home. The life of a superwoman is an exhausting one and is flat-out unappealing.

Some will say we should get back to the basics if we want to solve this problem. But will the ‘basics’ mean career stagnation for women?

Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com.