Sleep as self-fulfilment

Stone the crows! Why is the world turning contrary over kids? For years, self satisfied sisters in the media banged on about the joys of motherhood and the importance of maternity leave, assuming that everybody else would be fascinated by their families.

When Sian Powell wrote a column in The Australian suggesting that other people’s children were not her idea of fun the media matriarchy queued up to crucify her. [i]

But now the sisters have succeeded. With both political parties promising maternity leave and nobody daring to disagree, all of a sudden motherhood is not seen as the complete complement to career.

The crows cottoned on when they went to the pictures (yes they are old fashioned birds, not only do they call the movies “pictures” they actually paid to see the film rather than illegally downloaded it) to see the fabulous Tina Fey’s Date Night.

In her TV series 30 Rock, Fey plays Liz Lemmon, the sadly single head writer on a television show whose staff carry on as if they were her kids. But in Date Night she is real estate agent Clair Foster, who finds work a haven from home where she is at her children’s beck and call. “Liz is overworked, exhausted and sick of being alone. Clair is overworked, exhausted and desperate for some time alone,” Meredith Blake writes.[ii]

The crows are not bird brains and have no clue about the way genetics and social circumstance shape what women want, but it appears that motherhood is like every other aspect of life – youse pay your money and makes your choice.

But the fact Fey’s characters can’t have it both ways will offend the orthodox.

Culture war warriors who sneer at singles and childless couples as emotionally barren, say only self obsessed sophisticates avoid family life, pointing to the pick-up in the Australian birth rate as evidence sensible people understand children give meaning to our lives.

In 2002, Virginia Haussegger attacked the sixties sisterhood for selling her generation a bill of goods about the superiority of working over family life:

But the truth is – for me at least – the career is no longer a challenge. … I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfillment came with a leather briefcase. [iii]

It started a discussion that is still going. Last week Caroline Overington argued Haussegger should get one of the top pontificating perches at the Sydney Morning Herald because of the piece’s enduring influence.[iv]

At first glance the family’s fans have the numbers.

Our birth-rate is now at an historic high, ending a long decline commencing after WWII. The Productivity Commission says this is because the economy is strong and society is adjusting to the idea mothers need flexible working arrangements.

But while there is no doubting Australians want more kids, they don’t want that many more. According to the ABS, the fertility rate in 2007 was 1.93 babies per woman. While the raw numbers do not explain everything, this still seems below replacement level per couple.[v] It appears Ms Haussegger’s generation has decided that a couple of kids provide as much fulfillment as five.

It’s the same all over.  While the baby bust in the developed world is old news – births in OECD countries per woman fell from 2.71 in 1970 to 1.71 in 2008 – it looks like the rest of the world will soon have to provide for fewer people.[vi] According to The Economist, by the middle of the next decade 50 per cent of the people on the planet will live in countries where the population is only replacing itself.[vii]

There are all sorts of arguments why this is occurring. Unsurprisingly, economists argue it is all down to, well, economics – people have fewer kids when they know the state will provide them with a pension.[viii] Social scientists suggest a lower fertility rate has a compounding effect, that as people see fewer kids around their extended family they feel less pressure to procreate.

As academics from the Institute of the Bleeding Obvious (alright, I made that up) put it:

… in modern societies, in which cultural networks are largely made up of non-kin, the cultural institutions that encourage individuals to marry and have a family tend to be less strong and are becoming weaker and the cultural rewards for successfully pursuing alternative goals, such as a career, are increasing.[ix]

But nobody knows for certain how many, or any indeed any, children will make women happy.

The crows are clueless on this. But they reckon Tina Fey is on the right track. Wherever women control their own fertility and make their own life choices, which generally include having the independence to earn and spend their own income by working outside the family, they will have the number of children that allows them two things – a life, and enough sleep.


[i] The stoush was summarised in Stephen Matchett, “Baby Talk”, Sydney Institute Quarterly, 4, II (August 2000) 22-24,

[ii] Meredith Blake, “ ‘Date Night’: Tina Fey and Steve Carrell’s Last Chance,” The Atlantic, April 2010

[iii] Virginia Haussegger, “The sins of our feminist mothers”, The Age, July 23 20002

[iv] Caroline Overington, “Two needed to fill Devine’s shoes,” The Australian, October 4 2010

[v] Productivity Commission, “Recent Trends in Australian Fertility,” @ recovered on October 6

[vi] OECD, OECD Factbook, (May 2010) @ www., recovered on October 9

[vii] “Go forth and multiply a lot less,” The Economist, October 29 2009

[viii] Michele Boldrin et al, Fertility and social security”, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 11146 (February 2005) @f , recovered on October 3

[ix] Lesley Newson et al, “Influences on communication about reproduction: the cultural evolution of low fertility,” Evolution and Human Behaviour, 28 (2007) 199-219, 201 @