There’s a puzzling anomaly at work in European fertility rate figures. Virtually every country in the EU is experiencing worrying decline in population except for Ireland and France.
At just under the ideal average of 2.1 live births per woman, Ireland has no current concerns regarding population stability. However, in Germany, where standards of living are higher and where supports for families, such as childcare and maternity benefits, are more robust, the fertility rate is far lower.
In fact, at 1.38 (as of 2012), it is dangerously near to the figure that is regarded as a red line for population stability. A rate of 1.3 live births per woman implies a halving of the stable population size every 45 years.
So why are German women turning away from motherhood? Dr Valerie Heffernan, Head of the Maynooth University Department of German, along with two fellow researchers, is about to embark on a study that may throw new light on the issue.“The decision to become a parent is influenced by many factors,” says Heffernan. “Policy makers in Germany are aware of the economic and social factors that come into play. In response to these they have introduced measures such as universal kindergarten places and better maternity and paternity benefits.
What is the image of the mother in German cultural expression?
However, these new measures have not yet had a significant impact on the fertility rate in Germany.
This study is designed to look at a previously underexplored element in a woman’s decision-making process: culture. What is the image of the mother in German cultural expression? What kinds of mothers are we seeing on television and reading about in books? And, if those expressions of motherhood are negative, is that feeding into women’s decisions around parenthood?”
The study, funded by the Irish Research Council, sets out to examine the cultural transmission of motherhood in Germany, with an eye to broadening out the investigation to the rest of Europe.
Dr Heffernan is an expert in contemporary women’s writing in Germany. She is also a mother. She says that when she had her first child she was surprised to find herself entering a world of expectations, images and perceptions, many of which were generated in the media and in culture. She wondered, does it mean something different to be a mother in Germany than it does in Ireland or elsewhere? “Given the perceived crisis of motherhood in Germany, and the level of public debate about it, I felt it would be useful to explore the question of how cultural representations of motherhood fit into the phenomenon of falling birth rates, if at all.”
In recent years there have been some high profile publications that have inflamed public debate around this topic in Germany. In The Eva Principle (2006) television presenter Eva Herman argued that German women needed a change of mindset, and advocated a return to a traditional view of motherhood.
Controversially, Herman suggested that women may be happier in the home than in careers. The Blind Side of the Heart (Julia Franck) the German Book Prize winner in 2007, featured a central figure who abandons her son at a train station. The book generated so much public discussion that it prompted Dr Heffernan to explore this aspect of the public relationship with motherhood in Germany.
Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche (2008) caused a furore as it featured the sexual exploits of a young woman – a woman who significantly made a decision at the age of 18 to be sterilised.
The fact that all of these titles were bestsellers indicates an appetite amongst German society to explore themes of motherhood. “Culture does not simply represent who we are. It shapes the way we look at the world. A book, a TV programme or a film can alter our perceptions of people and situations. I was surprised at the reaction of the German public to The Blind Side of the Heart. And it is not the only book about deviant motherhood to have been published in Germany in recent years.”
Dr Heffernan is set to focus on published literature that has impacted on German readers, whether that literature falls under the category of high, middle or low brow. Her fellow researchers will examine images of motherhood in film and on TV. The sex of the producers and the intended audiences in each case will also be considered.
Time to explore other avenues
The role of fathers in the birth rates of Europe is also on her radar, but not as part of this particular study. “It has been suggested that falling birth rates may in part be influenced by the difficulties women face in finding a willing partner, but that’s a subject for another study,” she says.
“We may well conclude that images of motherhood in culture don’t have an impact. However, with policy initiatives designed to address economic and social obstacles failing to reverse the situation, it’s time to explore other avenues.”
This study, which will focus on the cultural arena in Germany, is planned as the first step in a much larger inquiry into the role of culture in European fertility rate patterns. Latvia has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe, and Dr Heffernan and her team are keen to look more closely at the birth rate rate among Latvians living in Ireland and other parts of Europe to see if their exposure to other cultures makes a difference. They are also keen to engage in some qualitative research that might reveal the attitudes of mothers, and those who have chosen not to be mothers, around Europe.
Hopefully they may one day get to the bottom of why Ireland is continuing to buck all trends, a phenomenon for which demographic research to date has been unable to account.
“We have a significantly higher birth rate than countries like Sweden; which is regarded as a very supportive environment for parenthood; or Spain, which shares our Catholic history and culture of the family. We have been through a recession and supports for parents here are not considered particularly progressive. And yet we are having more babies than ever. It would be very interesting to explore why that is.”