Register Sunday | June 17 | 2018

To Breed or not to Breed?

A thirty-something Canadian woman decides

I'm the last of my close girlfriends to not have children. This hit me as I strolled along the Bow River in Calgary watching one of my oldest drinking buddies towing her toddler along in his green plastic wagon. Talk about surreal-where we once mused about how to play the first date or the best way to negotiate a raise, now conversations centre on birthday party etiquette and recurring ear infections. It just crept up.

Something else is creeping up too. Since the eighties, the average age of Canadian women giving birth to their first child has been on the rise. Two decades ago, three-quarters of new moms in Canada were under thirty. Today, that number is just over half. As women wait longer and longer to start families the question is no longer "when should I start?" It's whether it even makes sense to begin at all.

The main difficulty is that, before you have children, you only know one thing-what life is like without them. My husband and I have only secondhand kid experience; some babysitting in our teens and the meltdowns we see playing out in the grocery store aisle. We also have the closest proxy-nieces and nephews. (They're usually wonderful, but when they aren't we get to go home).

Based on our experiences, to start a family seems like walking across hot coals simply because you've been told it's spiritually uplifting. Fortunately, my business training has given me the skills for independent decision-making. They include working from known facts, basing one's decision on the best information available at the time, keeping emotion and sentimentality out of the process and remembering that "doing nothing" is a viable option. I have decided to apply this wisdom to the great baby debate.

Always exceed expectations
The problem is that it is expectedthat one should want to start a family. Society doesn't quite know how to take people who reject the idea of nurturing the next generation. In Canada, only 7 percent of women and 8 percent of men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four say they don't intend to have children. When I've made that declaration in the past, it is usually met with disbelief. Over lunch, I recently told two co-workers that my husband and I had been certain that we didn't want children. This declaration generated gasps, gaping jaws and expressions of "Really? Are you serious?" My parents told me I would change my mind and my sister simply dismissed what I said outright.

Would-be parents must navigate the demands of pregnancy. Getting it right is critical to the future health of your children. You're supposed to stop drinking from the time you begin trying to conceive until you finish nursing-this could conceivably be a period of two years or more. You're supposed to give up sushi and soft cheeses while pregnant-staples of my diet. And you're not supposed to do any serious physical training such as the long-distance running that I love. The idea of giving up red wine with dinner, dramatically changing my diet and not training for a year or more seems a rather large sacrifice-and if I'm thinking it's too much of a sacrifice, maybe this whole parenthood thing is not really such a good fit for me.

Minimize your losses
Lifestyle adjustments aside, my husband and I do recognize that by not making a choice, we are, in fact, making one. The ticking of the biological clock is now fortified by science. Dr. Leanna Zozula, a psychologist who specializes in reproductive mental health, says women have a best-before date of thirty-five and new research has shown that men do too-it's forty. Not only does fertility begin to decline rapidly after this point, the likelihood of chromosomal defects starts going up. Nature has a way of playing your hand, even if you don't. If you wait, there may be serious issues to address.

According to Dr. Zozula, the experience of fertility problems can take a tremendous toll on one's emotions and relationships. "It's a hugely stressful experience," she says. "Some research has even quoted it as being as stressful as being diagnosed with a terminal illness such as cancer or AIDS."

Even if my husband and I could have a baby, what if motherhood didn't turn out to be everything I had hoped? It's not like you can send kids back once they're here. Dr. Zozula sees a lot of women who become very depressed, especially when motherhood isn't at all what they had expected. "It happens a lot. It's very common, but nobody talks about it," she says. Post-partum depression actually affects one in six women. While help is available to work through those issues, going down the baby-making road means you may have to deal with them. You're committed; through the diapers, the 2 a.m. feedings, the public temper tantrums, the teenage hormones, the experiments with your stereo equipment (and later your car). It's enough to scare you off sex. Almost.

Do the cost/benefit analysis
With evidence mounting against even starting, it's still necessary to consider a few other facts before making a choice-namely, that children are a serious expense. The Canadian Council on Social Development has published statistics that show it can cost $166,549 to raise a child to the age of eighteen. (Boys are usually a bit more expensive at $166,972-they eat more). Clearly the days when a large brood was an economic advantage (providing more hands for the farm, etc.) are over. Children have become a luxury item.

For women, the days of actively pursuing a demanding career with young kids in tow are also over. While a survey by Salary.com found that a stay-at-home mother would earn $134,121 USD a year if adequately paid for all her work, what that work actually entails is housekeeping, day-care, cooking, computer and laundry operations, janitor duties, van driving, facility management, chief executive officer responsibilities and psychotherapy. This is fine if your education and profession experience are focused in one or more of those areas. Mine is not. The challenge, as I see it, is to ensure all these things get done in a sixty-hour work-week while somehow adding the nurturing of children to the mix. It seems a great recipe for a breakdown. Based on what I've observed among my friends, and in the stats showing the declining participation rate of Canadian women in the labour force, it seems to be the career that gives.

After all the effort I've put into my career, I now have a good track record, a solid resume and a professional network. If I flipped to the "mommy track," would I not be squandering that investment? Almost every one of my friends who has gone back to work after maternity leave has reduced their hours so they could still fit everything in. Some admit to being a bit resentful about it-as a general rule, when promotions and juicy assignments get handed out, they don't give them to the part-timer, no matter what the HR policy tells you.

Invest for the future
In spite of all that, children are an excellent and lasting way to pass along your value system and world views; your best shot at immortality. By opting not to have children, you forfeit the opportunity to those who do procreate. But while it is flattering to think my husband and I have a world view so special that future generations really need to be touched by its influence, we don't suffer from delusions of grandeur. I'm pretty sure the world will carry on just fine without our two cents.

It's a sentiment shared by the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a society dedicated to the extinction of humans by having them voluntarily decide not to breed. The earth is already taxed by the number of humans living on it today, they argue. According to Environment Canada, the consumption of water, energy and other resources in Canada is among the highest in the world-would it be responsible to add one more Canadian to the mix?

Canadian nationalists would say "yes." The country's fertility rate is only 1.5, which means the number of children being born to Canadian women is lower than the number of people required to create one-in a nutshell, we aren't replacing ourselves. This seems to be a problem throughout the western world, where countries are offering financial incentives for women to have children. I guess I'm not alone in wondering about the logic of starting a family-both Russia and France are trying out new programs, and even Canada has its own version with the child tax benefit.

No review would be complete with out assessing the physical considerations. The idea of what might happen to my body after forty weeks of stretching followed by a natural or surgical delivery are, frankly, a bit scary. Women who have experienced childbirth are remarkably tight-lipped about the experience but I've had a few friends confide that things just aren't the same afterwards. Plus, a lot of women never seem to lose those last few pounds.

Sometimes you take a leap of faith
If facts were the only deciding factor, even fewer Canadians would probably take the leap into parenthood. The odds are certainly against you. But sometimes you just need to go with your gut. In listening to parents talk about their kids, particularly when they are succeeding and thriving, you hear the pride and satisfaction beaming through. When my nieces and nephews reach up to give me a hug, something inside gets a little mushy-even when they have sticky fingers. So, who knows-while none of the logic holds together and the benefits aren't self-evident, maybe my husband and I will make the leap after all. Only time will tell.