Jezebel, the women-focused website with a penchant for feminism and cute animals, recently declared the beginning of a new era with the eye-catching headline: “New Trend: Men Wanting Babies, Women Wanting Freedom”. The article, and a similar one in New York Magazine, proclaims an end to supposedly long-standing paradigm in which maternally driven women have been forcing men into reluctant fatherhood. Men, apparently, are now the ones pushing for children.
Their story goes something like this. Back when women did all the work raising children and caring for the home, women wanted to have children, but men did not. Now that men are taking on a greater share of the workload at home, men want to have children, but women do not. In summary, the anticipation of more work is making men eager to become fathers and the anticipation of less work is making women more reluctant.
Perhaps that is not quite their argument, but it does hinge heavily on the relative contribution women make to childrearing, which, in reality, has only decreased over time.
This argument of a gender reversal in the willingness to have children is shakily supported by an anecdote about a married couple in which he is keen to have children, and she is still trying to decide, and a 2011 Match.com study of singles over the age of 21 which found that more men who had no children under the age of 18 living at home said they wanted to have children (24 per cent) than did single women with no children at home (18 per cent).
It seems to me, however, that if you want to proclaim a new trend, you should be relying on something a little more substantial than “conventional wisdom” from the past. And the evidence from the past suggests that there is absolutely nothing new about men being more eager to have children than women.
The Statistics Canada General Social Survey of the family has been asking Canadian men and women about their fertility intentions for decades with this question, “How many children do you plan to have, including the ones that have already been born or you are expecting at this time?”
When this question was first asked in 1990, more women than men expressed a disinterest in having children. Among childless men and women between the ages of 15 and 44, 15 per cent of women said they had no desire to have children in the future compared to only 10 per cent of men. Additionally, more men than women expressed a desire to have children in every age group and regardless of whether they were married, single, cohabitating, or divorced.
As expected, the share of women who wish to remain childless has increased over time, up to 23 per cent in 2011, but contrary what we are being told, the share of men who wish to remain childless has increased by even more, almost doubling to 19 per cent.
While the media seems fixated on women who are choosing to forgo motherhood, the trend in men is much more interesting. It seems that in an era in which women are making a bigger contribution to the household income, and in which men are expected to dedicate more hours to parenting, men are responding by acting more like women: they are willing to forgo parenthood all together.
Back in 1990, Canadian women out-earned their husbands in only one in five marriages in which both the husband and wife worked. Today, the share of those marriages in which the wife earns more than her husband has climbed to almost one in three. Economic theory predicts that when dividing the responsibility for childcare, the parent who has the lowest income should be the one who reduces their work hours when that is necessary. Relative to the past, today that person is more frequently the father and some men, like some women, are choosing not to make that sacrifice.
There is no new trend in which men want babies. Men have always wanted babies as long as women were willing to make all the sacrifices. Now that those sacrifices are more evenly shared between parents, no one should be surprised to learn that fewer men now want to have children.