Redefining the Australian family
She works hard for the money. She works hard at home. He’s burning the candle at both ends, chasing the dollars they desperately need to get ahead in Australia’s big cities. Are they working to live or living to work? And with a swiftly dropping birth rate, are we poised to become a geriatric nation where children are rarely heard or seen? DANIEL DONAHOO begins team coverage with a report on why men are increasingly shying away from parenthood
My colleague shook his head when he heard the news. “Bloody good decision,” he said. “I should have had kids younger.” At 47, he was the father of a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, and was feeling the strain. He told me on more than one occasion that he’d be 63 when his youngest child turned 21. It wasn’t a prospect he was embracing.
I was 23, full of energy and ready to tackle fatherhood head-on.
For both men and women, there are many benefits in having children at a young age. Women are healthy and more fertile. The likelihood of complications in pregnant women over 35 increases dramatically. Men have more strength and energy, and are not yet set in their childless ways. And both genders carry less of the cynicism that the years seem to pile on.
Despite all this, Australian men are helping stall the baby-making process. The average age for first-time dads is 32.5 years: an all-time high. These days, if you are dad in your early 20s, you are on the fringe.
Recent projections suggest we will continue to put off having children. Consequently, fewer Australian couples will end up with kids. The Australian Institute of Family Studies estimates that in 2016, more Australian couples will be without children than with. The birth rate has definitely boarded the down escalator, and the implications could be pronounced.
While the statistics strike out, men of all ages are discovering that becoming a dad is an ambition that is never too early, or late, to pursue. Young dads might be an endangered species, but they would do well to hear the messages from older men who are finding more in fatherhood than they thought was there.
A friend of mine who became a dad at 42 is disappointed he left his run so late. He and his partner won’t be having another child. He now works part-time and shares the care of his daughter, which he says is “the bloody toughest and most rewarding gig” he has ever had. He can understand now why he grew up around so many large Catholic families. “Creating your own family is a feat greater than anything,” he says.
Men these days are often busy establishing careers and embracing singledom. But, for some, stumbling upon fatherhood has made life more fulfilling and shattered all pre-conceptions that having responsibility for a child is something to fear.
I committed to a relationship and having a baby after only knowing my wife for five months. In a society where many men turn and run I decided to stand my ground. By not shirking the responsibility my libido had thrust upon me I suddenly found myself more employable, more capable and tackling responsibilities that the constant delay of singledom had denied me.
Consequently, my life took on new meaning and much greater emotional and financial responsibility. My partner and I turned our $10,000 combined debt, amassed before children, into an eight-acre asset by the time my first son was six months.
Some regard the popularity of delaying fatherhood as a major factor in the decrease of couples with kids. It is an issue documented by Leslie Cannold in her new book, What, No Baby?, which points the finger at men and asks them to consider whether their lack of commitment to equal relationships and shared responsibility is fair on our society.
Cannold wrote recently, “In particular, my research makes clear that while the vast majority of women want to become mothers, their freedom to choose to have children at any particular point is limited by a range of social circumstances and attitudes.”
One of those circumstances appears to be all those things young men believe they ‘should’ do before having kids.
“I want my son to get an education, travel and enjoy himself before he gets married,” one mother told me.
Here, the implication appears to be that marriage and having a family is not an enjoyable experience. Or at least, not as enjoyable as travelling the world.
The fact is that an increasing number of young Australian men are putting off fatherhood. It isn’t surprising when you measure the images of parenting against pop-culture images of the party-hard, single life. The women who adorn Ralph and FHM don’t ask men to settle down.
But some young men are proving that having children young is not the burden it is made out to be. They are choosing responsibility over partying.
As part of my recent research for a forthcoming book, I have been interviewing young dads about their experience of fatherhood. They unanimously agree that it is hard work. But they are living the cliché that the more work you put in, the more rewards follow. They are building upon their own childhood experiences and finding new ways to make family relationships work in the 21st century.
One of those men, Lifon Henderson, has spent his working life as an entertainer, but as a 26-year-old father of two boys he has returned to study to pursue a new career. His wife Barbara Sparks is also studying part-time. They both balance study, work and raising their children in a juggling act that beats anything Lifon does in his
They told me they are looking to be qualified and established in new careers by the time their boys go to school. Having children for them was a grounding experience that brought direction into their lives.
Our society assumes study is something we should do before children. But many stay-at-home mums and dads are making the most of new developments in distance-education, thanks to the Internet and off-campus learning.
Julian and Anna Hetyey are a young professional couple in their mid-20s who are looking forward to the birth of their first child in just a couple of months. They see this as the first step in a move to reject the hectic work culture that currently dominates their lives.
Julian is adjusting his working arrangements as a lawyer to have a better work-life balance, while Anna will stop practicing podiatry and stay at home for the first few years of their child’s life.
Instead of cementing careers and paying off much of their mortgage before they have children, Julian and Anna have decided that having children will bring their lives a perspective it is currently lacking. They are interested in being part of a community first and foremost, instead of a workplace.
As for me, at 27, a big night out is usually a visit to my mum and dad’s. They take care of the kids and my wife and I can kick back and relax. Having children young has meant that my parents are considered young grandparents. Very few of their friends are grandparents.
It is a joy to watch my sons roll around on the floor with my dad, or play in the park with mum when they take the dog for a walk. Yet men who are delaying fatherhood are also delaying their parents’ grandparenthood. The longer it is delayed, the greater the risk to developing those inter-generational relationships.
Interestingly, the delay of parenthood isn’t for the lack of wanting children. A recent study of over 3,000 fertile Australians is proving that more of us want children than we assume, and we want more than one child. According to a recent Australian Institute of Family Studies report, “It’s Not For Lack of Wanting Kids”, a large majority of us aged 20-39 want two or three children.
In the survey men come out looking like they have great family intentions. Those who we would expect to be holding tightly onto their freedom are interested in parenthood. Over 60 percent of single men aged 20-29 ‘definitely want children’, while only 20 percent rule out ever having children. Almost 90 percent of married-but-childless men between 20-39 years indicate they definitely want kids.
So if we want kids, what’s the hold-up?
Men appear to have so many pre-set goals and objectives. There is little imagination or flexibility about the many ways a life can be lived. Many of us are stuck on a set of mantras promoted by marketers and the media: “I want to be secure in my career”; “I want to provide my children with economic security”; “I want to have at least half of my mortgage paid off”.
I never had a five-year plan. But my younger brother does, and so do many of his drinking buddies. And, despite wanting to have children one day, kids never seem to be factored into these five-year plans. If children are not in the plan, what does happen if one comes along? Many young men may be denying themselves a happiness they haven’t considered by boxing themselves into a life that is a series of dot points where family and kids don’t figure.
There is a modern-world life-checklist young men complete
before they move on to the next goal: finish school, check. Go to uni, check. Experiment with drugs, check. Travel overseas, check. Establish a career, check. Find a partner, check. Buy a house, check. Achieve financial security, check…Have children?
But what if one of those items doesn’t materialise? What if you get stalled for a while in finding the right career, or the right person to love?
The statistics suggest this is what is happening. The result is that while Australian men may aspire to have children, they are less likely to. And if they do, they are unlikely to have as many children as
Still, many men are out there challenging the checklist, taking the less-travelled path and becoming dads. These fathers may not stop the birth-rate decline, but they are demonstrating that there are
options out there. And that having kids isn’t the end of the world.