Saturday, 16 February 2013

Society is Designed for a Family of Four

*Warning: All three of the following links will count against your monthly free access to the Globe And Mail website.

The Globe and Mail has had a series of articles detailing the issues around falling fertility rates. Doug Saunders has written a couple of excellent articles. Sheryl Ubelacker wondered why Canadian families are settling on having only one or two children and came up empty.

The answer to that last is incredibly obvious to me, so obvious that I must be wrong. But the simple fact as I see it is that Canadian society has designed itself to accommodate families of four. Anything larger than that and you face extra obstacles and extra financial burdens.

As regular readers know, I have two sons (currently aged 6 and 8). My wife and I debated having more children, but practical considerations stopped us. When I chat with friends and colleagues about this I find we all run into the same roadblocks.

The first consideration is sleeping arrangements. Many homes are three bedroom. My wife and I have one room and each son has their own. If we had another child, where would it sleep? Do I spend money on renovations and build a fourth bedroom in the basement? Do we have two of the children share one room and one gets its own? The inherent unfairness of that just didn't sit well with us. Admittedly, children having their own room is a relatively recent social invention. I remember a sleep-over at a friends house when I was young lad. That family had six children at home. 4 boys and 2 girls. The two youngest sons not only shared a room, they shared a bed. And I slept with them. As a child that had his own room, that was an eye-opening (literally-I barely slept at all) experience.

But assuming you solve that, families run into a transportation issue. How do you fit three car-seats into a vehicle with two rows of seating? (Yes I've written about this before, but it's a legitimate issue.) The middle seat in the back row is unusable once two car-seats are installed, so you either spend weeks shopping for the skinniest model car seats you can find, or you buy a larger, heavier, more expensive fuel sucking vehicle with three rows of seating.

And then there's travel. Family vacation packages are designed for families of four (extra children cost extra $$). Hotel rooms accommodate up to four people. Restaurants accommodate four people around a table, buses,trains etc. accommodate four people on two benches. Heck, as our annual vacation we go camping with a pop-up tent trailer where the sleeping bunks accommodate a total of.. you guessed it.. four people.

(As an odd semi-related note, my wife and I noticed a weird issue when we were shopping for a new dining room table. Tables have shrunk in size over the years such that we had a hard time finding a table large enough all four of us can sit around and still serve ourselves from dishes of food set out on the table (pass-the-mashed-potatoes kind of setup). It appears home-cooking is so passe that we no longer have furniture designed for eating at home.)

Throw in the straight financial considerations of daycare, clubs, activities and many of us parents quickly decide that an extra child is just not worth the hassle. The simple fact is, parents with three or more children face burdens unrelated to the direct responsibility of raising children. If you have three or more children, the problems you face are exponential, not linear.

So yes, while we actually wouldn't have minded more children, we threw in the towel at two kids. As I see it, if we want to truly tackle the fertility crises, society and governments have to come to the realization that our issues are also structural. Society is designed for a family of four, and it is a heck of a lot easier to fit in with that design than it is to fight it.


Ken Breadner said...

Very well argued.
The car seat' thing still boggles my mind when I think about it. I can't remember far enough back to determine whether I *ever* had one. Somehow I doubt it, though. I probably sat on Mommy's lap in the front passenger seat--a place that is, of course, immediately lethal to anyone under the age of twelve today...
Your furniture aside scares me. Doesn't surprise me, but scares me.

Steve Denheyer said...

Another important factor IMO is the social pressure for parents to be super-involved in every aspects of their children's lives is stronger now then in the past. This raises the "time & effort investment" required, which will also depress a couples tendency to have more then 2.

Catelli said...

Agreed. I left that argument out as I had trouble working it into my underlying theme. But yes it is an important contributor.

Renter said...

Meh. I'm the oldest of 12.

Car travel is the worst - you need to be willing to operate a van. And even then you will run out of space, but by then usually the older kids can drive too.

We shared bedrooms in our 3 bdroom house: parents with the latest baby, girls in one room, boys in another. Multiple bunkbeds in each with dressers shoehorned in. No room to play in a bedroom, just a narrow walkway between door, beds, and closet. We also only had one bathroom, so it was not unusual to have a couple kids in the bathtub, someone else on the toilet, and yet another brushing teeth all at the same time.

But it's the COST. And the lack of privacy or any parental downtime that will drive you over the edge. I was the oldest daughter in the house and growing up in that atmosphere was the world's best birth control.