The entire hullabaloo this week in the media about babies, fertility, marriage and parents should focus our minds on a most puzzling development in Ireland over the past few years: we are having a lot of children. Why are we experiencing our second baby boom since the late 1970s?

In every other European country over the past 40 years, the richer the country becomes, the fewer children are born.

Here, we are bucking that trend. When we were poor in the 1980s our birth rate collapsed, but now our population is rising in tandem with our wealth.

More perplexingly, why are Irish women having more children than anywhere else in Europe, in the face of the most woeful childcare provision?

Economic theory and basic logic predict that countries with the best state-provided pre-school childcare should make it easier for women, particularly working women, to have children.

Therefore, women in places such as Scandinavia, Spain, Germany and Holland should have higher birth rates than countries that make it harder for working women to have children.

Yet this has not happened. In the rich world, Irish, Kiwi and American women are having considerably more babies than their counterparts in Europe. On average, Irish women are having two children each, while women in Catholic Spain are having half that number.

We are having 20 per cent more children than the EU average. Ireland, New Zealand and America are what could be called neo-liberal economies, where childcare is ad-hoc and not nearly as comprehensive as the continental countries where the state provides excellent childcare, maternity and paternity leave, tax breaks for extra children and a variety of other state supports for parents.

So why are the hard-pressed, hardworking women in neo-liberal economies defying logic and having more babies? To paraphrase the T�naiste, why is Boston more fertile than Berlin?

Before we examine this issue, it’s worth having a look at trends in Irish fertility. In 1960 we had the oldest population in Europe. By the time the Pope came here in 1979 we had the youngest.

Thereafter the birth rate plummeted to such an extent that by 1990 we had one of the lowest birth rates in the EU.

All demographers suggested back then that this trend would embed itself in our culture and Ireland would follow the low birth rate experience of other Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain.

But this did not happen. Instead, we experienced what I term the Ray Houghton effect.

Nine months after Houghton lobbed the ball over the Italian keeper in Giants Stadium, we started having babies again – and lots of them. Houghton’s aphrodisiac effect outlasted his own fine career, and by 1999 – just ten years after Ireland registered the fastest declining birth rate in Europe – we were back up there again on top of the EU baby list.

No other country in the western world has experienced such a zig-zagging birth rate. If couples are not going to behave in a predictable fashion, perhaps we might excuse some of the more ham-fisted mistakes of our planners. The birth rate and the structure of the population determine how many hospitals, schools and roads need to be built.

More importantly, the age of the population influences the politics of the nation – the older the population, the more conservative the state.

In the 1960s, the concerns, morals and preferences of Europe’s oldest population were reflected in our laws and our political status quo.

Trends in Irish fertility back then seem quite bizarre today. Our population was maintained by relatively few women having relatively many children.

Those Irish women who were married had four children on average.

An amazing statistic is that one-third of all births in Dublin’s maternity hospitals in 1960 were the fifth birth or higher.

By the late 1990s that figure had plunged. Today, only one in 20 women has a fifth child or more. (Figures from Trends in Irish Fertility by Tony Fahey, ESRI 2001.)

Instead of a relatively small number of large families, we are now seeing a boom in small families in Ireland. Our new baby boom is characterised by one and two-child families. Using the same statistical basis as above, over half of the women giving birth this year in our maternity hospitals will be having their first baby – way ahead of the EU average.

But the question is: why now? Ireland does not have any childcare provision to speak of, and paid maternity leave is among the shortest in Europe. Also, Irishwomen are working harder than ever.

Taken together with exorbitant creche fees, the expansion of private education and the increased paid supervision of our children, economics would suggest that the cost of having a kid has risen so much that the birth rate should fall.

But the opposite has happened. Contrast this with the eastern European states. Birth rates are falling rapidly in eastern Europe, despite the eastern European countries having fantastic state provided child support.

The reason that Serbs, Bulgarians, Russians, Czechs and Poles are not having children is that they simply cannot afford them. It is also possible that their hopes for the future have been so blighted by economic devastation that they are not inclined to bring children into the world.

In fact, there is an intriguing argument: that a baby boom is an indicator of national optimism about the future. In societies where contraception has been widely available for many years, there does seem to be a link between choosing to have children and economic expectation about the future.

Western European countries responded to the hope brought about by the end of World War II by having huge families. Americans did likewise, as did the Japanese, Russians and Germans.

Contrast this with Ireland after the Famine. Because the national psyche was damaged and hopelessness reigned, family structures changed profoundly, and this torpor and economic desperation lasted for over 100 years. Without contraception, we responded to economic hopelessness with sexual abstinence.

The explosion in family formation since Ray Houghton’s famous lob – as seen by over half of births in Holles Street being to first-time mothers – is a sign of economic hope.

The Celtic Tiger was conceived on an unseasonably humid June night in 1994.

We bring children into this world when we think the place is going in the right direction. In general, children are the most conspicuous example of ‘buyin’ a couple can make to a society. Maybe the outrageous zig-zagging of our birth rate since the 1960s is a reflection of the stop-start economics that characterised this place until the early 1990s.

This might be why neo-liberal economies are seeing higher fertility than their quasi-socialist neighbours.

For the moment, the neo-liberal economies are doing better and providing more job opportunities, and appear to have a vibrancy and optimism that is lacking in the more state-dominated economies. Forget all the hi-falutin’ theories – the leading indicators of economic buoyancy are sales of prams, rattles and babygros.

After all the negative talk this week about children, it is heartening to know that even the dismal science can see them all – no matter where they come from – as a cause for celebration.

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