Jueves 5 de Octubre de 2006, Ip nº 173

Nuclear Implosion
Por Catherine Mayer

With youngest son Théophane nestled in the folds of her blue summer dress, Claire Denis looks as serene as a Renaissance Madonna. Her older children are safely berthed with their big sister, and this morning she continued the massive packing that her imminent house move demands. In just a few days, Denis, 38, her husband and their brood of nine will expand into a larger residence. Now 450 crates are sealed and only 50 more wait to be filled with toys and clothes and kitchenware and books and photos and the other flotsam of family life. The woman deserves a medal.

That's exactly the conclusion the French authorities reached earlier this year. In May, Denis traveled from her home in St.-Germain-en-Laye, an affluent Parisian commuter town, to the capital. There, in the Salle des Fêtes of the Elysées Palace, French President Jacques Chirac presented her with the Médaille de la Famille Française — the medal of the French family, founded in the '20s to express the nation's gratitude for fecundity. In France, a quartet of children might net their mother a bronze award, six or seven could snare her a silver, but only a respectable married mother of eight or more is deemed worthy of gold.

Each year, honors are bestowed on several thousand large families. If the concept seems anachronistic, that's because it is. There's a revolution sweeping through Europe, one more radical than any baby boomer on hallucinogenics could have dreamt up. The ideal of family life celebrated at the Elysées Palace and in town halls across France — of the nuclear family, that is, a man and woman, plus the offspring that they alone produced — is being toppled. In its place, Europeans are developing their own, innovative models of family. For millions, that means delaying the decision to have children until later in life — or not having them at all. For others, it means accepting a union between a gay or lesbian couple as a family, whether or not the Catholic Church agrees. Still other couples split up and re-form, in ever more complex constellations involving stepchildren and adopted children, as well as co-parents and friends who are co-opted as carers. For better or worse — and these changes all carry economic and emotional consequences — most European adults no longer live their lives in the bosom of a nuclear family.

One result of this ferment is fewer children, and the French are far from alone among West European governments in seeking to encourage population growth, fearing economic stagnation as the workforce dwindles. For some governments, that means pushing traditional values. Others are trying to work with social change. In its first term of office, Britain's Labour government introduced tax credits to support families with children but axed benefits that applied only to married couples. In July, Britain's Public Health Minister floated proposals to allow the country's fertility clinics to take on female patients regardless of whether a prospective father was involved, which would enable lesbians and single mothers to apply for treatment.

The hard fact is that most European populations are shrinking and getting older, and today's children can look forward to seeing a big chunk of their future earnings taxed to support their elders. Even for countries with liberal immigration policies, maintaining current population levels requires a birthrate of around 2.1 children per woman. Yet in 2004, Spain recorded a birthrate of 1.32, lower even than Germany's 1.37 and Italy's 1.33. Even France, the second-most fertile European country after Ireland thanks to the noble efforts of Claire Denis and her compatriots, failed to hit replacement levels, with a birthrate of 1.9. How is this playing out in European homes? Consider the family of 60 years ago. The paterfamilias comes home to his young wife. The baby boom that will fill maternity wards to bursting until the mid-1960s is just beginning. A child plays at her feet and the rounded belly beneath her apron suggests another is on the way.

Fast-forward to the present day. What lies behind the front door? The nuclear family is not dead — some 29% of E.U. households still include dependent children — but the age gap between parents and children is widening. Mothers with old faces and young children are now a common sight on the high street. The average age of women giving birth in the E.U. hovers at just below 30, up from 27.4 in 1991. That average falls between two distant poles: teenage pregnancies, which continue to rise in several countries, and a swelling contingent of graying progenitrices. In Spain, 13% of first-time mothers are over 40. In the U.K., the number of first-time mothers over 35 has trebled in 15 years. And medical techniques are extending the age at which women can conceive. On July 8, baby J.J. was born by C-section at a hospital in southeast England, weighing 3 kg. His mother, Dr. Patricia Rashbrook, 62 years old at the time, described him as "adorable"; her critics called her "selfish," noting that Rashbrook statistically is unlikely to see her son through university.

But even as the age horizon of traditional parenthood expands, many other options are now available. Some 13% of Europeans live alone, and every year the proportion of solo dwellers rises. So too do the ranks of heterosexual and single-sex couples living without children who now — at 49% of households — represent the most common form of family unit across Europe. Some have watched their kids leave the nest, others will never have children, but all are likely to spend the biggest chunk of their life in the company of their partner only.

Simply put, the definition of family is increasingly flexible, its constituent parts ever more diverse. While the family was once seen as a form of fate — it chose you — it's now increasingly something that Europeans choose and define by and for themselves. Censure won't deter women of dustier vintages from trying for babies, any more than disapproval stops couples, gay or straight, from cohabiting without the sanction of church, officialdom or parents. In this revolutionary age, Time peeks behind a few more doors to discover how Europeans are living now — and to predict how notions of the family may change in the next 60 years.

Maybe Baby

On any given weekday, you'll be lucky to find Riccardo Rosati and Lidija Markovic at either of their homes, in London or Belgrade. The 35-year-old Italian met his Serbian spouse, 34, in London. Rosati's job as vice president of an American investment fund keeps him on the road, but doesn't demand quite as much traveling as Markovic's role as a consultant specialising in direct foreign investment in the Balkans. Their schedules invariably separate them during the week, but they usually manage three weekends a month together, and last year found time to discuss starting a family. Rosati says his wife was "aware that, for biological reasons, she needs to have the kids relatively soon or skip it." Their decision: skip it.

Lisa McIntyre isn't quite so peripatetic, but she does like holidays more than the idea of raising kids. The 49-year-old university administrator and her husband David, 56, an airline pilot, shut up their home in Higham Ferrers, in central England, several times a year. For 2007, they're already planning two cruises, a relaxing break and an annual jaunt to the U.S. "We can do what we want and spend our money how we want." says Lisa, who decided against having children before she married David. "I don't have to worry about raising another person." These two couples confirm what many demographers now believe — that many modern families are planned around that most quintessential of baby boomer obsessions, the desire for self-fulfillment. Thomas Klein, a sociologist at Heidelberg University, Germany, observed more than 5,000 women for 12 years to see what influenced their family-planning decisions and concluded that financial considerations took a backseat. Most couples opted to start families only when convinced that children would enhance their own lives.

That is a massive change from earlier generations, who thought that only a life blessed with children was a fulfilled one. Some 85% of German women born before 1973 told researchers from the Federal Center for Health Education that they were brought up to believe children were essential to a woman's happiness. Among women born after 1973, that figure dropped to 60%. Their male counterparts appear even less likely to link contentment to parenthood. One in four German men aged 20-39 plan not to have kids, according to a Robert Bosch Foundation/BiB study.

Not that the pursuit of pleasure necessarily rules out children. For Sujata Naik and Ron Scapello, it simply delayed their decision to start a family. Naik, now 41 and a manager for L'Oréal, had just passed her 30th birthday when she met Scapello, a commercials director, one year younger and preparing to go to film school. "Partly because we got together so late, we had a second adolescence," says Naik, recalling carefree days of music festivals and spontaneous socializing. "There wasn't a missing element to our life. I think we were waiting for that moment you know you really want a baby." That moment never came and when Naik hit 35, the couple finally decided to bite the bullet.

When nothing happened, their reluctance evaporated and they were dismayed after a battery of tests produced a diagnosis of unexplained infertility. At each appointment, medical practitioners would warn that Naik's advancing age meant her chances of conception were plummeting. But they defied the math and after a second round of intrauterine insemination — a method of selecting the most robust sperm and inserting them into the uterus that has a 10% chance of resulting in pregnancy — their daughter Shanti Roma Scapello, now 21/2. "Some people say, 'When my child is 10, I'll take him rock-climbing.' I'll be 50 then. I don't have time to put things off," says Naik. Shanti may be fortunate that her parents have the wealth and maturity to make her the center of their lives. And certainly European women see plenty of examples of prominent middle-aged pregnancies: pop star Madonna, Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding and the British Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair. But there can be disadvantages. Attempts to provide Shanti with a sibling have, thus far, proved unsuccessful.

Only, Not Lonely

A child born to an older mother is more likely to grow up a singleton — and older would-be parents are more likely to face bitter disappointment when they find they are no longer able to conceive. But still many women decide to wait. One reason is feminism, says novelist Maggie Alderson, 47. "I'm a '70s feminist and I always will be," she explains. "Being financially independent has always been the most important thing to me. I knew having a baby, I'd risk losing that." Her first marriage lasted 12 years; by the time she met her current husband, she was 36. Trying for a baby produced no results so they decided "to put their energy into not having children. We thought we'd be those fabulous older people you meet who have an incredibly active cultural life." Instead, they find themselves running after Peggy, an unexpected, and — given her mother's age — statistically improbable, arrival four years ago. Barring a second surprise, Peggy will remain an only child. Alderson shied away from using fertility treatments to conceive Peggy and doesn't intend to start now, though she's sad that her daughter "is missing out on family jokes and shared memories. But this doesn't worry me as much as it might have, because so many of her friends are only children because they have older mothers." As only children, Peggy and Shanti won't be objects of curiosity at school. But they are of interest to psychologists, who wonder how the swelling ranks of children growing up without brothers and sisters will develop. Decades of expert advice cast these singletons as problem citizens — solipsists with difficulty forming relationships. Now the balance of scientific opinion is swinging away from that idea. Professor Toni Falbo of the University of Texas has researched the subject for 30 years and, she says, found no disadvantages to children without siblings. That's because what counts is not a traditional family structure but the opportunity to form relationships with adults and contemporaries. "Parent and peer contact can compensate for the lack of siblings," says Falbo.

Parents of only children are ingenious in developing family structures to provide that contact. A child's best friend can often be co-opted as an honorary sibling; or the extended family can be plundered for playmates and more adult role models. Professor Melanie Howard, the director of the London-based consultancy, the Future Foundation, describes what results as "analogue family." "You may find that friends, godparents and the like become absorbed into the family structure," she says. "The nature of family is becoming much more networked and loose."

Nuclear Explosions

Ironically, Maggie Alderson's latest work of fiction, Cents and Sensibility, centers on a family light-years from her own tight, nuclear unit. It's a patchwork, stitched together from the remnants of previous partnerships; Alderson's tale involves so many offspring that the heroine's father's sixth wife keeps track of her 13 siblings and stepsiblings on a flow chart.

Felix Zavelberg might find such a chart useful. The 15-year-old hails from the small agricultural town of Morenhoven, Germany, and is the child of a broken marriage. His paternal grandparents have died, but he has a second set of maternal grandparents, courtesy of his dad Dieter's second wife Astrid. That marriage has also produced twin half brothers, Marius and Daniel, aged 5, while his biological mother Eva has gone on to have a daughter, Anna, 7, with a new partner.

Felix lives with his father but spends most weekends and holidays with his mother. His father puts a positive spin on the situation. Felix now has regular contact with Astrid's family, some of whom are Protestant clergy. This is "a real enrichment for Felix. They are completely different from my family and offer him a new environment," says Dieter Zavelberg.

With divorce rates skyrocketing, even in Catholic southern Europe, the urge to look for silver linings is strong. Italy, for example, has seen a leap of 71 per cent since 1994, according to the research institute Eurispes. In 2003, there were nearly half as many separations and divorces as there were marriages.

Increasing numbers of children are born out of wedlock. Not too long ago, such children — and their mothers — were stigmatized. Not any more, says Grazia Francolini, a director of corporate strategy for TNT Italy, who lives in San Donato, near Milan. At age 36, her mother had married and given birth to four children. At 37, Francolini herself had her first child, a daughter named Bianca, and was unmarried — the father was her divorcé boyfriend, Andrea Brusoni. He already had a 12-year-old son by his first marriage. "I believe in the family but I don't think it's the marriage that says the family is steady," says Francolini. "We are children of our epoch. We are different from our parents, not because of our choices but because our society has changed." It's less religious, for starters. Last year, Italy recorded the lowest number of marriages in its history. In less devout countries such as Britain, almost two-thirds of marriages are conducted by civil authorities. One reason is that immigration and increased mobility within Europe are bringing together couples from different religious backgrounds who may find a civil union the best option. Sujata Naik and Ron Scapello puzzled over the possibilities. In the end, Naik, a dual British and U.S. national of Indian immigrant parents, brought up as a Hindu but educated at a convent school, took Scapello, a Briton of Maltese Catholic parentage, as her husband in a Hindu exchange of vows. "We felt committed as a couple and we didn't feel the need for an official blessing," says Naik. "That's partly why we went for the Hindu wedding. It seemed more fun."

Naik proposed inventing a new surname combining elements of their family names to mark their union; Scapello laughed at the idea. But Professor Howard of the Future Foundation predicts a hyphenated future. "We'll be seeing a much more integrated European family," she says. "That means a real mix of names and types such as the Gonzales-Brauns, the Harrison-Perreiras with their multilingual, multicultural children."

Or the Arbach-Benzes. Lena and Denya Arbach-Benz, ages 5 and 9, live in Toulouse, France, with their Moroccan father Jamal Arbach, a historian, and their German mother Bettina Benz, an architect, who met in Toulouse. "It's a great chance for the girls to grow up with three cultures," says Arbach. "The world is becoming far more global in future and I don't want them to withdraw when they are confronted with a different culture."

The sisters seem blissfully unaware of the cultural differences they are being educated to bridge. Pressed to identify differences between her country of birth and her parents' homelands, the best Denya can manage is: "In France we don't have bread rolls like the ones in Germany. But the only real difference between the three is that people speak different languages."

French Revolution

The size of Claire Denis' family earned her a gold medal — and the pity of strangers who assume some of her pregnancies were accidental. "Every time I give birth, there is always a nurse who asks: 'Is this a wanted baby?'" she says. "That always makes me laugh. I ask them, 'Do you really think it's still possible to have unwanted babies?' That hardly exists any more."

Perhaps, but the decades-long focus on producing offspring means that the republic lags its neighbors in recognizing the new revolution taking place inside its homes. Serge Chaumier, professor of cultural sociology at the University of Bourgogne, France, says that "Women without children are very stigmatized in France. A woman who has no children is seen as an amputee."

There's not much official enthusiasm for new forms of family, either. "For a long time, France has been a country that follows public opinion," says Joël Bedos, 41, an external relations advisor for an international ngo who lives in Paris. "We have a conservative government that, rather than encouraging society to change, only changes things when they are absolutely sure they won't upset anyone."

Under French law, Bedos cannot marry his partner of six years, 42-year-old Gilles Kleitz. Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium allow same-sex couples to wed, but France and Britain recognize only a form of civil union. And no country has yet drafted legislation that would legitimize the family structure Bedos and Kleitz have adopted. Together with Nathalie Jobard, 42, and Sophie Rajzman, 38, they are parents to daughter Louise, who turns 4 this month. Schoolfriends Bedos and Jobard, Louise's biological parents, discussed having children together some years earlier but only put the plan into action when both were in settled relationships with partners who also agreed to play a full parental role. "We thought it would be positive for a child to have more people around them to give them the best possible chance in life. And in a selfish way, it's nice to be one of four parents because we have more freedom," says Bedos.

For Louise, that means a childhood that appears as fractured as the life of any kid caught in a custody dispute. She sees her fathers two days a week and splits vacation time between households. However, the four parents always manage to take some holiday together and, says Rajzman, the girl is being brought up to view her family arrangement as perfectly normal. "We teach her that there are families with a father, mother and children; families with a single father or a single mother, and families with two women or two men that live together. She knows what kind of family configuration she has."

The French authorities do not. Neither Kleitz nor Rajzman have any official relationship with their daughter. If both biological parents died, Kleitz and Rajzman would be at the mercy of the courts and dependent on the good faith of Louise's other blood relations to keep custody of their daughter. Such inequities brought 800,000 protestors onto Parisian streets in May for a Gay Pride rally, but the current government has no plans to introduce gay marriage or adoption rights.

Which is not to say that French families are mired in tradition. There has been a decrease in marriage of 30% since 1970. In the same period, divorces have risen from 12 per 100 marriages in 1970 to 44.9 per 100 now. Almost half of all French births last year were out of wedlock.

Yet there are signs that the French are placing an ever greater value on family life. Research done by French sociologist Christine Castelain Meunier has shown that fathers in the 30 to 40-year-old age range are less likely to be remote, disciplinarian figures than their predecessors: "These men spoke to the fetus, were present at the birth; they refuse to accept the idea of their children growing up without them." Professor Chaumier has noted an increasing emphasis on home life. He says "People withdraw into their family as the last bastion capable of giving meaning to their lives because they don't find much meaning elsewhere — not in politics, projects or work, and not in the future."
That's ironic, because such new families will define the future. Nearly everyone who studies the topic predicts more of the same: singletons, childless couples, older mothers, cultural and ethnic diversity. As the traditional patriarchy breaks down, children will be more involved in decision-making, says the Future Foundation's Professor Howard. She foresees improvements to fertility treatments leading to more "vertical" family structures. A woman might have a first set of children in her 20s and a second batch in her 40s. "Family will be no less important to people than it ever was," she concludes.

Johannes Huinink, a family researcher at the University of Bremen, Germany, agrees. "The kind of authentic trusting relationships we have in families don't exist elsewhere in society," he says. "It doesn't really matter how families are structured. The main and important condition is that the social relationship is filled with life." And watching the zest with which childless couples Rosati and Markovic and the McIntyres run full tilt at life; observing the delight that Sujata Naik and Maggie Alderson take in their daughters; visiting Felix Zavelberg's two homes; listening to Grazia Francolini's guilt-free explanation of her decision to have a child out of wedlock; discussing bread rolls with Denya Arbach-Benz; or getting to grips with the intricacies of the Bedos-Kleitz-Jobard-Rajzman arrangements, it's clear there's no shortage of life in the family structures Europeans are developing.


  26/09/2006. Time Magazine.


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