Subject to Debate / February 20, 2024

Why Do Men in Government Keep Telling Women to Have Kids?

Heads of state around the world want to prevent population decline. But they’re leaving all the responsibility to mothers.

Katha Pollitt
Macron with kids
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a football training session for children at the Stade de la Plaine in Clamart in April 2023. (Julien De Rose / Pool / AFP)

Some bad ideas never die. For example: women need to have more kids, and would do so if (a) they had no choice, (b) the government threw a modest bit of support their way, or (c) they weren’t so selfish. In a recent press conference, French President Emmanuel Macron called for “demographic rearma­ment,” an alarming phrase whose militaristic overtones and sexist assumptions drew widespread objections and the inevitable comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale. Macron is being pressed hard by the French right, led by Marine Le Pen, so it’s not an accident that at the same press conference he called for school uniforms, making children memorize the national anthem, a crackdown on illegal immigration and drug gangs, and, rather sweetly, classes in drama and art history. Memorizing “La Marseillaise”—sure, why not? That’s bound to bring back the imaginary old France of order, discipline, and cultural pride.

One can see why Macron is worried: 2023 saw fewer than 700,000 new French babies—fewer than in any year since the end of World War II, and down 20 percent from 2010. France has been trying to increase its population for more than a century, with, until recently, some success: For years it has had the highest fertility rate in Europe, with 1.8 to 2 children per woman, just below the replacement level of 2.1. It’s now 1.68.

Macron wants more help for infertile couples, and he wants to revise parental leave, which many parents don’t take, so that it is shorter and better paid. Though France is not quite what it’s cracked up to be on this side of the Atlantic—there are not enough slots in its famed daycare centers, for example—it’s already a family paradise compared with the United States, with housing supplements, family allowances for more than two children, preschool for all, and excellent and free national healthcare. It’s hard to see how Macron’s modest measures will make much difference. France already covers 100 percent of the cost of fertility treatments. And would a somewhat better parental leave persuade a woman to have a second or third child, or maybe even a first one? What’s five or six months when you’re considering a commitment of 18 years, minimum?

What men in government—and it is mostly men—never seem to understand is that having a child changes a woman’s entire life, physically, emotionally, economically, professionally, and even sexually. (Macron himself has no kids of his own, although his wife had three with her previous husband.) No matter how much government help a mother gets, it takes a phenomenal amount of work to raise a baby from day one to adulthood. When most people were farmers, standards of parenthood amounted to not letting the baby fall into the well, and kids earned their keep from an early age; as an old Spanish proverb put it, every child is born with a loaf of bread under his arm. That’s not true today: The rewards of parenthood are purely emotional, and children are expensive. Is it surprising that given the costs and the sacrifices (and the fact that women are still mostly the ones who make them)—to say nothing of the general global mood of gloom and pessimism—young women and couples have cold feet?

At the other end of the world, China’s birth dearth is so severe that its population actually fell by 2 million in 2023. In an October speech to the All China Women’s Federation, President Xi Jinping called on the organization to “actively cultivate a new marriage and childbirth culture, strengthen guidance of young people’s views on marriage, parenthood and family, as well as promote policies to support childbirth.” This was the latest sign that Xi intends to push women back into the domestic sphere. But there are others: The government has suppressed China’s #MeToo movement; the revised women’s rights law urges women to “respect family values”; and for the first time in 25 years, there are no women in the Politburo.

The Chinese government has only itself to blame for its population troubles now: The one-child policy, begun in 1980, led to countless forced abortions, female infanticides, baby-girl abandonments, and foreign adoptions, which resulted in today’s population imbalance of around 34 million “bare branches”—men of marriageable age who cannot find wives. By the time the policy was lifted for second children in 2016 and for third children in 2021, there was—surprise!—no rush to the maternity ward. China had become a modern, upwardly mobile country, and like every other such country, from Italy to South Korea, young women wanted more out of life than cooking and cleaning for a husband and kids, and were wary of the intensive parenting today’s values require.

Current Issue

Cover of April 2024 Issue

This would be a great moment for governments to try something new: instead of the stick—social shaming of unmarried women, childless women, and single mothers; restricting reproductive rights; pushing women out of the public sphere—a great big bunch of carrots. A whopping combination of money and benefits just might make having that first or second or even third child more attractive. France was always comparatively generous to families, but today’s women want more than help with the household budget. They want to keep their dreams and freedom. Would a $100,000 bank deposit do it? An apartment with a bedroom for every child? Extra points on civil service exams? Or 24/7 daycare? Military veterans get all sorts of benefits as a reward for their service. Why shouldn’t mothers get them too? After all, women risk their lives and health in pregnancy and childbirth, as soldiers do in war.

Macron’s phrase “demographic rearma­ment” explicitly ties the birth rate to national power. What if he and other pro­natalist leaders took that idea seriously, and took some billions from the military budget—France is currently ranked 10th among countries with the highest military expenditures, and those funds are slated to increase—and spent it on giving mothers, married or not, a pleasant, comfy life in which work and kids and, yes, fun too were not at odds?

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.

More from The Nation

Woman walks by photo of Iranian missiles

Joe Biden Is Destroying His Own Foreign Policy by Giving Israel Impunity Joe Biden Is Destroying His Own Foreign Policy by Giving Israel Impunity

World / February 20, 2024 Why Do Men in Government Keep Telling Women to Have Kids? The administration’s blatant double standard demonstrates that the new “liberal internationa…

Jeet Heer

People prepare to transfer the body of a World Central Kitchen WCK worker killed by Israeli airstrikes, near the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 3, 2024.

Israel’s Attacks on Gaza Are Not “Mistakes.” They’re Crimes. Israel’s Attacks on Gaza Are Not “Mistakes.” They’re Crimes.

The political and media class is doing what it always does with the US and its allies: trying to frame deliberate atrocities as tragic mishaps.

Harry Zehner

The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance

The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance

If the Senate passes an expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, any American’s international communications could become an open book.

James Bamford

A funeral ceremony is held for Palestine TV correspondent Mohammed Abu Hatab, who was killed along with his family members in an air strike on his home in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on November 3, 2023.

Israel’s Genocide in Gaza Is a World Historical Crime Israel’s Genocide in Gaza Is a World Historical Crime

When Jews were being slaughtered by the Nazis, the world turned away. Now, the world has awakened to Israel’s crimes.

Ellen Cantarow

Partially melting glaciers

Can Russian-US Scientific Cooperation Be Restored as Arctic Warming and the Ukraine War Intensify? Can Russian-US Scientific Cooperation Be Restored as Arctic Warming and the Ukraine War Intensify?

US and Russia have a long history of polar science cooperation.

Pavel Devyatkin

Dr. Juan Romagoza at La Clinica del Pueblo in 1998.

The Brutal Cycle of US Immigration Policy The Brutal Cycle of US Immigration Policy

In Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here, Jonathan Blitzer examines how North and Central American migration moves in two directions.

Books & the Arts / Gaby Del Valle