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Some women subtract family addition



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One woman lives in California's San Fernando Valley and the other in Australia. But they have a lot in common.

Along with women throughout the industrialized world, they are childless by choice.

"My mother had 11 children," the California woman wrote me. "I made the decision not to have any. Is this good or bad? It's good because I have total freedom."

The Australian said she valued her "freedom" but worries "if I will feel alone when I am old."

The two responses are among 3,500 received answering the survey "How Is Your Life Different From Your Mother's" on the Web site www.womansage.com.

And they are not unique. While most women worldwide still value motherhood, there are significant trends indicating that some societies are not replacing themselves.

Greece, Italy and Spain, for example, have birthrates of 1.1 to 1.3 children per adult woman, according to Population Action International (www.populationaction.org).

"It is a trend among educated women," David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, tells me.

He cites two reasons for the declining birthrate.

Children are no longer an economic asset - to work the farm, for example. "In fact, you could argue they are an economic liability," Popenoe says.

"And today women have other opportunities. There's just not the pressure to have children as there once was."

Naturally, this is not good for the family or for society, he argues. Children are the key to the future of any society, he says.

"In fact, a child-centered society is usually a more moral society, because children put things in perspective," Popenoe says.

Currently, about 20 percent of American women are childless, according to the U.S. Census. The survey doesn't ask how many are childless by choice or by life happenings - including the trend to marry later and put off childbearing until the 40s, a not-always-successful option.

"I put off marrying until I was over 40," the woman I met at the Texas Governor's Conference for Women told me this month. We were both speakers at the conference and we were enjoying a glass of wine at a preconference reception at the governor's mansion.

"When I got married, I thought about children. My husband already had children from an earlier marriage, so having a child with me wasn't that important. And I decided I was really centered on my career now. Instead of spending all those dollars for fertilization treatments, we decided to take a cruise."

Is something wrong with that thinking?

Popenoe argues it does not bode well for marriage, and marriage is the centerpiece of a strong society.

In fact, even among women who want to have children, marriage is no longer a necessity.

"Higher-birthrate nations report the most births out of wedlock," he says. "There is no doubt that marriage is weakening in the industrialized nations."

Then he delivers the punch line: "Many educated women are saying they would rather have a child than a marriage. In other words, they'll take the kid but they don't want the man."

But slow down. There's no need for despair.

Most women - educated or not - want to marry and have a family. We're a long way from zero population growth.

The Texas conference speaker put it in perspective: "We shouldn't have children if we don't want children. We wouldn't be good mothers. That takes nothing away from the millions of women who long for kids and will raise them up right.

"I love kids. I just don't want to live with them."

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(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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