Volume 4 Number 7
Is Parenthood Too Expensive?
01 July 1991
Jean-Jacques Odier offers a French perspective on an international movement to save the family.
At the start of this century, the French poet Charles Peguy talked of families as being the explorers of modern times. Ninety years later, I would be the last to contradict him.
I was lucky enough to come from a happy home. I lost my father when I was nine - and I only evaluated the impact of that event on my character years later. But otherwise I had a protected childhood in a lively environment, growing up amidst some twenty cousins. I've now been madly in love with the wife of my dreams for 33 years, and we have two sons of whom we are very proud.... Who could ask for more?
But when some ten years ago I discovered what in France is called `the family movement' my horizons expanded. Of course I knew that family values needed championing. But I hadn't fully seen that this struggle demanded more than fine speeches and sound home life.
The family movement, as it has developed in France and Belgium, is a vast network of organizations which now negotiate with the authorities on family policy issues.
Through the movement I realized two things more clearly: that for a nation a child represents a vital human and economic investment; and that a family is part of the rights of a child.
It is hard to realize that in France it costs something in the region of a million francs (£100,000) to raise one child - adding up all the actual costs and allowing at a minimum wage rate for all the time parents spend on household tasks. (This figure must be closely matched in other European countries.) What does the family receive in return? The state provides free education and family allowances totalling a quarter of a million francs per child. The shortfall is equivalent to each family . building a house for each of their offspring and making it over to the nation.
Of course what families pay in, society pays out in the form of retirement benefits. And this is where the shoe pinches. Couples without children, where both partners work, quite rightly both draw full pensions eventually. But mothers with several children rarely manage to keep up a profession. Bringing up children doesn't count as work in the eyes of the state, and so carries limited pension rights. Thus large families are penalized - with the inevitable result that they are vanishing.
Not that you can quantify the love you lavish on a child. I give this example in purely financial terms not so much to drive families into the streets with banners unfurled as to help our authorities understand what is at stake. With falling birthrates in the West, we could find that there's no one to turn up at our rendezvous with the future.
This is not the only reason for supporting the family movement. Over recent decades the relatively predictable course of family life (admittedly with its sufferings, infidelities and hypocrisy) has been shaken up by greater work opportunities for women, by the growing use of contraception and by changing moral values.
In the past morality was not a subject for discussion. Those who broke the rules didn't boast about it. Today, for many people, all ideas are on the same level, all choices equally valid. The mass media stress the extraordinary and thus often promote the abnormal. Opinions reign in the place of values. The importance of the family needs rethinking. But how?
The family is the primary educator. The supplementary educational forces to which we entrust our children, starting with teachers, cannot get to grips with the whole personality in gestation in the limited time they have. Neither can they master the contradictory forces at work in the child. The primary responsibility lies with those who can take the time to get to the bottom of its feelings and worries. But so many parents today are unwilling to sacrifice the time needed to give sensitive care, wrapped up as they are in their own, sometimes selfish, aims.
The profession of parent, in this era of great and growing competitiveness, is just about the only one you enter without any specific training. The family associations are important as places where this difficult, multi-faceted task can be learnt.
In France, the family movement at a local level has its thankless side with the pressure to be present at family allowance fund committees and on different bodies. It can get bogged down in administration and paper work. But on a national, and now increasingly international, level it is becoming a stimulant and even a vigilant counterweight. It helps the state understand that the family is to society what investment is to industry - a precondition for survival.