Saturday, 6 March 2010

Hilary Mantel & Teenage Mothers

Novelist Hilary Mantel has claimed that girls are ready to have babies when they are fourteen, saying that a ‘male timetable’ is dictating their activities away from the natural course.

"Having sex and having babies is what young women are about, and their instincts are suppressed in the interests of society's timetable" she said in an interview to ‘Stella’, the Telegraph’s Sunday magazine.

Firstly, I am sympathetic to Ms. Mantel, as endometriosis left her unable to have children. A teenage pregnancy is likely the only way she could have become a mother, and this thought must surely make her wistful from time to time.

Secondly, there's the implication that a biological drive is sufficient to create a virtuous outcome. This one is easy. I am biologically driven to eat chocolate eclairs at each meal, but I resist because I don't think it's a good idea.

Thirdly, (and less frivolously), I really wish she hadn’t blamed men. It’s very simple to lob rotten tomatoes as the traditional targets, but in this case I think she’s very wrong.

It seems to me that the real culprit is our technological/industrial economy.

In agricultural economies, children are useful workers and your pension plan, all rolled into one. A study of peasant Javanese families in 1976 showed that by twelve to fourteen, boys were contributing around thirty-three hours per week useful labour. Girls of nine to eleven were contributing around thirty-eight. (Benjamin White)

A 1977 study of families in rural Bangaladesh showed that male children were producing more than they consume by age thirteen and had, in effect, repaid all the effort that had gone into them by the time they were fifteen. (Meade Cain)

However, our technological/industrial economy means that our young need to be educated to prosper. I don’t necessarily even mean educated with degrees - just experienced and useful.

(I’ve added the word ‘technological’, because the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were industrial AND provided many work opportunities for children – up chimneys or in mills, for example.)

A technological/industrial society requires massive investment – you’re well into biological adulthood before you start making decent money.

Such a society also has high infrastructure overhead. When road maintenance consisted of shovelling the cow shit off the path, or when treatment for puerperal fever consisted of leeches and crossed fingers, there is simply a logical limit to how much it could all cost.

When housing consists of ten people in one earth-floored, wattle-rendered room, nobody needs to spend half their income for twenty-five years on its purchase.

But there are compensations for modernity. Post partum survival rates for both mothers and babies are higher than they have ever been, meaning that breeding is no longer a race. Chances are all your children will be at your funeral (if you haven’t pissed them off, obviously). And because modern children are nett consumers rather than nett contributors to the family economy, you’re unlikely to want a football team.

Girls who have babies when they are fourteen may turn out to be very productive indeed over the long run, but they’ll need a lot more external support to do it. The ideal modern model is that you get to the age where you can produce a surplus, then use it to rear your own children.

But there’s something else: these days women are under extra pressure to delay pregnancy until very late into their potential reproductive career.

However I don’t think that’s down to entirely our technological/industrial economic model and I don’t think it’s because of ‘men’ either. I think it’s because our standards of living are falling.

A shortage of housing in the UK, plus the decrease in the real value of wages over the last forty years, means that pairing up in your twenties, buying a home and starting a family quickly is atypical. Given that few people ‘aspire’ to move down the social/economic ladder, many are waiting ‘til the economic indicators are right before they jump.

We’re told that some modern parents are apparently lucky if their ‘kidult’ offspring are able to leave the family home by their mid-twenties.

And books like ‘The Crowded Nest Syndrome: Surviving the Return of Adult Children’ by Kathleen Shaputis discuss the modern phenomenon of the ‘Boomerang Generation’. These adults in their twenties and thirties boing metronomically on an invisible umbilical, unable to make escape velocity from the parental home.

It’s hard to know what to do. Degrees are not the guarantee of prosperity that they once were. Some categories of degree are, in financial terms alone, best not taken at all. Many people in their twenties now find themselves in exactly the same competitive position for work, relative to their peers, that they were when they left school – except now they owe fifteen or twenty thousand for their educations.

While I simply can’t agree that fourteen year olds averagely make good mums, I do think the impediments on reproduction for women of twenty five and over are ignored at our peril.

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