Spain's women kick over the cradle

Out go huge families, in comes the world's lowest birthrate, reports Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
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The Independent Online
In The 1960s Spanish women produced children as if fulfilling Stakhanovite output targets. In the 1970s they questioned the point of spending half their lives pregnant. In the 1980s, midwives found themselves on the dole. Now Spain's birthrate is the lowest in the world: 1.2 per cent.

The reluctance of Spanish women to become mothers is a backlash against the legacy of the Franco dictatorship, when food coupons, TV fame and the promise of heavenly grace were lavished upon families - actually fathers - of up to 15 children. Before Franco died in 1975, a woman could not open her own bank account, take a job or travel any distance without her husband's permission. Until 1978 adultery was always a crime for women; but for a man only if committed at home or with public knowledge. Abortion was illegal, and contraception virtually unobtainable.

A current best-selling novel, El Desencuentro (Failure to Meet), chronicles the misery of a beautiful young woman abandoned by her husband in the Franco years. With divorce illegal, such a woman, even - or perhaps especially - from a good family, was considered tainted and indecent, destined to live on family charity and to care for her ageing parents.

The opposite fate, described by Teresa Otero, 53, who works in international copyright, was for a woman to be trapped at home while her husband took mistresses and did as he liked. "It was understood that you stayed at home and looked after the children, while the man brought in the money. Women were not educated and were economically powerless. Now it's different. They are not afraid of divorcing and making their own way. It's the men who are afraid now."

Today's Espanola marries later, or not at all, and has children later, if at all. In 1975 nearly all Spaniards married; now only 60 per cent bother. A recent gynaecological conference in Barcelona announced that nearly a quarter of babies are born to women between 35 and 39, and nearly a fifth to women over 40.

The transformation within 20 years has blown to pieces the traditional picture of a young couple surrounded by small children. A more typical contemporary image is that of a couple in their late forties or fifties, with one or two grown-up children still living at home. Only just over a quarter of youngsters in their twenties want more than two children, according to Spain's Youth Institute. In 1968, more than two-thirds did.

Carmen Rodriguez, 50, is a high-flying business executive with one 18- year-old daughter. "I think education is the key," she said. "For the first time, a generation of young Spanish women has received higher education. It has made them independent; they no longer need throw themselves into the arms of the first man they meet. Studies show that girls work harder and do better at their studies than boys. They're not going to just drop everything to have babies straight away."

But this is often not a matter of choice, but of the labour market, stresses Marta Fernandez, 31. "We study for so long and it's so hard to find work, that when you do, you hold on to it. You can't just go in on day one and say you're pregnant." Marta has just been made redundant by a publishing company. "My mother-in-law says now's the perfect moment to have a baby."

Ana Vieira, 39, a sociologist who is childless, has been living with Xose for 11 years. "I was always against the idea of marriage and children. I saw how my father struggled to bring up four of us, and how my mother was a slave to the house and the children, even though we were a very affectionate family and I love them all. I was 17 when we woke up during the transition from dictatorship. I wasn't political, or a feminist, but we loved the new freedom, and didn't want to lose it."

Spain's plunging birth rate affects all the country's diverse regions, the countryside and the city, the historically less fertile north and the traditionally more productive south. The demographer Rafael Puyol, rector of Madrid's Complutense University, says: "We've caught up 10 years late with the trend of declining fertility throughout Europe. But in Spain it has been more abrupt and accelerated, squeezed into a shorter time- span."

Esther Garcia, 31, a computer scientist, lives on her own in Madrid, but conducts an "intense relationship" with Inaki from the Basque city of San Sebastian. "If I married I'd have to go there, and I don't want to. I like my life and work and friends here. Marriage isn't that important to me. My independence is. But Inaki hopes I'll change my mind." Children? Esther pauses. "I don't know. I'm going to wait until I'm 35 before deciding."

Esther attributes her views to growing up in a modest family of six children. "At home there wasn't room for us. I was always fighting for space. I had to clean and wash up even when I was studying for exams, while my brothers watched television. Boys are spoilt by their mothers and grow up needing someone to look after them. But women can fend for themselves."

Some politicians have sounded the alarm about Spain's shrinking, ageing population, but no one - so far - proposes a return to Franco-style incentives. The experts predict that Spanish women will start marrying young again within a decade or so, and Ms Rodriguez supplies the anecdotal evdience. "Laura, my daughter, is definite that she wants to have several children. I think in 10 to 15 years things will even themselves out."