Sue Arnold: Make me our Minister of Family Affairs

The trend for thirty-something men is to steer clear of anything that smacks of responsibility
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The Independent Online

Times have changed - we all know that. Kinder, Küche, Kirche used to be the traditional symbols of German womanhood, but then 50 years ago when that children/kitchen/church maxim applied to the females of the fatherland, rum, sodomy and the lash were, according to Churchill, the mainstays of the British Navy.

The obvious reason for Europe's declining birth rates (Italy and Ireland aren't far behind Germany) is that liberated, educated women want careers before motherhood, and by the time they get round to the business of having babies they discover, to their cost, that they've missed the boat.

That's the obvious reason. There's another, arguably far more serious cause for concern, namely the declining fertility of European men. The European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology brought out some deeply depressing figures about male sub-fertility, as they called it, in 24 European countries last summer, followed by an even more alarming report from Norwich Union Healthcare claiming that 2.5 million British men are suffering from reduced levels of fertility.

You may have read the research, which blames everything from tight jeans to mobile phones to rising oestrogen levels in our drinking water. I heard an even more disturbing one the other day. Playing video games apparently, especially the aggressive ones like Call of Duty and Gun and Grand Theft Auto where you have to zap baddies and chalk up colossal scores, produces the same endorphins in the brain as having sex. More and more young men, it seems, prefer to sit at home alone in their rooms twiddling the knobs on their PlayStations to the hassle of going out and finding a girlfriend.

Frau von der Leyen didn't mention tight jeans or video games but she did take German men to task for being unsure about responsibility and recommended that first-time fathers should take time off work to learn about changing nappies. If they didn't, their child benefit entitlement would be withheld. That presupposes they've got as far as first-time fatherhood. The prevailing trend for thirtysomething men seems to be to steer well clear of anything that smacks of responsibility, especially a wife, a mortgage and a baby.

So is Mrs von der Leyen right to be so concerned about her nation's dwindling birth rate? Probably not. The fact is that men have been dominant for more than 2,000 years, hewing wood, hauling water and all that; maybe they're due for a rest. Now it's our turn to call the shots, and let's face it, we're perfectly capable of doing so. With the Federal Minister for Family Affairs offering huge incentives to women to procreate, like €3,000 a year tax free for childcare, you can be sure the German birth rate will increase sharpish. And if 40-year-old women fast reaching the end of their maternal shelf life can't find anyone to father their children, there's always the sperm bank.

Which brings us to that perennial question - are men becoming redundant? Coincidentally, that was the theme of a television debate I took part in earlier this week. It suggested that if men wanted to survive they'd have to become more like women. I started off agreeing but got so heartily fed up with the clichés about women being caring, compassionate, communicative, flexible and able to multi-task that I changed sides.

According to some spurious survey, men, we were told, were becoming more and more dysfunctional and could only talk about five subjects - sport, gadgets, cars, current affairs and, oh, I forget, perhaps it was sex, whereas women had 976 subjects permanently at their fingertips.

Should we perhaps have a Minister of Family Affairs like Ursula who has clearly managed to juggle a successful political career with motherhood in order to persuade British women to have more children? Me, for instance. OK, I've only got six and being vice president for a year of my local Liberal Democrats branch doesn't exactly count as a political career, but as an enthusiastic champion of big families, I'd take some beating.

I used to get rude letters from readers whenever I mentioned the children. Did I realise, one woman wrote, how many innocent trees had to be felled just to provide my wretched family with lavatory paper? Times, as I said, have changed. Now as well as Kinder Küche Kirche I can trot out that other great feminist maxim "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world". But only, I hasten to add, if there's a man in the background talking about cars, gadgets, sport, current affairs and - what was it? Oh yes, sex.

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