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Are older women selfish for having babies?

It seems we have a new “barbecue stopper” about women and families, after comments last week by Perth obstetrician Barry Walters that it is selfish for older women to have babies. Defending himself from…

Social realities have a bigger impact on when women have babies than “medical facts”. ECohen

It seems we have a new “barbecue stopper” about women and families, after comments last week by Perth obstetrician Barry Walters that it is selfish for older women to have babies.

Defending himself from attack in the heated national debate that followed, Walters sought to defuse the political impact of his comments, by claiming that he was talking about “medical facts”, and the risks of later pregnancy, not “values”.

Well, that’s another can of worms. Facts, after all, in their selection and presentation, can reveal as much as any overtly political comment.

In this case, missing from the “selfish older mothers” comments were myriad social facts that influence how women and men make decisions around pregnancy.

Just the facts?

So let’s turn to some of these other facts that cast a different light on the same issue.

First, there’s “choice” and “constrained choice”.

Choice in its idealised form means that everyone starts from the same position, and that each makes a simple selection between two or more options: a baby at 29 or at 39?

Yet choice, as philosopher Renata Salecl has recently pointed out, is not always as free as we would like to think – it’s accompanied by its own baggage of anxiety about the “right” choice to create the best outcome.

Constrained choice is the recognition of the real-life factors that shape a person’s decision making.

Nina Matthews

For many women, having a child at a biologically ideal age requires a host of other external factors to be in place, from having a partner who’s also prepared to have children at the “right” time, to sufficient financial security and good health.

Second, judgments about non-ideal pregnancies – too soon, too late, too irresponsible, too risky – tend to focus only on women. Yet pregnancy is so clearly an experience that involves another human being, even if it’s a purely biological connection.

More than that, the decision to try to get pregnant is one that is made in a social context, not a vacuum.

And one element of that social context particularly deserves exploring. It is this: as a society, we have decided to delay childbirth. We decided that when we gave women fuller access to public life without changing social structures to accommodate pregnancy and child rearing.

A woman will still do her best to be what Joan Williams has termed the “ideal worker”: the one who works like an unencumbered man.

If there are no easy on and off ramps to public life, that is, if leaving work or study to raise a baby means struggling to come back and if there’s inadequate flexibility or a lack of quality part-time work on return, there will always be a public cost to the supposedly “private” decision to have a child.

If a baby means becoming – or staying – one of the drudges of the marketplace and if caring work means risking poverty, then there’s a significant incentive for a woman to delay childbirth until she has gained a certain degree of seniority or financial security.

These choices remain gendered, since the statistics clearly show a persistent divide in paid and unpaid work, with men doing twice as much paid and women doing twice as much unpaid.

Where are the men?

So the issue is as much about men’s – also constrained – choices to commit to full-time work without any allowance for child rearing as it is about women’s choices to care for children.

derekmswanson

Men’s ties to paid work means they have less time with children, do less domestic work and reduce women’s participation in public life.

This makes decisions around pregnancy carry all kinds of consequences, some invisible, and some seen but rarely spoken of.

If the response sparked by some seemingly off-hand comments about older mothers is so intense, then maybe there are some broader social issues we should also be discussing – if we want more women to avoid the medical risks of later pregnancy, what kind of social changes might we need to support earlier childbirth and rearing?

Finally, a caveat: I had all three of my children in my mid- to late-thirties, which qualifies me as one of the older mothers in this debate.

Of course there’s a story behind that “choice”, a story that makes perfect sense to me in the context of my own life.

Individual women will always have their stories about babies: the ones they wanted and didn’t have; the ones they lost; the ones they never wanted; the ones they have.

These stories are often beautiful and laden with meaning: grief, joy, regret and pleasure. There’s so much at stake for women with pregnancy, with childbirth and with child rearing.

Medical risks are one component of this, but there’s much – so much – more at stake than just medical facts.

Do you think women are choosing to have babies at a later age out of selfishness? Leave your comments below

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45 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Selfish really isn't the right word.
    But in answer to the question- all couples who cease using contraception to conceive a child are being selfish. The decision to have a baby is based on what's right for the two "selves" so it's selfish.
    Strangely people (like me) who decided at an early age not to be a parent are (or used to be) also accused of being selfish.
    If there are any philosophers reading this column I suppose that's all we ever are- selfish.
    Barry Walters used the wrong word and now I think he knows it.

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    1. Matt de Neef

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Interesting point Colin - I tend to agree.

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I would question the statement that “Men’s ties to paid work means they have less time with children, do less domestic work and reduce women’s participation in public life.”

    On average, men and women work about the same hours of work each week, when paid and unpaid work are combined. Women work fewer paid hours than men, and this is what the majority of women prefer. None of this reduces “women’s participation in public life”

    I would also question the general quality of motherhood in Australia, with very low rates of breastfeeding, high rates of caesarians, high rates of diabetic babies being born, high rates of obese children, high rates of mental illness in children, high rates of asthmatic children etc.

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  3. Paul Richards

    Thank you Karen, this is unusual to read from a feminine perspective, I commend your honesty and read you as a grounded thinker.

    I can see with Colin and Dale points and it is difficult to disagree, but still feel selfish is an appropriate word.

    The maternal body burns in every woman, an in built desire to procreate is selfish in the sense of the immortal DNA she holds desires to replicate and for the genome to continue to live.

    Of course selfishness can lead to inappropriate choices, like…

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    1. Kissindra

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Paul Richards

      There are actually plenty of women and men who don't feel any pressing need or desire to procreate.

      As for the list - I think you also need to factor in that it can take many couples two incomes to meet a checklist that is quite reasonable. It is not always about an unreasonable or highly materialistic set of prefered conditions, simply that various factors and economic conditions mean it simply can take two incomes to raise a child and cover basic associated costs.

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  4. jenniferlee89

    logged in via Twitter

    What about older men who have babies?

    I know a man in his 70s who has a two-year-old son with a younger woman. By the time the son is in his teens, the father will most likely be senile or dead (let's face the facts here). Isn't there a responsibility for older men not to have children after a certain age?

    But I do see the other side of the argument. If the woman really did want to have a child, and if the father is financially well-off and can provide for his infant son (at least, monetarily) well into the future, then that might somewhat ameliorate the fact that the kid might not have a father in his adolescence.

    Still, I think a line must be drawn. It is irresponsible to have kids after a certain age. Say, after you turn 60 years old. Maximum. (But of course, each case will depend on its facts.)

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    1. Doug Cotton

      IT Manager

      In reply to jenniferlee89

      Speaking as a man who fathered a son at the age of 60, I don't feel generalisations can be made. My son is now 5 having started school this year (at 4 years 6 months) and I find no problem with the age difference - and I am even willing to try for another.

      There are ways to minimise risk for women in their late 30's and 40's. We all know about folic acid, but not many realise that it is just one of several supplements that can be taken together to lower homocysteine which is thought to be the cause of birth defects. Other supplements include vitamins B6 and B12 as well as trimethylglycine (TMG) and doctors should be monitoring homocysteine even before conception.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to jenniferlee89

      Very few men over 70 have babies, but when will the situation with motherhood improve, or does it get worse in time. At present, about 1 in 3 babies are born preterm, underweight, or need special care nursery.

      “the average age of mothers giving birth was 29.8 years in 2006, compared with 28.7 years in 1997.”

      “21% of mothers were aged 35 or over in 2006, up from 15% in 1997”

      “1 in 7 first births being to women aged 35 or older, compared with 1 in 12 in 1997',”

      “31% of mothers giving birth by caesarean…

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    3. Louise Oneonefour

      Administration

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale,

      Have you consider that issues like obesity, diabetes, depression, risky behaviour (drug abuse, alcohol abuse, etc) are issues bigger than parenting and "older mothers"? I think you have oversimplified the situation and you are far too hard on motherhood; at the end of the day those issues are societal issues and indicative of a bigger problem. I suggest you take a look at books that explore the social determinants of health and then re-evaluate your argument and disdain of motherhood. I would also be interested in hearing your opinion about fathers.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Louise Oneonefour

      Louise
      Whatever way the situation is viewed, Australian women are now definitely not marriage material.

      Australia has one of the highest rates of divorce in the world. About 1 in 3 babies are being born unhealthy, and more children will become unhealthy during infancy or teenager years. According to the productivity commission, Australian women are about 50% less productive than men in the workforce, mainly because they are unwilling to do many jobs that men will do.

      Being realistic, if an Australian man wants to marry a woman that is useful and likely to produce healthy children, he chooses a woman from some other country.

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      For those who have given my last post a current score of -6, please point to the statistics that show Australian women generally make good wives and good mothers.

      I haven’t seen such statistics yet.

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    6. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      sorry, don't really care about statistics but you're welcome to come and visit my house to see a mother statistic in the flesh and blood.
      Good wives/good mothers are not mutually inclusive, 'Australian women' come in all shapes, sizes, and yes, ages and 'good' means quite different things to different people - I won't waste any more time on such a ridiculous statement. Just hang on while I give your last response a few negatives...

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      Annabelle
      The question was asked by the author “what kind of social changes might we need to support earlier childbirth and rearing?”

      My answer to that question is for Australian men to seriously consider not marrying an Australian woman to have children, and many men are doing this right now, or have already not married Australian women, or have emigrated out of the country.

      Another alternative to producing babies is adoption, particularly if the mother is above 30, obese, diabetic etc.

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    8. Louise Oneonefour

      Administration

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale,
      Interesting response and very nice side step.... well not really. I never said anything about marriage, why you bring it up to support your initial argument - mothers (and now Australian Mothers) are a causal agent behind drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental illness etc... - is perplexing. You have a profound misunderstanding about the ways of the world.

      Good luck Dale, you are going to need it.

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    9. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Louise Oneonefour

      Louise
      What side step?

      If someone does look through relevant statistics, (and I’m not interested in anecdotal evidence or qualitative data, but properly compiled quantitative data), then the “ways” of Australia are not particularly conducive to producing happy, healthy children, and from what data I have seen, the situation is getting worse in time, and not better.

      In above posts, I have supplied two quite plausible and workable ways to solve this problem, which BTW is more than you have.

      The possible ways to solve the problem is for Australian men to look outside the country for a wife or mother to their children, and for 30+, obese or diabetic women to adopt, rather than attempt to become pregnant.

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    10. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      @ Dale: "Being realistic, if an Australian man wants to marry a woman that is useful and likely to produce healthy children, he chooses a woman from some other country."

      Well that is your hypothesis Dale but being realistic, could it be that Australian women may be particular about who fathers their children and so the rejected and dejected male is forced offshore in pursuit of his blushing bride?

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    11. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley,
      Do Australian women know what they want, and should men have to figure that out?

      When looking at the general statistics, Australian women seem to be either aborting their babies in abortion clinics, or trying to conceive when they are too old, or trying to divorce their husband, or trying to leave their children in day care centers.

      Who knows what the average Australian woman wants, and quite possibly they don’t know themselves, but the general statistics show they are definitely not homemakers, nor are they very good mothers, and they are not particularly productive in the workforce.

      A man could save themselves years of pain trying to figure out what an Australian woman wants, by finding a bride in another country.

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    12. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Some scores on my posts have now gone to -11.

      Could be a record, but more constructive is for people to find some statistics to show that motherhood in Australian is not in complete decline. If there is such a statistic, it may give something to build on.

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    13. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Perhaps being 'constructive' is simply no longer relevant. Your responses have simply become not worth engaging with. I'm sure there are other more appropriate places for you to conduct your online rant.

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    14. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      Skirting the issue perhaps. There are no positive statistics concerning motherhood in Australia, or at least I haven't seen any yet.

      Basically every aspect of motherhood is in decline.

      I believe that is now highly relavent.

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    15. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale - The statistics on abortion in many countries are obscured and therefore grossly inadequate. However you may be interested in the estimated stats that are on the public record. Perhaps you found your bride in one of the countries listed below?:

      Abortion Statistics:

      Australia: 70 - 80 thousand (2005)

      Indonesia 2 - 2.5 million (2000)
      Thailand 300 - 400 thousand (2011)
      Philippines 473,400 (2000)
      Vietnam 400,000 (2009)
      China: 7.6 million (2007)
      Russia 1.3 million (2007)
      India 723,142…

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    16. Paula Chavez

      activist

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale - You said: "I would also question the general quality of motherhood in Australia, with very low rates of breastfeeding, high rates of caesarians, high rates of diabetic babies being born, high rates of obese children, high rates of mental illness in children, high rates of asthmatic children etc." As you may know, statistics hardly tell the whole story. For example, would you question the general quality of fatherhood as well? Maybe the situation that you complain about is an exacerbation…

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    17. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley
      Rates of abortion and rates of divorce in Australia are higher than in most comparable countries.

      For example rates of abortion are lower in NZ.

      Regards divorce, it depends on the way the statistics are calculated, but Australia could be the third highest country in divorces per 100,000.

      I don't think too many males need to be concerned about females taking over their jobs, as female university graduates mostly go into 3 areas: education, medicine (nursing) and social work. They are dropping…

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    18. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Paula Chavez

      Paula,
      I would think men are doing their share. They are payimg 70% of personal income tax, and in families with two working parents, the father averages 16 hrs a week extra work more than the mother, when paid work and hours spent on child care are combined. Please note that the average mother in such a family type wants the father to be the primary breadwinner.

      One does have to wonder whether the average Australian mother is worth the money being spent on them. Many do not work long enough to pay enough tax to ever cover the cost of educating them (and that cost is about $10,000 - $15,000 per year for 12+ years), and if they start producing unhealthy children, they are definitely not contributing to a sustainable society.

      If women are the primary carers, I can't see any aspect childhood that is actually improving.

      The average mother wants the father to be the primary breadwinner, but if women don't lift their game, the father will have to become the primary child carer as well.

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    19. Kissindra

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Paula Chavez

      your conclusions may well be made from looking at data, but they are not made by a realistic understanding of what that data means or what factors contribute to that data.

      We could have a very interesting discussion on what the figures mean and why, we can look closely to see the driving forces which contribute...or at least we could if it wasn't starkly obvious that all you wish to do is denegrate Australian women and mothers in a complete vacume of context, while neatly sidestepping any part Australian men have to play.

      You see no positive statistics because you interpret them through a highly obvious bias which cherry picks and distorts findings to suggest a conclusion which is wildly innacurate.

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    20. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Kissindra

      Hi Kissindra,
      Sorry to not reply earlier (been away earning money to pay tax and pay my way).

      The situation is rather simple. No research to date has ever found that women in general (or the majority of women) want to be the primary breadwinner. They do seem to want to be the primary carer of children, but ther is no aspect of childhood in Australia that is improving, and all is in decline.

      Two things men can do about it.

      1. Become the primary carer as well as the primary breadwinner (and you…

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  5. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    It is and has always been selfish to have children.
    In the past it was logical- children contributed to household income, provided an old age "pension" and were inevitable because contraception was poor. Nowadays children are costly and don't help aged parents so the only reason for having them is because the parents want them- for themselves (or sometimes for the grandparents or to keep the marriage together or.....)
    And the planet certainly doesn't need any more than 2 per woman.

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  6. Rachel Grimmer

    logged in via Facebook

    Dr Walters didn't make a blanket statement that older women having babies were selfish. He said that the decision made by SOME older women in SOME circumstances was, in his opinion, selfish. He gave the example of an older woman who already has children and who desires a further pregnancy despite a known serious risk of major health problems or death and the consequences this might have for her existing children and partner.

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    1. Kissindra

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Rachel Grimmer

      I don't disagree with you, but I want to touch on a question this raises for me: who gets to decide what health concerns should be avoided and why? eg. a couple may have a very high chance of their child inheriting a genetic condition which has lifelong implications, it might be a condition that they themselves have. If that couple, having evaluated their own quality of life, decides that having that condition is not something which precludes a good quality of life, and they can afford any extra expenses associated with raising an individual with said condition - why would it be considered MORE selfish for THEM to want a child than someone without said medical condition? Same goes for a couple who dont have the medical condition(s) but have researched the conditions they have a higher risk for, talked to those who have raised children with those conditions, talked to individuals WITH those conditions and medical professionals ect. and have come to the same conclusion.

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  7. Jennifer Power

    Research Fellow at The Bouverie Centre (Victoria's Family Institute) at La Trobe University

    What does it really mean to be 'selfish' when it comes to having children? The word selfish is thrown at all sorts of people who choose to have children in circumstances others rate as less than ideal for moral or medical reasons: single women, older women, lesbians, gay men. What does it mean to unselfishly have a child? Is a pregnant 25 year old, heterosexual, married woman with a high-income-earning husband really a more alturistic person than a 38 year old single lesbian? Having a child is central to human experience (whether that is a result of biological drive or culture telling us parenting is an important part of humanity). It is a selfish act to tell someone they have no right to that experience.

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    1. Louise Oneonefour

      Administration

      In reply to Jennifer Power

      I do think it is selfish to tell someone that they have no right to experience child bearing and raising. Who am I to tell a person what to do with their body? But I also wonder if just because we can have children is should then follow that everyone has a right to have a child, and in any way that we can. Maybe if it was something a little less attainable, or less of a "right" people might value child bearing more?

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    It would be interesting to have the views of people who have grown up with older parents, and possibly without grandparents or cousins near their own age as a result.

    I have lost both a friend and a relative, each born into that lonely situation and both of whom ended their own lives shortly after their parents died.

    As several correspondents and Dr Walters himself have pointed out, age of the mother is not the only factor.

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  9. Paula Chavez

    activist

    The only selfish part about being a parent is to satisfy the desire to love someone unconditionally, care for their every need, teach them to be functional and giving members of society, and to feel their every pain as well as their joy. As a career woman, I had my first just short of 40, and my second, just short of 45. Here I am at 55 so happy to selfishly give myself to my two gorgeous girls for the foreseeable future. Selfishly put off my retirement - gladly. Rush around to music, dance, the weekend job and all of their other events - gladly. Pack lunches, cook their dinner, wash their clothes, help them learn to manage their lives in this complicated world, get them to practice their instruments, do their homework, clean the fish bowl, limit their electronic entertainment - gladly. And my most selfish hope is that they will contribute to society and make this world a better place.

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    1. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Paula Chavez

      Oh Paula, thank you so much. My jaw dropped lower and lower as I read through the comments people have made above! Having a baby is one thing, selfish or not, bringing up a child well is when all selfishness goes out the window! You have said exactly what I wanted to say. As an 'older mother', my role in the future of the world is set - as an 'older mother' with various pre-existing ailments, I am doing my damned utmost to ensure my children are brought up well, yes, to contribute and make this…

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  10. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Raising a child is a contribution to all humanity, provided those around it love the child and help it learn to love.

    As humanity we may be raising too many children but to stop bearing children at all would be bizarre.

    We do need to look at the numbers of people being born, the conditions in which they are raised, the welfare of their parents, and many other issues as well.

    However to castigate people as "selfish", either for having children or not having them, does little to address those core issues.

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  11. Richard Joseph

    Engineer

    I was rather surprised to hear that a senior medical professional who faces patients daily, and who should be in touch with the sensitivities and broader issues surrounding the most important decision a woman can make, would be so poor in his choice of words.

    Waiting until boxes are checked before embarking on parenthood is a responsible, sensible and unselfish thing to do. Checking boxes and ensuring a good plan is in place will do much to keep parents' anxiety and stress at bay during and after…

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  12. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    To judge by the experience of the women in my family I would have to agree with Shirley far more than with Dale. In each case their finding a good man to father their children was a long and challenging task.

    One result was that none of them was a young mother. In each case they have borne and brought up wonderful, and healthy, children.

    "Productivity" is an idiot measure that reflects purely the financial value of work. It is in no way a measure of the social value of work or the value within a family of work that is unpaid.

    The "productivity" of many men is heavily dependent on the unpaid work of the women who look after them. And silly me had supposed that men go overseas for wives who will look after them unpaid and uncomplaining. I hadn't suspected it was for reasons of productivity.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Harland

      John,
      Women can look after their men, and men can look after their women. It becomes a mutual situation that benefits both. Nearly everything is built, designed or installed by men, and women benefit from that. As well, a woman who remains married is likely to be twice as wealthy as an unmarried woman upon retirement, and likely to live longer and have a better quality of life.

      Of concern now is the health of children. If women in Australia are the primary carer of children, their quality of care…

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  13. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Dale, you have totally missed both points I made and just repeated what you have said previously.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Harland

      John
      What man is going to marry an Australian woman and start a family when the average length will be 10 years with 2 years of separation, then he will be paying child support to her while having no say in how she spends the money.

      Meanwhile, the mother puts the children in day care and is employed at a job that barely covers day care costs and the costs of petrol to get to work.

      If she has tertiary qualifications, then it makes little difference as 2 out of 5 females university graduates do not earn sufficient income to ever pay off their HECS fees.

      Eventually taxes have to go up, because the taxpayer has to fund all the children now living in poverty, or fund the growing number of unhealthy children, with everything from asthma to depression.

      It’s a spiral downwards, and one of the few ways to break from that spiral is to give Australia women a wide berth, and for Australian men to choose women from another country.

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    2. Nick McIvor

      Illustrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale,

      what a wonderfully patriarchal view of the world – “Aussie women are rubbish! Reject the lot of them and go for a mail order bride instead”. Apparently the women are at fault for divorce rates, pay disparity, inequity at work, etc. Moreover, lets just get rid of all the Aussie women; they are clearly ruining this country! Better a nice subservient foreign girl who will do what you say, birth your children and look after the house!

      Maybe the real solution is for Aussie women to find some rich foreign men to father their children for them instead...

      It makes about as much sense as your solution.

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  14. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Not that it is of any statistical significance, it was the Asian side of my family that had many divorces. The Anglo-Scottish side had none.

    Statistics tell us very little about individuals.

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  15. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Paula, we might wonder how quickly those environmental factors affect migrants. I suspect it might be quite fast.

    Do we have figures that might tease that out?

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    1. Paula Chavez

      activist

      In reply to John Harland

      Hi John, Good question. No, no figures. My conjecture is based on 55 years of living and observing, 17 years of which including parenting (since pregnancy counts). My professions are Intellectual Property law advising and jewellery making. Cheers, Paula

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