Children – a free choice?

While women in other European countries choose career over family, Norwegian women keep the birth rate up. To them, the question is not if, but when they will have children, says social anthropologist Malin Noem Ravn.

Despite frequent media warnings of increased infertility and decreasing birth rates: Norwegian women give birth to more children than other European women. The relatively high Norwegian birth rates are often explained by the parental leave and child care that the welfare state offers. But is this explanation sufficient?

– These conditions explain why it is economically possible for Norwegian women to have children, but it does not explain why so many want to and choose to, says anthropologist Malin Noem Ravn. She has written the Norwegian chapter in the anthology Barren states: the population ’implosion’ in Europe, which discusses the European fertility development. The book was recently given an award from the American Council of Anthropology on Reproduction.

Culturally natural

”We discussed it [to have children] as if it were a choice, but you cannot choose the wish to have children in itself. […] My partner and I wanted children, and deep inside we both knew that, so when we discussed whether to have children on not, what we really discussed was if it was the right time.”

So says Lena, one of eight women interviewed by Noem Ravn before and after they had their first child. According to Noem Ravn, Lenas story illustrates a central find in the study.

– Having children is what I call culturally naturalized. The young women see it as natural and normal, both as the continuation of a relationship and in the course of the individual’s life. Like Lena describes, the question is “when” rather than “if”, explains Noem Ravn.

The need to reproduce is considered so natural that the wish for children is presumed to exist outside of the conscious mind. Lena describes it as a yearning localised in the body:

”And then the body started to send me signals that I was ovulating. It was as if it was saying: ‘Now is the time! Please get pregnant now!’ It was really weird, but I think that my body wanted to get pregnant.”

Timing is everything


Malin Noem Ravn. (Photo: Kristin Engh Førde)

The cultural naturalization of motherhood makes it unnecessary to explain the choice to become parents, according to Noem Ravn. Provided one chooses the “right” timing, that is.


“So when you are in your early twenties, and especially if you are a woman, you should not openly admit that you want children. At least not that to have children is the only thing you want. Then you become a certain kind of woman, which is not good. But as you grow older, and have done a lot of other things, then you can say that you are ready for a family without being regarded as a weirdo. Suddenly an openly admitted wish for a child is regarded more or less as ‘natural’, and to say that you do not want children is more questionable at this stage. It definitely is walking a tightrope,” says Randi, one of Noem Ravns informants.

Randi describes an inflexible system of norms. Why is it so important to choose the right time for reproduction? Noem Ravn thinks that it may have to do with the two fundamental, but contradictory values in the Norwegian culture:

– Both family life and personal autonomy are highly regarded. The stories the women tell about having children are about balancing these two values. By having children too early you fail the individual self-development project. But not having children when one has reached a certain level of self-realisation is seen as egoistical and shallow. Having children is regarded as something that changes people for the better. Actively choosing not to develop in this way, is regarded as less moral than choosing it, she explains.

According to Noem Ravns informants, the ideal time to have children appears when you have lived on your own for a few years, have finished an education and have been employed for at least a year, have lived with or been married to your partner for some time and have done some travelling and other self-developing activities.

– In a way one can say that the individual and the relational collapses into each other; having children becomes a part of the individual self-realisation. As opposed to women in other European countries, who consider the need to choose between children and self-realisation as self-evident, what Norwegian women consider as self-evident is the combination of “the best of two worlds”. This is a possibility, to a certain extent, due to the welfare state.

Noem Ravn underlines that her findings may not be representative for the population at large.

– Many of my informants have higher education, and will obviously focus strongly on education. But all social sets seem to have clear standards for what is normal when it comes to having children, even if there might be some variations.

Two is normal

As Randi points to, there is little room for deviation for when it is time to end the individualistic adult life and enter family life.

– Deviating from the straight line is not accepted without explanations. In addition, one risks being left outside of the social circle by acting differently. If you are the only one in your circle of friends who is childless, you may not be invited when the others go on holiday. Or you are invited, but feel left out and different as childless in an environment dominated by children, says Noem Ravn.

And when it comes to the number of children, Noem Ravn relates her informants’ strong cultural norm: the normal is two children. If you have one, explanations are demanded. The same goes for those who choose to have three or more children.

– Again, this has to do with the balance of the individual and the relational. An only child is commonly expected to be unsympathetic and self-centred, thus a child should have siblings. At the same time, many feel that the family should be of a manageable size, so that activities like travel or going to cafés are not made too difficult, says Noem Ravn.

Not really a choice

– When it is culturally naturalized to such an extent, can one really say that having children is a choice?

– No, in many ways one can say that there is less room to choose not to have children than ever. One used to be able to explain childlessness by a wish for education and a career. As Norwegian society today is so focused on the possibility of combining the two, a career is no longer a legitimate explanation of childlessness.

– Even being single is not necessarily a satisfactory explanation for not having children. While being a single mom was a tragedy 50 years ago, childlessness may be seen as a bigger tragedy today, says Noem Ravn.

In addition, new reproductive technology makes it less legitimate to accept infertility.

– A couple that does not try in vitro fertilization when they fail to get pregnant naturally, is seen as childless by choice. Not trying “everything” is seen as an active choice.

In the wrong direction?

– The feminist and Professor of Literature Toril Moi, who is strongly inspired by Simone de Beauvoir, has said that the feminist project is not fulfilled until women can choose not to have children without having to explain themselves. The development seems to go in the opposite direction?

– Yes, at least in the sense that it has not become more legitimate to be a childless woman. At the same time, the importance of fatherhood has increased. This was a solution Beauvoir did not discuss. Her argument was that there was no room for transcendence within the family, and I partly agree with her: I doubt that many Nobel Prize winners have small children. But if this is true for both women and men, is that necessarily a problem? asks Malin Noem Ravn.

The Researcher

Malin Noem Ravn is a social anthropologist, and works as a researcher at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Births in Europe
  • Today the Norwegian birth rate is 1.75
  • The right to parental leave is a lot better in the Nordic countries than in the rest of Europe
  • In Norway the parents of a newborn baby are granted parental leave for 54 weeks with 80 % of their regular salary, or 44 weeks with 100 % salary

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