Demographics

Why women in Spain are waiting longer to have a baby

From not finding the right partner to fertility problems, there are many reasons why would-be mothers are putting off starting a family

Eva had her first child when she was 37 years old.
Eva had her first child when she was 37 years old.INMA FLORES

In Spain, more than 70% of women want at least two children and yet less than 30% actually end up with that number. The birth rate has fallen year on year in the last decade, from almost 520,000 in 2008 to almost 373,000 last year – the lowest figure since 1998.

If the number of women between the ages of 25 and 40 has dropped by more than a million in the past decade, it would be normal for there to be fewer children in general. The concern is, however, that women are having increasingly fewer children, and that there is a gap between how many children women have and how many they want.

The first half of 2019 highlights this trend. There were 170,074 births from January to June – the lowest figure in a historical data series that began in 1941.

Postponing pregnancy is a tendency across Europe Teresa Castro, demographer from CSIC

According to experts, there are a number of factors at behind the falling birth rate. “Young people nowadays have more freedom to study, to decide what they want to do with their lives – and they are in the job market,” says Isabel Pujadas, a professor of human geography at Barcelona University.

Teresa Castro, a demographer from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), says: “A contributing factor is the age children leave home, which is getting older and older, as is the age when they find work with a decent salary and a certain amount of job security. Apart from that, we spend far more time wondering if we have found the right person. And we have professional aspirations.”

The fact is that the average age of first-time mothers continues to rise. In 2018, it was above 31 for the first time, compared to 25 in 1975. “Postponing [a first child] it is a trend across Europe,” says Castro. “The difference is that in other countries, there is less of a gap between the first and second child. We take longer to have the second, if it comes at all. In France, women have 1.9 children on average, according to figures from 2017. Here, this year, the average was 1.3.”

Most experts insist that work-life balance policies are key to the issue. “The care [of the children] falls to the women,” says Cecilia Casta, professor of applied economics at Madrid’s Complutense University. “If these conciliation policies do not go hand in hand with public services, they are useless.”

Mothers with fewer children than they would like; women who delay getting pregnant; women who don’t want children, and those who have to accept that as much as they want them, it’s too late. The survey carried out by Spain’s National Institute of Statistics (INE) in 2018 offers clues to why women in Spain are having children later.

Going it alone

Pilar, 41, waited for the ideal partner to come along to start a family with, but her “ideal” never showed up. This is the main reason women over the age of 30 delay having a child. It’s also the reason 16% of women between the ages of 18 and 55 don’t have children at all. Pilar, who lives in Zaragoza, prefers to use a pseudonym. She is two weeks from knowing if her last fertility treatment has worked and whether she is finally pregnant. When she decided to become a single mother, she discovered her eggs were not in optimum condition. “Having a child on your own was frowned upon before,” she says. “It was a personal journey accepting that the paternal figure was never going to feature in my children’s lives.” After spending €25,000 on fertility treatment, she regrets not having looked into her fertility earlier. “With a simple test, women can find out how long is left to have children with their own eggs,” she says.

“It’s too late now”

África Macías has spent three years coming to terms with the fact that her dream of becoming a mother will not come true. Macías is a psychologist specializing in grief counseling, and is about to turn 45. Her egg count dropped significantly after she was diagnosed at the age of 37 with endometriosis and had to undergo surgery. “I always say that we are baby-less mothers because you feel like a mother, you have the desire, you live it; you have undergone in-vitro fertilization and you know they are inside you but you can’t have a baby in a cot or bring one up.”

Almost half the women over 45 without children would have liked them. They number over 370,000. Macías compares coming to terms with the fact she can’t have children to grieving for a loss. “My partner and I almost split up because it affected us so badly,” she says. “It paralyzed everything we had built together and we had to reinvent ourselves.”

Fear of losing work

Marta, 30, is a journalist and prefers to remain anonymous. She is four-months pregnant and hides the fact at work where she is on a temporary contract, one that is about to come to an end. “I’m scared they won’t renew it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be a young mother. But I have put it off, partly because my partner was not sure about it, but mostly because my work situation was infinitely more precarious.”

Eight out of 10 mothers between 30 and 34 have given birth two to five years later than they wanted. And more than 30% of all mothers surveyed explain that they did so for work-related reasons, whether economic or concerning family-work balance. “I have spent years moving between precarious contracts and unemployment,” says Marta. “I’m happy now but the strange thing is that everyone around me, from my grandmother to my friends, recommend that I keep quiet at work. The downside of maternity is always falls on the woman.”

“I don’t want to be a mother”

Carmen Real’s dream was to work for The National Geographic, not to have children. “Having children is an option, which is neither good nor bad. But I have other priorities,” explains the 38-year-old anthropologist from Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. In Spain, the paradigm has changed – not all women want to be mothers. According to the INE survey, 12% of women without children did not want them. Carmen’s stance on motherhood has put an end to several relationships, but that does not bother her. “If you have a child, you have to give that child a lot of time,” she says. “It might be more selfish, but I use that energy in other social non-profit initiatives. I don’t like dependency. I was not brought up to be a mother and it is not part of my plans.”

Young with two children

“You are never in a stable enough situation to take the decision to have children,” says Rebecca Fernández, 38, from Valencia, who first fell pregnant at the age of 23. “It was a planned pregnancy,” she says. “I was getting along badly with my partner, and we thought it would help to make things better. But then he left me and I only discovered afterwards that I was pregnant. He didn’t want to know. Everyone told me to have an abortion, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t know what I was in for. I got together with another partner years later and had a second child at 28.”

While Rebecca had two children between the ages of 25 and 29 – now aged 15 and 10 – she is far from the norm; 79% of women in that age bracket do not have children. “Bringing them up was very hard,” she says. “Finding work that was compatible with their schedules was impossible. I went through periods of having very little, of going to bed without dinner. But I tried to make sure they didn’t notice.”

She has spent the last four years looking after an elderly person during the mornings. That way she can help her children with their homework in the afternoons. “When I look back and see what I went through, I think, ‘Boy!’ But it’s worth it.”

Assisted reproduction

Eva Bernal first became a mother when she was 37 years old. Like 8% of women, she fell pregnant through assisted reproduction. “I was close to turning 40 and I saw that I had no partner. I either had to do it or I would not have children,” she says. Bernal, who works in advertising in Madrid, repeated the process when she was 43, and gave birth to twins. She says she spend “between €30,000 and €50,000” on the treatment.

English version by Heather Galloway.

More information