Abstract

BACKGROUND: Based on the declining birth rates in Germany, one might assume that the number of people who unintentionally are without children is growing. However, studies over recent years have documented that the number of people who deliberately have no children is growing instead. METHODS: This report focuses on attitudes and motives which influence the realization of the desire to have a child. In a representative survey, 785 women and 795 men were questioned about their current wish to have a child, their ideal number of children and the motives for or against the decision to have a child. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Emotional aspects are the most important motives in favour of having children, and financial restraints are most frequently cited as arguments against parenthood in German society. Thus, deciding in favour or against having children still appears to be an indicator of social disparity, due to the fact that every realized child wish underlines the differences between parents and childless individuals through the increasing financial burdens. As a large number of individuals and couples in Germany postpone realization of their desire to have a child, this may lead to a change from a voluntary to an involuntary childlessness in the individual decision process. Therefore, education about fertility as a resource should be promoted.

Introduction

The ageing of society due to a declining birth rate has caused increasing concern in Germany and other European countries. The sharp decrease of birth rates in the Eastern states of Germany following German reunification can be taken as evidence for the close link between reproductive behaviour and social factors. Relinquishing federal support for mothers in Eastern Germany such as child day care institutions or financial compensation likely created a climate of insecurity inducing women to decide against having a child. Similar processes took place in other former socialist countries (Haub, 2002).

Figure 1 (Federal Institute for Population Research, 2004; see also Dorbritz and Fleischhacker, 1995; Dorbritz, 1997) presents the birth rates in East and West Germany from 1950 until 1999. From the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, the overall development of the birth rates in East and West Germany was parallel. Following the baby-boom of the 1960s, a rapid decrease of birth rates ensued in both states. However, while this trend continued in West Germany throughout the 1970s with birth rates between 1.3 and 1.5, a reversal took place in East Germany. Here, a drastic decline occurred immediately after reunification, even below the level of the Western states. Only since 2003 have birth rates increased in the Eastern states, but without as yet reaching the West German rate.

Figure 1.

Total birth rates in East and West Germany from 1950 (West) or 1952 (East) to 1999 (Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung, 2004).

Figure 1.

Total birth rates in East and West Germany from 1950 (West) or 1952 (East) to 1999 (Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung, 2004).

Culture strongly influences the parent–child relationship, which subsequently has an impact on reproductive behaviour. Based on the so-called ‘Human Development Index’ of the United Nations, the opportunity costs for the raising and care of a child may vary strongly. The more a country has been developed, the more its modernization is advanced, the higher are the opportunity costs for a child, which leads to a low birth rate as a consequence (Sorrentino, 1990; Dorbritz and Schwarz, 1996; Birg, 1998; Christie, 1998). This connection becomes evident when the international developments in birth rates are considered. Between 16 and 20 children per 1000 were born among European citizens in 1950, but this number had approximately decreased by more than half by 2002 (US Bureau of the Census, 2003.). This aspect also becomes evident in the fertility rates based on an international comparison (number of children/per woman) regarding the year 2002 (see Figure 2). As expected, there has been a great difference between industrial countries with a low birth rate and developing countries with a high birth rate (Hill and Kopp, 2000).

Figure 2.

Fertility rates (number of children per woman) in Europe and other selected countries (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, eurostat 2003; Dieckmann, 2002).

Figure 2.

Fertility rates (number of children per woman) in Europe and other selected countries (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, eurostat 2003; Dieckmann, 2002).

The reproductive literature often does not distinguish between intentional and unintentionalchildlessness, overestimating the proportion of unintentionally childless persons (Crosignani and Rubin, 1996; Brähler and Stöbel-Richter, 2002). Data about voluntary childlessness are hard to find in this context, for several reasons: on the one hand the information sources within the context of reproductive medicine are used to explain the necessity of infertility treatments. Therefore only the records of unintended childless persons are kept. On the other hand the involuntary childlessness can be considered as a transitory life phase strongly related to the process of vocational establishment. Finally, data regarding final childlessness can only be securely ascertained at the end of the reproductive life phase. More recent studies have assessed that 10% of respondents wanted to lead a life without a child (Carl et al., 2000; Stöbel-Richter, 2004). This is particularly high within the subgroup of women with a university degree, in which 41% remain childless, with a high proportion doing so intentionally (Dieckmann, 2003). A decision between job and family can be assumed among a great number of them (DIW, 2004). Approximately 6–9% of all couples in central Europe suffer from an unintended childlessness and wish for some treatment, and ~3% remain permanently childless. Thirty per cent of all women experience a period of infertility lasting ≥12 months (Helfferich and Küppers-Chinnow, 1996; ESHRE Capri Workshop, 2001). The decision to have a child can be seen as a process undergoing different stages, which is influenced by a variety of factors (e.g. gender, previous children, life goals, residence). An initially intentional childlessness turns into an unintentional childlessness. The postponement of the first birth and higher costs of raising children both contribute to the frequent fact that an existing wish for a child is not realized.

Based on a representative survey of the German population, we wish to answer the following issues: (i) Which factors determine the current wish for a child? (ii) What number of children is considered ideal? (iii) What age is considered ideal for having the first child? (iv) What are the motives in favour or against having children? (v) What is the importance of having children compared to other life values? In order to identify factors that have an impact on the decision process in favour or against having a child, childless participants were compared to those who already had children.

Even though the survey was carried out in 1999, the importance of a comparison between East and West Germany is justified by the opposed socialization of the respondents of these subgroups. As has been demonstrated, socialization aspects have a great and long-lasting influence on the decision to have a child (Stöbel-Richter and Brähler, 2005). Especially regarding family politics, the structural conditions within each part of Germany were completely different up to 1989. While in the GDR (East Germany) it was typical to have children early and then continue the professional path, in the FRG (West Germany) it was characteristic that women stayed at home after the birth of a child, at least until he or she started school. Frequently second and third children came about which prolonged the permanency at home and often women could not establish themselves professionally and remained at home caring for house and family.

Materials and methods

Sample

Data of the present study were collected by the University of Leipzig in a representative survey on psychological and sociological determinants of generative behaviour. The survey was carried out by the market research institute USUMA Berlin, including various questionnaires on the issues of the wish for a child, partnership, attachment behaviour and life satisfaction. Subjects were 1000 persons each in East and West Germany. As women were over-represented in the sample (60% women versus 40% men), the subgroup of women was reduced by exclusion of women based on chance. The adjusted sample included equal proportions of men and women, respectively 747 East and 833 West Germans, so data from a total of 1580 persons were analysed. The mean age was 34.8 years with a range from 14 to 50 years. The sample is described in Table I.

Table I.

Sociodemographic characteristics of the sample

 Total Men Women West East 
Total (%) 1580 795 (50.3) 785 (49.7) 833 (52.7) 747 (47.2) 
Age (years)      
    Mean 34.8 35.0 34.6 35.4 34.3 
    SD  9.6 9.8 9.4 9.4 9.9 
Age groups (years)      
    14–20 years 149 (9.4) 78 (52.3) 71 (47.7) 57 (38.3) 92 (61.7) 
    21–30 years 404 (25.6) 192 (47.5) 212 (52.5) 218 (54.0) 186 (46.0) 
    31–40 years 533 (33.7) 268 (50.3) 265 (49.7) 288 (54.9) 245 (46.0) 
    41–50 years 494 (31.3) 257 (52.0) 237 (48.0) 270 (54.7) 224 (45.3) 
Marital status      
    Married, living together 768 (49.0) 362 (46.1) 406 (52.0) 390 (46.9) 378 (51.4) 
    Married, separated 27 (1.7) 10 (1.3) 17 (2.2) 11 (1.3) 16 (2.2) 
    Single 620 (39.6) 348 (44.3) 272 (34.8) 345 (41.5) 275 (37.4) 
    Divorced 132 (8.4) 63 (8.0) 69 (8.8) 74 (8.9) 58 (7.9) 
    Widowed 20 (1.3) 3 (0.4) 17 (2.2) 11 (1.3) 9 (1.2) 
    Missing 13 11 
Employment      
    Full time 887 (57) 571 (72.9) 316 (40.8) 492 (59.6) 395 (54) 
    Part time 165 (10.6) 16 ( 2.1) 149 (19.3) 109 (13.2) 56 (7.7) 
    Army, civil services/maternity leave 44 (2.8) 6 (0.8) 38 (4.9) 14 (1.7) 30 (4.1) 
    Unemployed 151 (9.7) 79 (10.1) 72 (9.3) 37 (4.5) 114 (15.6) 
    Pensioner/pre-pensioner 22 (1.4) 10 (1.3) 12 (1.6) 7 (0.8) 15 (2.1) 
    Household 103 (6.6) 6 (0.8) 97 (12.5) 82 (9.9) 21 (2.9) 
    In training 185 (11.9) 95 (12.2) 90 (11.6) 85 (10.3) 100 (13.7) 
    Missing 23 12 11 16 
Children      
    Yes 931 (59) 400 (50.4) 531 (67.7) 437 (52.5) 494 (66.4) 
    No 646 (41) 393 (49.6) 253 (32.3) 396 (47.5) 250 (33.6) 
    Missing 
 Total Men Women West East 
Total (%) 1580 795 (50.3) 785 (49.7) 833 (52.7) 747 (47.2) 
Age (years)      
    Mean 34.8 35.0 34.6 35.4 34.3 
    SD  9.6 9.8 9.4 9.4 9.9 
Age groups (years)      
    14–20 years 149 (9.4) 78 (52.3) 71 (47.7) 57 (38.3) 92 (61.7) 
    21–30 years 404 (25.6) 192 (47.5) 212 (52.5) 218 (54.0) 186 (46.0) 
    31–40 years 533 (33.7) 268 (50.3) 265 (49.7) 288 (54.9) 245 (46.0) 
    41–50 years 494 (31.3) 257 (52.0) 237 (48.0) 270 (54.7) 224 (45.3) 
Marital status      
    Married, living together 768 (49.0) 362 (46.1) 406 (52.0) 390 (46.9) 378 (51.4) 
    Married, separated 27 (1.7) 10 (1.3) 17 (2.2) 11 (1.3) 16 (2.2) 
    Single 620 (39.6) 348 (44.3) 272 (34.8) 345 (41.5) 275 (37.4) 
    Divorced 132 (8.4) 63 (8.0) 69 (8.8) 74 (8.9) 58 (7.9) 
    Widowed 20 (1.3) 3 (0.4) 17 (2.2) 11 (1.3) 9 (1.2) 
    Missing 13 11 
Employment      
    Full time 887 (57) 571 (72.9) 316 (40.8) 492 (59.6) 395 (54) 
    Part time 165 (10.6) 16 ( 2.1) 149 (19.3) 109 (13.2) 56 (7.7) 
    Army, civil services/maternity leave 44 (2.8) 6 (0.8) 38 (4.9) 14 (1.7) 30 (4.1) 
    Unemployed 151 (9.7) 79 (10.1) 72 (9.3) 37 (4.5) 114 (15.6) 
    Pensioner/pre-pensioner 22 (1.4) 10 (1.3) 12 (1.6) 7 (0.8) 15 (2.1) 
    Household 103 (6.6) 6 (0.8) 97 (12.5) 82 (9.9) 21 (2.9) 
    In training 185 (11.9) 95 (12.2) 90 (11.6) 85 (10.3) 100 (13.7) 
    Missing 23 12 11 16 
Children      
    Yes 931 (59) 400 (50.4) 531 (67.7) 437 (52.5) 494 (66.4) 
    No 646 (41) 393 (49.6) 253 (32.3) 396 (47.5) 250 (33.6) 
    Missing 

Questionnaires

The intensity of a current wish for a child was rated on a 5-point scale: 1 = ‘not at all’, 2 = ‘hardly’, 3 = ‘somewhat’, 4 = ‘strongly’, 5 = ‘very strongly’. Real and ideal numbers of children were also asked, along with the question ‘if everything in your life were running exactly according to your plans, how many children would you want to have all in all?’.

The Leipzig questionnaire on motives for having a child (LKM) consists of 20 items questioning individual motives in favour or against realization of the wish for a child. Instructions for the questionnaires are: ‘Everybody has thought about a personal wish for a child at some time. Some decide in favour of a child, others decide against having a child. How much do the following motives affect your personal decision?’ Participants rate their answers on a 5-point scale from ‘does not affect me at all’ (= 1) to ‘affects me greatly’ (= 5).

The four scales of the LKM are characterized as follows:

LKM 1: Desire for emotional stabilization and finding meaning. (Example: ‘A child gives me the feeling to have a real home.’)

LKM 2: Fear of personal constraints. (Example: ‘With a child of our own my partner and I do not have enough time for each other.’)

LKM 3: Desire for social recognition. (Example: ‘A child is necessary for me to be acknowledged as an adult.’)

LKM 4: Fear of financial constraints. (Example: ‘To have a child in our society means a handicap.’)

Scales 1 and 3 represent positive motives for a child, whereas scales 2 and 4 describe concerns and fears about having a child of one’s own. The LKM questionnaire is a reliable and valid self-rating instrument assessing intrapsychic and self-reflective as well as socioculturally shaped motives in favour of or against having a child. Moreover, cost-benefit considerations are included (cf. Hoffman and Hoffman, 1973; Fawcett, 1988).

Based on 16 items, the Life Satisfaction Questionnaire (Fragebogen zur Lebenszufriedenheit: FLZ) measures the importance and the satisfaction in eight areas: friends/acquaintances, leisure time activities, health, work, income/financial security, living conditions, family life/children, partnership/sexuality). Items are rated on 5-point scales (1 = ‘not important/unsatisfactory’ to 5 = ‘extremely important/satisfactory’ (cf. Henrich et al., 1992). In this study, results from the single items of the scale are reported.

Data analysis

Data analysis was done by SPSS for Windows (version 11.0) by parametric and non-parametric procedures. In order to determine their impact on the wish for a child and related motives, the factors gender, parenthood and residence were entered into three-way analysis of variance (ANOVA).

Results

(i) Which factors determine the current wish for a child?

At the time of the survey, 69% of respondents had no wish for a child; 13% articulated little desire to have a child, 12% stated a moderate, 3% a strong and 2% a very strong wish to have a child. Interpretation of these data, however, must take into account the fact that 59% of the respondents already had children. Overall, the current desire to have a child was greater among the parents than among the childless participants (t = –5.27, df = 1241.95, P ≤ 0.001). Therefore Table II differentiate between parents and childless participants, further divided by age group, gender and region.

Table II.

Current desire to have a child, according to parenthood, age group, gender and region

 Subgroups
 
    Total 
 1 not at all 2 hardly 3 somewhat 4 strongly 5 very strongly  
(a) Participants with one child/more children       
West Germany 282 (71.4) 50 (12.7) 45 (11.4) 7 (1.7) 11 (2.7) 395 (100) 
East Germany 333 (79.3) 47 (11.2) 24 (5.7) 8 (1.9) 8 (1.9) 420 (100) 
Men 253 (72.7) 52 (14.9) 30 (8.6) 6 (1.7) 7 (2.1) 348 (100) 
Women 362 (77.5) 45 (9.6) 39 (8.3) 9 (1.9) 12 (2.5) 467 (100) 
Age (years)       
    ≤20 6 (54.5) 4 (36.4) 1 (9.0) – – 11 (100) 
    21–30 69 (54.8) 20 (15.9) 23 (18.3) 6 (4.7) 8 (6.3) 126 (100) 
    31–40 219 (68) 52 (16.1) 38 (11.8) 7 (2.2) 6 (1.8) 322 (100) 
    41–50 321 (90) 21 (5.9) 7 (1.9) 2 (0.6) 5 (1.4) 356 (100) 
    Total 615 (75.5) 97 (11.9) 69 (8.5) 15 (1.8) 19 (2.3) 815 (100) 
(b) Childless participants       
West Germany 239 (61.9) 62 (16.1) 68 (17.6) 10 (2.6) 7 (1.8) 386 (100) 
East Germany 147 (60.2) 35 (14.3) 38 (15.6) 15 (6.2) 9 (3.7) 244 (100) 
Men 253 (65.9) 58 (15.1) 49 (12.8) 14 (3.6) 10 (2.6) 384 (100) 
Women 133 (54.1) 39 (15.9) 57 (23.2) 11 (4.4) 6 (2.4) 246 (100) 
Age (years)       
    ≤20 106 (80.3) 15 (11.4) 10 (7.5) 1 (0.7) – 132 (100) 
    21–30 140 (54.1) 48 (18.5) 52 (20.1) 11 (4.2) 8 (3.1) 259 (100) 
    31–40 38 (49.7) 26 (16.6) 34 (21.7) 12 (7.6) 7 (4.4) 157 (100) 
    41–50 62 (75.6) 8 (9.7) 10 (12.2) 1 (1.2) 1 (1.2) 82 (100) 
    Total 386 (61.3) 97 (15.4) 106 (16.8) 25 (3.9) 16 (2.5) 630 (100) 
 Subgroups
 
    Total 
 1 not at all 2 hardly 3 somewhat 4 strongly 5 very strongly  
(a) Participants with one child/more children       
West Germany 282 (71.4) 50 (12.7) 45 (11.4) 7 (1.7) 11 (2.7) 395 (100) 
East Germany 333 (79.3) 47 (11.2) 24 (5.7) 8 (1.9) 8 (1.9) 420 (100) 
Men 253 (72.7) 52 (14.9) 30 (8.6) 6 (1.7) 7 (2.1) 348 (100) 
Women 362 (77.5) 45 (9.6) 39 (8.3) 9 (1.9) 12 (2.5) 467 (100) 
Age (years)       
    ≤20 6 (54.5) 4 (36.4) 1 (9.0) – – 11 (100) 
    21–30 69 (54.8) 20 (15.9) 23 (18.3) 6 (4.7) 8 (6.3) 126 (100) 
    31–40 219 (68) 52 (16.1) 38 (11.8) 7 (2.2) 6 (1.8) 322 (100) 
    41–50 321 (90) 21 (5.9) 7 (1.9) 2 (0.6) 5 (1.4) 356 (100) 
    Total 615 (75.5) 97 (11.9) 69 (8.5) 15 (1.8) 19 (2.3) 815 (100) 
(b) Childless participants       
West Germany 239 (61.9) 62 (16.1) 68 (17.6) 10 (2.6) 7 (1.8) 386 (100) 
East Germany 147 (60.2) 35 (14.3) 38 (15.6) 15 (6.2) 9 (3.7) 244 (100) 
Men 253 (65.9) 58 (15.1) 49 (12.8) 14 (3.6) 10 (2.6) 384 (100) 
Women 133 (54.1) 39 (15.9) 57 (23.2) 11 (4.4) 6 (2.4) 246 (100) 
Age (years)       
    ≤20 106 (80.3) 15 (11.4) 10 (7.5) 1 (0.7) – 132 (100) 
    21–30 140 (54.1) 48 (18.5) 52 (20.1) 11 (4.2) 8 (3.1) 259 (100) 
    31–40 38 (49.7) 26 (16.6) 34 (21.7) 12 (7.6) 7 (4.4) 157 (100) 
    41–50 62 (75.6) 8 (9.7) 10 (12.2) 1 (1.2) 1 (1.2) 82 (100) 
    Total 386 (61.3) 97 (15.4) 106 (16.8) 25 (3.9) 16 (2.5) 630 (100) 

The subgroups of parents and childless participants were analysed by a three-way ANOVA according to gender (male/female), age groups (≤20, 21–30, 31–40, 41–50 years), and region (East/West).

Among those who already had at least one child, the proportion of persons who did not want further children was comparatively higher in East versus West Germany (79 versus 71%; F = 9.02; df = 1; P (F) = 0.003). Comparing the four age groups [F = 28.13; df = 3; P (F) ≤ 0.001], respondents between 21 and 30 years of age had the strongest wish to have a child. Male and female participants with children did not differ regarding their current wish for a child.

Among the childless participants, men articulated a lesser wish for a child than women [F = 12.77; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001]. Participants from the Eastern states articulated a stronger wish for a child than those from the Western states [F = 7.82, df = 1, P (F) = 0.005]. Age groups also differed significantly [F = 19.38; df = 3; P (F) ≤ 0.001]. Childless participants aged between 31 and 40 years articulated the strongest wish for a child. Additional two-factorial differences were found regarding gender and age group [F = 3.10; df = 3; P (F) = 0.026]: women aged between 21 and 30 years articulated the strongest wish for a child. Overall, 35% of the men aged between 21 and 30 years and 49% between 31 and 40 years articulated a current wish for a child. Sixty-one per cent of the women aged between 21 and 30 years and 49% aged between 31 and 40 years articulated the wish for a child.

(ii) Which number of children is considered ideal?

When asked about the ideal number of children, 53% of all respondents stated the wish of having two children; 9.5% considered it ideal to have no children. Contrasting the actual and the ideal numbers of children (Table III) about half of all respondents who considered one child as ideal, have made this ideal wish become a reality, but only 38% of those who regarded two children as ideal, actually had two children. Differences became even bigger when considering the ideal of three or more children. About one-third of all persons who wish to have more than just one child have been able to realize that wish at the time of the survey. There are also discrepancies when considering those who state that a life without any children would be ideal. After all, 12.6% of these respondents have one or two children. These data would therefore suggest that the ideal number of children is not necessarily realized.

Table III.

Ideal number of children compared to actual number of children

 Ideal number of children
 
    
 ≥4 
Actual number of children      
    0 (n = 602) 124 (20.6) [87.3] 118 (19.6) [43.4] 288 (47.8)[36.1] 58 (9.6)[27.1] 14 (2.3)[18.5] 
    1 (n = 402) 10 (2.4)[7.1] 150 (37.3)[55.1] 191 (47.6)[23.9] 45 (11.1)[21.0] 6 (1.5)[7.8] 
    2 (n = 386) 8 (2.1)[5.6] 3 (0.7)[1.1] 305 (79.0)[38.2] 50 (12.9)[23.3] 20 (5.2)[26.3] 
    3 (n = 81)  1 (1.2)[0.4] 11 (13.5)[1.3] 58 (71.6)[27.1] 11 (13.6)[14.4] 
    ≥4 (n = 31)   3 (9.6)[0.4] 3 (9.6)[1.4] 25 (80.7)[32.9] 
    Total (n = 1502) 142 (9.5)[100] 272 (18.1)[100] 798 (53.1)[100] 214 (14.2)[100] 76 (5.1)[100] 
 Ideal number of children
 
    
 ≥4 
Actual number of children      
    0 (n = 602) 124 (20.6) [87.3] 118 (19.6) [43.4] 288 (47.8)[36.1] 58 (9.6)[27.1] 14 (2.3)[18.5] 
    1 (n = 402) 10 (2.4)[7.1] 150 (37.3)[55.1] 191 (47.6)[23.9] 45 (11.1)[21.0] 6 (1.5)[7.8] 
    2 (n = 386) 8 (2.1)[5.6] 3 (0.7)[1.1] 305 (79.0)[38.2] 50 (12.9)[23.3] 20 (5.2)[26.3] 
    3 (n = 81)  1 (1.2)[0.4] 11 (13.5)[1.3] 58 (71.6)[27.1] 11 (13.6)[14.4] 
    ≥4 (n = 31)   3 (9.6)[0.4] 3 (9.6)[1.4] 25 (80.7)[32.9] 
    Total (n = 1502) 142 (9.5)[100] 272 (18.1)[100] 798 (53.1)[100] 214 (14.2)[100] 76 (5.1)[100] 

Percentages in parentheses: based on actual numbers of children; percentages in square brackets: based on the ideal number of children.

Based on a three-way variance analysis we found an interaction between region and gender. Respondents from East Germany [F = 10.42; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001] reported a larger ideal number of children and so did women compared to men [F = 16.69; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001]. No differences were found between age groups.

(iii) Which age is considered ideal for having the first child?

Regarding the age when ideally the first child should be born, two trends were found in the sample of those who have remained childless so far: 38% of all respondents articulated the wish to have their first child between the ages of 25–29 years. Another 38% wanted to fulfil their wish of having a child between the ages of 30 and 35 years; the first child was desired at a mean age of 29.9 years. With increasing age, the ideal age for the first gravidity also increased. Respondents up to 20 years of age therefore preferred to have their first child by the age of 26 years. Respondents between 21 and 30 years dated their ideal age when having the first child at 29 years. Finally, respondents between 31 and 40 years dated the ideal time of birth of their first child at 36 years of age. The desired age for having the first child was proportional to the age of the participants: the older the participants, the higher the age when the birth of their first child was preferred [F = 132.05; df = 3; P (F) ≤ 001]. Compared to the women, the men articulated a higher age [F = 16.54; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 001]. Participants from East Germany desired to have their first child at an earlier age compared to the West Germans [F = 13.61; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 001].

Two-way interactions were found between different age groups and the region [F = 7.37; df = 3; P (F) ≤ 001]: East German participants aged <20 years wished to have their child at a young age (25.6 years), East Germans between 41 and 50 years preferred the oldest age (44.2 years). In the age groups in between 21 and 30 years and 31 and 40 years, the West Germans desired a pregnancy at an older age than the East Germans (West 21–30 years: 29.9 years, East Germans 21–30 years: 28.0 years; West Germans 31–40 years: 36.2 years; East Germans 31–40 years: 35.3 years).

For this item, a three-way ANOVA for the subgroups region, gender and age was also calculated. As a result, there was a significant two-factor interaction between the variables region and age [F = 7.37; P (F) ≤ 0.001]. East Germans preferred to have their first child at a younger age than West Germans; this was particularly the case for East Germans in the age group up to 20 years (ideal age for having their first child at 25.6 years).

(iv) What are the motives in favour of or against having children?

Overall, emotional aspects (‘desire for emotional stabilization’) were rated as the strongest motives. However, men rated emotional aspects less strongly than women [F = 64.01; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001], and West Germans saw those as more influential than East Germans [F = 36.95; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001]. However, personal as well as financial limitations were perceived as significant obstacles, mostly by men in the West. Gaining social recognition by parenthood also seemed to be important motives for having a child, especially for women from West Germany. For men, both in East and West Germany and for women in East Germany, social recognition seemed to be a less relevant reason when considering whether to have a child (see Figure 3 and Table IV).

Figure 3.

Leipzig child-wish questionnaire (LKM). LKM 1: desire for emotional stabilization; LKM 2: fear of personal constraints; LKM 3: desire for social recognition; LKM 4: fear of financial constraints. Men: West n = 418, East n = 371. Women: West n = 413, East n = 367. F‐Values in the text.

Figure 3.

Leipzig child-wish questionnaire (LKM). LKM 1: desire for emotional stabilization; LKM 2: fear of personal constraints; LKM 3: desire for social recognition; LKM 4: fear of financial constraints. Men: West n = 418, East n = 371. Women: West n = 413, East n = 367. F‐Values in the text.

Table IV.

Motives in favour of or against having children (results of the three-way ANOVA)

 Age groups Gender Region Two-way interactions 
LKM 1: Desire for emotional stabilization     
    F 2.56 64.01 36.95  
    df  
    P (F0.053 ≤ 0.001 ≤ 0.001  
LKM 2: Fear of personal constraints     
    F 5.43 46.46 76.16  
    df  
    P (F0.001 ≤ 0.001 ≤ 0.001  
LKM 3: Desire for social recognition     
    Gender×region 
    F 1.54 0.006 12.10 5.47 
    df 
    P (F201 0.937 0.001 0.019 
LKM 4: Fear of financial constraints     
    F 2.14 5.94 13.99  
    df  
    P (F0.092 0.015 ≤ 0.001  
 Age groups Gender Region Two-way interactions 
LKM 1: Desire for emotional stabilization     
    F 2.56 64.01 36.95  
    df  
    P (F0.053 ≤ 0.001 ≤ 0.001  
LKM 2: Fear of personal constraints     
    F 5.43 46.46 76.16  
    df  
    P (F0.001 ≤ 0.001 ≤ 0.001  
LKM 3: Desire for social recognition     
    Gender×region 
    F 1.54 0.006 12.10 5.47 
    df 
    P (F201 0.937 0.001 0.019 
LKM 4: Fear of financial constraints     
    F 2.14 5.94 13.99  
    df  
    P (F0.092 0.015 ≤ 0.001  

LKM = Leipzig questionnaire on motives for having a child.

(v) What is the importance of having a child compared to other life values?

When asked to rate the importance of major areas of life, health was given the highest priority, followed by income and financial security, work, partnership and sexuality and living conditions. Family life/children was rated at the sixth rank, followed by friends and leisure time activities. Having children was more important for women than for men [F = 77.35; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001], for participants from the East compared to the West [F = 57.61; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001] and for the older versus younger age groups [F = 15.64; df = 3; P (F) ≤ 0.001]. East German women rated ‘having children’ as most important, and West German men rated it as least important [F = 9.57; df = 1; P (F) = 0.002] (Table V).

Table V.

Importance of major areas of life

 Total Men Women West Germany East Germany Age group (years)
 
   
      ≤20 21–30 31–40 41–50 
Health 4.42 (0.76) 4.36 (0.80) 4.49 (0.71) 4.43 (0.76) 4.42 (0.77) 4.38 (0.80) 4.43 (0.75) 4.39 (0.81) 4.47 (0.69) 
Income, financial security 4.05 (0.82) 4.07 (0.85) 4.02 (0.79) 3.96 (0.87) 4.14 (0.77) 3.96 (0.98) 4.07 (0.82) 4.02 (0.81) 4.08 (0.78) 
Work 4.04 (0.87) 4.10 (0.85) 3.98 (0.88) 3.94 (0.94) 4.16 (0.78) 3.90 (1.07) 4.07 (0.84) 4.01 (0.85) 4.09 (0.85) 
Partnership/sexuality 3.96 (1.00) 3.92 (1.03) 4.00 (0.96) 3.88 (1.04) 4.05 (0.95) 3.83 (1.18) 4.14 (0.87) 3.97 (0.98) 3.83 (1.03) 
Living conditions 3.91 (0.82) 3.84 (0.84) 3.98 (0.79) 3.89 (0.84) 3.92 (0.79) 3.84 (0.93) 3.91 (0.83) 3.88 (0.83) 3.95 (0.75) 
Family life/children 3.83 (1.19) 3.59 (1.26) 4.08 (1.06) 3.64 (1.27) 4.05 (1.06) 3.49 (1.24) 3.64 (1.23) 3.94 (1.18) 3.98 (1.11) 
Friends 3.69 (0.94) 3.67 (0.97) 3.71 (0.92) 3.73 (0.92) 3.64 (0.97) 4.16 (0.73) 3.86 (0.96) 3.61 (0.94) 3.50 (0.90) 
Leisure time activities/hobbies 3.48 (0.92) 3.57 (0.92) 3.39 (0.91) 3.55 (0.95) 3.40 (0.90) 3.87 (0.84) 3.57 (0.92) 3.42 (0.92) 3.36 (0.91) 
 Total Men Women West Germany East Germany Age group (years)
 
   
      ≤20 21–30 31–40 41–50 
Health 4.42 (0.76) 4.36 (0.80) 4.49 (0.71) 4.43 (0.76) 4.42 (0.77) 4.38 (0.80) 4.43 (0.75) 4.39 (0.81) 4.47 (0.69) 
Income, financial security 4.05 (0.82) 4.07 (0.85) 4.02 (0.79) 3.96 (0.87) 4.14 (0.77) 3.96 (0.98) 4.07 (0.82) 4.02 (0.81) 4.08 (0.78) 
Work 4.04 (0.87) 4.10 (0.85) 3.98 (0.88) 3.94 (0.94) 4.16 (0.78) 3.90 (1.07) 4.07 (0.84) 4.01 (0.85) 4.09 (0.85) 
Partnership/sexuality 3.96 (1.00) 3.92 (1.03) 4.00 (0.96) 3.88 (1.04) 4.05 (0.95) 3.83 (1.18) 4.14 (0.87) 3.97 (0.98) 3.83 (1.03) 
Living conditions 3.91 (0.82) 3.84 (0.84) 3.98 (0.79) 3.89 (0.84) 3.92 (0.79) 3.84 (0.93) 3.91 (0.83) 3.88 (0.83) 3.95 (0.75) 
Family life/children 3.83 (1.19) 3.59 (1.26) 4.08 (1.06) 3.64 (1.27) 4.05 (1.06) 3.49 (1.24) 3.64 (1.23) 3.94 (1.18) 3.98 (1.11) 
Friends 3.69 (0.94) 3.67 (0.97) 3.71 (0.92) 3.73 (0.92) 3.64 (0.97) 4.16 (0.73) 3.86 (0.96) 3.61 (0.94) 3.50 (0.90) 
Leisure time activities/hobbies 3.48 (0.92) 3.57 (0.92) 3.39 (0.91) 3.55 (0.95) 3.40 (0.90) 3.87 (0.84) 3.57 (0.92) 3.42 (0.92) 3.36 (0.91) 

Results are presented as means (SD) (‘How important is for you …’: 1 = ‘not important’ to 5 = ‘extremely important’); F-values in the text.

When asked about their satisfaction with children and family life, older participants reported a higher satisfaction compared to younger ones [F = 2.87; df = 3; P (F) = 0.035]. Women were more satisfied than men [F = 52.96; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001], East Germans were more satisfied than West Germans [F = 14.62; df = 1; P (F) ≤ 0.001].

Discussion

In our survey, 69% of respondents reported no current wish for a child. This percentage cannot be taken as evidence for an overall low desire to have a child, as two-thirds of all respondents have already had at least one child. Still, the wish to have a child is not equally distributed across the population: parents articulated a stronger wish than childless participants (particularly in the age group from 21 to 30 years). This could be explained by the fact that parents deciding to have another child have had the experience in their role as parents and know in advance the satisfactions and difficulties that will arise. By contrast, the decision to have the first child is always ambivalent: both pros and cons are being anticipated and later can be proven to have been completely wrong.

Among the childless participants, women reported a stronger wish than men (particularly in the age group from 21 to 30 years); participants from the Eastern states articulated a stronger wish than inhabitants of the Western states.

Overall, family life and children achieved a relatively low rank among the important areas of life, behind health, income, work, living conditions, partnership and sexuality. Only friends and leisure time activities received lower ratings. However, women rated children as more important than men, and participants from the East did so more strongly than participants from the West. Nevertheless, participants from the East gave overall priority to health, work, income and financial security. This can be interpreted as an indication of the fact that other life alternatives (especially the vocational career) have won importance. Beyond that, the results can be interpreted as indications for the need to create fundamental basic conditions for a life with children first, before an individual decides to have them.

According to the Leipzig Questionnaire (LKM), the wish to have a child is most strongly based on emotional motives (e.g. the feeling to have a real home, to create life or to experience the love for a child). On the other hand, financial restraints (e.g. lack of support by public agencies) were also perceived strongly. Social recognition was an additional motive in favour of having children, whereas personal restraints by child care were perceived as almost equally strong obstacles. It can be concluded that the wish for a child is likely based on an ambivalent process of balancing emotional desires and the desire for social recognitions with fears of manifold financial and personal restraints. This appears to be most relevant for childless participants. Most likely, the younger participants frequently aspire to a certain socioeconomic status before making the transition to parenthood. This becomes even more pronounced when women desire to have their own career, to complete a long professional training, to become financially independent from their partner or when they have to provide for the family income (e.g. in couples in which the partner is unemployed). At this point in the couples’ biographies, personal wishes and desires interact with structural and social factors. Apparently, for most couples the issue is not ‘having children or not having children’, but it is rather of when it is the right time to have them. The increasing individualization of society requires people to take potential financial disadvantages and social handicaps of having children into account in decision-making.

Principally, the results prove the already mentioned socialization differences, both between the sexes and, in addition, between former East and West Germany. In former East Germany it was typical that women could combine job and family: they had children relatively early (usually by 22.9 years; Winkler, 1990), continued their work after birth relatively quickly, and childlessness was almost non-existent. In spite of the serious changes that have taken place, this socialization experience can be found in the results. As proof of this (in each case in the comparison with the West German sample) the higher ideal child number, the younger age for the first child, higher satisfaction with family and children among other aspects can be considered.

In contrast to the East German women, who tended to identify themselves often through their professional role, the West German housewife could only gain identification through the family. This is also reflected if the single motives for having children of the LKM are compared, especially in the third scale ‘Desire for social recognition’. The fact that men tended to postpone the realization of the wish for a child more, have a lower ideal number of children and refer more strongly to personal and economic disadvantages can be interpreted as being due to different gender-specific positions. As was found out in a recent study, younger men especially tend to postpone having children or remain childless. As additional reasons for this, the longer fertility phase, the asymmetrical partnership-related behaviour and the desire for financial security can be mentioned (DIW, 2004).

Postponing the realization of the wish for a child also has to be considered in relation to the advances in reproductive medicine. Often couples act on the assumption that new options in reproductive medicine provide them with reliable assistance in having a child at any time (Onnen-Isemann, 2000; Brähler and Stöbel-Richter, 2002). The number of fertility treatments in reproductive medicine has increased rapidly over the past few years (Golombok et al., 1995) and reproductive medicine has contributed from 1 to 3% of the birth rate. In a survey carried out in 2003, 36% of the women and 26% of all men stated that they would use every medical treatment in the case of an unintentional childlessness (Stöbel-Richter et al., 2003). However, postponement of having children carries an increased risk of turning intentional into unintentional childlessness.

Our results further demonstrated that only a certain proportion of the ideal number of children is realized. While two children have still been considered ideal, only 60% of those have been able to realize this ideal, and ~37% have had only one child so far. Factors that have been discussed as keeping parents from having additional children include a disappointing transition to parenthood or the deterioration of the partnership regarding intimacy and sexuality following the birth of their first child (cf. Reichle and Werneck, 1999). Further, a great number of the female respondents still remain in an age of reproductive possibilities, which means that the ideal number of children can still be achieved. The postponement to an older age of having the first child also brings about a discrepancy regarding period and cohort birth rates: due to the postponement a decrease in the birth rate appears to occur, which will partly be corrected later in time (Sobotka, 2004). Nevertheless, the ideal number of children is a desire and the factors influencing the realization are multivariate.

Furthermore, the number of children can be viewed as an indicator of social disparity: when the number of children increases, there also tends to be an increase in the cost of living. On the other hand, if the women have to take care of the children and either stay at home or work part-time, the income decreases (Beck-Gernsheim, 1997; Vetter, 1999; Stöbel-Richter and Brähler, 2001). Thus, the social inequality shows up when comparing with childless persons, not only regarding smaller incomes and higher living costs, but also regarding smaller vocational chances for women, since with each child the vocational requirements which ought to be fulfilled (e.g. overtime and mobility) become more difficult or impossible. Therefore it is not only the economic losses by which families with children are disadvantaged, but also by the lack of structural possibilities for the combination of family and employment with one another, which determine the outcome of the decision whether to have a child or not. These aspects particularly should be discussed more and solved at a sociopolitical level. The possibility and effectiveness of policy-making targeting and changing these conditions can be seen in the examples of France and Sweden.

When regarding the issue of ‘children’ in modern society, only a minority voluntarily renounces the wish to have a child altogether. However, two principal tendencies can be observed: on one hand, there is a voluntary postponement of the realization of the desire to have a child. On the other hand, and because of the increasing opportunity costs and the extremely high educational requirement of a child, the total number of children in a family is being adjusted to the conditions of living. In addition, more and more women, especially those with a higher academic degree, decide not to have a child and embrace their professional career. Among the higher educated women born in 1965 there are 41% who remain childless (Dieckmann, 2003). Besides the great number of childless women, the development of the German family structure has been marked by other aspects: those women who decide to have children often have more than one, and thus equilibrate the birth rates. Opposed to the developments in other European countries, in Germany the number of families with a large number of children has remained stable. Therefore a polarization of the family structure can be reported: there is a decrease of the one-child family and an increase of childlessness, but 8% still decide to have four or more children (Dieckmann, 2003).

Our findings underscore the need for governmental support for the realization of the desire to have children. If the demand for social support remains unsatisfied, fertility remains at a lower level than corresponding to the actual ideal of individuals and couples. If the actual birth rate is lower than what would correspond accordingly to people’s wishes, this can be interpreted as an indicator for a higher demand for social services and support (Bagavos and Martin, 2000). According to this, instead of more financial incentives, the promotion of more services is needed to facilitate the conjunction of occupational career and child rearing.

At the present time, the population growth in the European Union can be explained mostly by the net-immigration rates. Even when the total fertility rate in 2002 remained unchanged in comparison to the preceding years, the continuing decrease of the birth rate will lead to an obsolescence and shrinking of society. The consequences of this can only be partially estimated today. With rising living standards and per capita income the birth rate per woman is declining, and so it seems unrealistic to expect population growth in the European context in the next few years.

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