x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

When it comes to babies, does more equal less?

The next time someone asks you how many children you would like to have, think carefully: your answer could determine your status in society.

"There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies." - Winston Churchill Babies, those cuddly yet sometimes bothersome tiny creatures, have been known to change people's lives in more than one way. How many babies a family has reflects differently on them depending on their culture and their country. It can change your standing in a community, and alter society's perception of you as parents.

The other day one of my Emirati friends, a man in his 40s, appeared distressed as he told me about an issue he was struggling with. "I may have to take on another wife," he said. He loves his current wife, with whom he has three children, but his family and the community have been putting pressure on him to have more children. "She can't have any more children, and she has agreed to the idea of me marrying a second wife if that would lead to a bigger family," he told me.

I asked him why it was important to have big families in this part of the world. He took a long pause before answering. "I guess it comes from the fact that we are a minority here, and that we are still traditional when it comes to family matters," he said. This got me thinking about my view of people who have either a lot of children, or just one or two. My best friend in Saudi tells me there is a subtle social campaign going on in the kingdom, pushing young people to think carefully about how many children they will have because it will have an impact on the future of a country where more than 50 per cent of the population is under 25 and the median age is just 21.4 years.

My friend is 30, has two siblings and has just had her second child. "My husband was set on six children as he comes from a family of six," she told me, "but his friends and even his supervisor have been telling him that is not a practical option any more. I don't want people to think we are lower class, so I want just three children maximum." She and her husband continue to debate this issue: he says they can afford it, and people with far less money always manage somehow, while she says she wants to continue to work, and jokingly mentions that having six children would affect her "Barbie" figure.

In western culture, although it varies from country to country, there is the same debate: my family members in France have just one or two children while in Poland they have four or five, although attitudes there have drastically changed since Poland became part of the EU - quite bluntly, many people look down on those with big families. I was in a cinema once with one of my Polish friends when we saw a woman buy tickets for ten children (although of course they may not all have been hers). My friend jokingly whispered to me that she must have come from one of the nearby villages. "I am sure she is a farmer," she said. I wasn't sure how to respond to that. If I had told her she was being rude, then I would have been saying there was something wrong with being a farmer. I happen to like farmers.

So does the number of children you decide to have determine your social class? Based on a quick and rough observation, I have noticed throughout my career that poorer families do have more children than richer ones. But what does it really mean? All I know is that when I asked around here, of the younger generation, aged between 15 and 20, most of the males said they wanted big families and the females said they wanted small ones. Of course, this is based on a very tiny sample of fewer than 20 people, but I still found it interesting.

It reminded me of something my friend used to love to quote to me whenever the issue of children and men came up. "If men had to have babies, they would only ever have one," she would say, quoting Britain's Princess Diana. After the Princess had her two sons, British media commentators observed that she had done her duty as a royal by producing "an heir and a spare". I also know some families who keep having children until they produce a boy, then they stop. Some end up with five daughters until they have a son who will "carry on the family name".

Besides the obvious financial aspect, there are many factors involved in deciding the number of children you want: social, cultural, and perhaps even political, especially when a family is waiting for an heir. So the next time someone asks you how many children you would like to have, think carefully: your answer could determine your status in society. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae