1From the emergence of the child as an object of attention among bourgeois families in the seventeenth century (Ariès, 1973) to the “desired children” of the late twentieth century (Leridon, 1995), children have occupied a steadily growing place in the family and in society. This is the culmination of a long historical process whose various dimensions have converged to give a new status to children and to create new relationships between generations. Thanks to the health transition (lower infant and child mortality, improved child health), economic progress (disappearance of child labour), social advances (investment in education), developments in law (protection and rights of children) and birth control, children now hold a privileged position in modern society. In a social context where childlessness is tolerated and effective birth control methods are freely available, the vast majority of individuals still wish to procreate and found a family. The birth of a child is a deliberate act, most often desired and planned, in the process of family formation. In France, the number of individuals who will never experience parenthood is small , though the birth of a child is a “rare” event, occurring most often only once or twice in a lifetime . In his study of manual workers’ families in northern France, O. Schwartz (2002) noted the extent to which, in the early 1980s, “children were the couple’s immediate, even anticipated, ambition” (p. 135). In other social groups, the way couples are formed and the timing of their fertility are quite different. Indeed, though there is no initial desire to procreate in most cases, this “ambition” is nonetheless confirmed in the long run. In many cases, children are central to the couple, even if the partners willingly remain childless for a relatively long period.
2In this context, the birth of a child is likely to be a key event in the lives of both men and women. The French part of the 1999 survey of European values indicates that having a child is perceived as very important for a successful marriage by 62% of respondents, and as a factor of self-fulfilment for a majority of women (64%) and men (53%). The centrality of children in the family suggests that a birth is a decisive landmark in individual life event histories. The birth of one or more children represents a considerable challenge for women, especially when their desire for parenthood coincides with professional ambitions. In this case, the most frequent today, childbirth is certainly a decisive moment – even a “paroxystic event” in the case of a first child (Cicchelli, 2001, p. 34) – not only because it redefines a woman’s identity, but also because it involves a complete reorganization of daily life throughout the period of educational socialization. However, the tensions and transformations resulting from this event are probably experienced and resolved differently according to both the individual context of the birth (conjugal, occupational, financial, residential, etc.) and the social environment (social norms relating to the family, female and male roles). Whether or not the birth of one’s child(ren) is perceived as a key life event depends partly on these factors.
3The Histoire de vie – Construction des identités (life history – construction of identity) survey provides a means to study these questions in more depth. The survey was conducted in 2003 by INSEE and its partners (INED, INSERM, Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity, Ministry of Culture, Interministerial Agency for Urban Affairs and Social Development) on a sample of 8,403 persons representative of the population aged 18 and over living in private households in France. It aimed to analyse individual trajectories in terms of how they are perceived by the persons concerned . The survey data can be used to study the place of a birth in the life event history, since both factual and subjective information was obtained from respondents. They were asked to mention both the events that they had experienced (family, occupational, residential) and – in a more subjective approach – those which had marked their lives. After filling in the event history grid, the interviewer asked: “Are there any personal or historical events that have strongly marked your life? If so, please describe them and say when they occurred. You can mention events we have already talked about or others that we haven’t covered.”
4The study population here comprises 6,463 people with at least one child, representing a total of 16,087 births. These births were entered on an event history grid recording events that occurred each year. If the respondent reported that the births of one, several or all of his/her children were important personal events, this information was also entered on the grid for the births concerned. It is thus possible to calculate the “rate of importance attached to birth” indicating the proportion of individuals who reported the birth(s) of the their child(ren) as a key life event. It is a measure of the perceived importance of birth. To neutralize the effects of family size and avoid over-representing individuals with several children, analyses were made by parity. To simplify the presentation, only results for first births (parity-one births, including twins) are given (6,463 births), except when the results for younger children are very different from those concerning their elders. The results presented are based on bivariate analyses and on a logistic regression model to determine the net effects of each variable all other things being equal.
5As in all retrospective studies, the respondents’ answers are an ex-post interpretation of an event experienced several months or years previously. While reporting a birth and its date are simple matters, describing the way an event was perceived is more complex and subjective. Why was this event qualified as “important” and what does this signify? Does this refer to the birth itself or to its consequences? Or does the birth mark the start of a new period? In practice, these different subjective perceptions of the importance – or otherwise – of a birth cannot be teased apart. Research on memory has shown that powerful recollections are associated with the “emotional functioning of memory” (Riandey, 1995, p. 858). The memory selects events whose recollection is associated with the emotions felt when they occurred. If this is so, then the personal memory of a life event, a birth for example, is linked to the event itself. But beyond the emotion of the moment, it is the way the birth fits into the life course and into a certain social context that gives particular meaning to the event and creates, or otherwise, a specific personal memory.
6Only 47.4% of all births (all parities) were reported as important events. In other words, almost half of births are not seen as major personal milestones. This result undermines the hypothesis whereby rare events that commit individuals in affective, conjugal and material terms for very long periods of their lives are systematically seen as key life stages. We will seek to understand how these differences in perception concerning the birth of a child are structured. First, the importance attached to a birth will be examined according to the child’s characteristics, followed by those of the parents and of the context of the birth. The place attributed to the birth will then be compared with other subjective assessments of the life course.
1 – Children’s attributes are of little importance…
7Children’s individual characteristics, their sex being the easiest to distinguish, are not a key factor in the reporting – or otherwise – of a birth as a key event. France today is an egalitarian society and this result is not surprising. However, it certainly cannot be generalized to other sociocultural contexts. Though fathers report the birth of their first child as a key event slightly more often if it is a son (46.8% compared with 42.5% for a daughter), this is not the case for mothers (Table 1). Multivariate analysis shows that, all other things being equal, the more frequent reporting of eldest sons by fathers mirrors more frequent reporting of eldest daughters by mothers (Table 2). Though the traditional preference for a first-born son still has symbolic importance among a small fraction of the male population, this finding may also signify more generally that having a first-born child of the same sex as oneself is seen as a key event. A parallel can be drawn with the findings of various North American studies on child sex-preference conducted between 1950 and 1990 (Marleau and Maheu, 1998) which show that men more often report a preference for a son, and women, especially in recent years, for a daughter. Both men and women report the third birth slightly more often when it is a daughter (35.8% vs. 31.7% for a son). However, Hank and Kohler (2000) found no sex preference for the third child in France, though this is not the case in other European countries.
Percentage of individuals who report a birth as a key life event by different sociodemographic characteristics
Percentage of individuals who report a birth as a key life event by different sociodemographic characteristics
Factors influencing the propensity to report first birth as a key life event (odds ratio)
Factors influencing the propensity to report first birth as a key life event (odds ratio)
8Though the sex of the child is not a key factor in the reporting of a birth as a key event, one might expect the birth of twins (or triplets) to be seen as an “ordeal” for a variety of reasons. Twin births are rare, unplanned, a heavy burden on the parents’ time and resources, and, in certain cases, the consequence of fertility treatment which presupposes a strong desire for parenthood. We also know that a twin birth is less often followed by a further pregnancy than a singleton birth (Couvert, 2005). It is thus a decisive event which reshapes fertility plans. Despite these factors, no statistical link is observed between the perceived importance of the birth and the fact of having twins. This unexpected result is perhaps due to the small sample size (60 multiple first births) and calls for further verification.
9The death of a child is another rare event in a low-mortality demographic regime. The parents of a child who has died may repress the memory of the birth as a key event. Indeed, it is known that in surveys of all births, children who die in infancy are more often omitted by respondents than surviving children (Mazuy and Lelièvre, 2005). On the contrary, a child’s death may strengthen the memory of its birth. The Histoire de vie survey indicates substantial under-reporting of the perceived importance of a birth when the child subsequently died: 28% compared with 47.9% when the child survived. Distinguishing age at death (in childhood or adulthood) makes no notable difference. The under-reporting of births associated with a painful memory of subsequent death is understandable. The key event is more often the death than the birth: 63% of children’s deaths were reported as key events compared with 47.4% of births.
10The births of first children are more often reported than those of their younger siblings and the proportion decreases with birth order (Table 3). Likewise, the larger the family size, the less frequently each birth is reported as a key event. When parity and family size are associated, the parity effect disappears: in two-child families, the parity two birth counts almost as much as the parity one birth, and likewise for larger families. In other words, as the number of children increases, the importance attached to each birth decreases in parallel, in a practically equivalent manner for all parities. There is an effect linked to the number of children but not to the parity. What explains this lesser importance attached to births in large families? Children occupy a large place in such families and have a major impact on family organization, not least in practical and financial terms. These families are highly children-centred as a consequence. For some of them, the large family is a cultural model in which childbirth is a normal and unexceptional component of a social identity and reproductive tradition. But it is also likely that, given the repetitive nature of successive births, the importance and singularity of each birth tend to be diluted in retrospect, as they merge in with other family events. A parallel can be drawn with the psychological research findings on renewable events analysed by N. Auriat (1997). Such events produce a “generic memory” rather than a specific recollection of each one. Here, we are not interested in the factual memory of the birth, but in the subjective dimension of this memory, though the mechanism may be similar. Births appear to be seen from an overall viewpoint, giving rise to two types of attitude according to family size: either all children are reported (small families), or none of them (large families).
Percentage of individuals who report a birth as a key life event by number of children and parity
Percentage of individuals who report a birth as a key life event by number of children and parity
11As widely shown by previous demographic research, the more distant an event, the less likely that a survey respondent will report it. This erasure from memory, whether deliberate or not, also affects the perception of events. Hence, the more distant a birth, the less frequently it is identified as a key event (Tables 1 and 2). This may be due to an accumulation effect. The feelings experienced when a child is born are perceived in relation to other life experiences. The density of an individual’s life course, which increases over time, colours the perception of events experienced many years earlier, be they strictly personal (illness, etc.) familial (birth, divorce, migration, etc.) occupational (unemployment, redeployment, etc.) or historical (war, etc.). The most distant births are pushed into the background by other accumulated life experiences and hence less often reported as key events. This first explanation is partially invalidated, however, by looking at the rate of importance attached to births according to the number of key events reported: both move in the same direction (Table 1). In other words, the larger the number of key events, the higher the rate of importance attached to births. We will return to this point in more detail, but it is worth noting that the capacity to “tell one’s life story” in a survey is certainly an explanatory factor. A second factor may be a generation effect which tends to heighten the importance of recent births. Births today are more actively planned and their arrival is timed to coincide with the “window of opportunity” delimited by conjugal, occupational and physiological constraints. This growing rationalization of reproductive choices and decisions, associated with a strong tendency to focus on the child and its individual happiness, has created a context where the young generations now see childbirth, and the wanted child more generally, as a landmark life event. A third possible explanation is linked to the passage of time. The impact of a birth, and its practical and psychological consequences lessen with time, such that their relative importance in the overall life course decreases. But, more so than fading memory or the existence of other competing events, the fact that the parents are no longer involved in the child’s daily care, education and well-being weakens the perceived impact of a past birth.
2 – … the parents’ sociodemographic status plays a larger role
12More women than men report the births of their children as key events in their personal lives. This gender difference, though statistically significant, is not large (49.5% vs. 44.8%) and is only verified for first- and second-order births. In other words, contrary to popular wisdom, there is no strong difference between the sexes in this respect. The birth of child is seen as a key life event practically as often by a man as by a woman, a fact which may reflect men’s growing investment in their paternal role (Méda, 2001).
13The timing of first births, on the other hand, introduces much wider differences in perception. The most notable is that of first births after age 34, which are much more frequently reported as key events (Tables 1 and 2). These births are probably long-awaited events, postponed out of choice or constraint, and which, in many cases, cannot be repeated, given the decrease in female fecundity with age (La Rochebrochard and Leridon, 2002). Indeed, a growing number of women whose first child is born at a late age do not have a second child (Bessin et al., 2005). In a life event history, events which occur “in extremis” are endowed with particular meaning: older women are acutely aware that the birth was a stroke of luck that is unlikely to recur. Moreover, this late first birth is often intensely desired (Daguet, 1999). For men, late first fatherhood, which is less dependent on physiological constraints, is less often reported as a key event than first fatherhood at earlier ages.
14As the place of children in the family is anchored in sociocultural norms, parents’ perception of births varies according to their social group. Educational level, which partly proxies for social category, is strongly correlated with the importance attached to birth. Generally speaking, individuals with the lowest education level (primary schooling) less frequently report the births of their children among key events (Table 1) and this result holds true after controlling for other sociodemographic variables (Table 2).
15The reported significance of a birth is linked to the socioeconomic status of the parents at the time it occurs: the socio-occupational category (SOC) with the highest proportion of persons attaching importance to childbirth is that of intellectual and higher-level occupations (Tables 1 and 2). For women in this category, trade-offs between the differing priorities of family and work doubtless weigh more heavily than in other categories. Investment in the family, even if smaller in terms of time, is probably more difficult to reconcile with the demands of a working career. Women with high occupational status tend to share domestic tasks more equally with their partner, giving priority over home life to their working career (Pfefferkorn, 2007). For these women, engaged in a working career after long years in education, parenthood involves a radical redefinition of their identity and status. Yet with the development of non-standard work schedules, especially in unskilled occupations, it is not only the women in higher-level occupations who face problems reconciling work and family life (Amossé and Chardon, 2006). It is the differences in career prospects that shed light on the differences in perception. When reporting the births of their children as key life events, women in skilled jobs recognize the specific challenge presented by motherhood in the course of their working career. Non-working women and those in low-skill jobs, on the other hand, with few opportunities for career development, are not confronted by the same overlapping of roles or tensions of identity. Non-working women in particular, by their absence from the labour force, are necessarily family-focused, and hence less often see births as key events.
16The atypical case of the self-employed (both men and women) deserves closer attention. This is the SOC where the rates of importance attached to births are by far the smallest, for both sexes and for practically all parities. For the self-employed – be they farmers, artisans or small traders – the link between their economic activity and their domestic and family lives is particularly close. Their place of work is often also their home, their work commitments often spill over into their family life and the two spouses often run the business together. In other words, there is no clear separation between work and family (Bertaux-Wiame, 2004). The lesser importance attached to a birth by the self-employed may reflect this strong interconnection between the economic and domestic spheres, this absence of demarcation between the workplace and the home, between working hours and family life. For the self-employed, the birth of a child is a life event that has no profound impact on their way of life, on their career prospects or their subsequent trajectory. This finding, based on the descriptive analysis, is not confirmed for women after controlling for the other sociodemographic characteristics. This indicates that beyond the SOC, the specific attributes of these women also explain the less frequent reference to the birth of their child(ren).
3 – The place of childbirth in the life event history
a – Occupational trajectory
17Occupational status and the degree of labour market integration both have a notable impact on the perception of a birth. A period of inactivity of at least one year after completing education is a quite strong determining factor . Women who have worked least since the end of their education less often report births as a key event: the rate of importance is 40.1% for women who have spent less than 25% of their time in the labour force, compared with 53.6% for those who have worked for at least 75% of the time since the end of their education. This could be seen as contradictory: women who leave or remain absent from the labour force when they have children invest more in family life. Economic inactivity is generally viewed as an advantage – a necessity even – for raising children, who thus become the central focus of their mothers’ life. So why, in this case, is the birth of a child not regarded more often as a key event in their personal history? A range of explanations have been put forward, notably the reproduction of a sociocultural model based on the classic gender-based division of roles between spouses whereby childbirth is an expected, and therefore ordinary, event. For women who have never or rarely worked, parenthood involves a less radical redefinition of identity than for women with a working career. Births are part of the normal pattern of life for women whose role is centred on their domestic environment, while for those who work, births form part of a predefined and preplanned family project which fits into a broader project incorporating their working life or even their career plan. In other words, it is because women diversify their roles and are confronted by sometimes difficult choices that they are more sensitive to the milestones marking their life course.
b – Conjugal trajectory
18Births most often form part of a conjugal trajectory, either stable, with a single partner, or interrupted by a separation. Generally speaking, it is not the status of the union which affects the perceived importance of a birth, but whether or not the respondent has a partner at the time of the survey. The rate is around 49% for persons with a partner, versus 39% for those who are not. When a new couple is formed, the “separation” effect disappears completely. In other words, if a separation is not followed by repartnering, it is seen as a more important key event than the birth of the child. There is a parallel here with the link between birth and death examined above. It would be interesting to verify this result in relation to the timing of events. Was the child born before or after the separation? Is it a child of the current union at the time of the survey or of a previous one? But analysis by birth order and union order is problematic, notably because of the small sample size, so this aspect cannot be studied in greater depth.
c – Other key events in the life course
19Respondents were able to mention several events in their personal lives that they viewed as important . We were interested to see how the birth of a child was ranked with respect to all the other events reported. As pointed out earlier, this exploratory analysis revealed that the rate of importance attached to a birth increases with the number of other events also mentioned (Table 1). Key events tend to be listed rather than selected, though the list is subjective and not necessarily factual. The differences in reporting lie rather in each individual’s capacity to express feelings, impressions and perceptions in words. We know that the ability to state a viewpoint or an opinion is not equally shared (Bourdieu, 1977). Individuals who least often report births as key events are also those who, in general terms, have little to say about their life event history. This is confirmed by an open question inviting respondents to mark out the main periods of their life and to qualify each one as good or bad “in general”. Mentioning no period (good or bad) or only one is significantly linked to less frequent reporting of a birth as a key event (39.7% vs. 49.7%). However, the verbal fluency specific to individuals with high educational and cultural levels does not explain everything and does not cancel out the factors identified above, notably the attitude of not seeing key events as singular or exceptional.
4 – The perceived place of births in individual life event histories
20How does the perception of a birth compare with other subjective assessments of events marking an individual’s life course? Several indicators shed light on this question: respondents’ judgements of the various periods of their lives (good or bad), the diagram of their personal life history , and their perceived degree of freedom in choosing their life course.
21Overall, parenthood is more often qualified as an important event when individuals have a positive view of their trajectory, either at the time of the birth or over their life as a whole. When the period is qualified as good, 53.5% of parents mention a birth, compared with 45.2% when the period is bad. But there are no clues to the direction of this link: is it because of the birth that the period is qualified as good, or because the period was good that the decision to have a child was made? Though we cannot answer this question, we note the concurrence of these two positive judgements.
22Likewise, generally upward-moving life histories tally with a high rate of importance attached to a birth (at least 46%), contrary to life histories perceived as stable or downward-moving (less than 46%). Here again, we cannot determine the extent to which children influence the way individuals qualify a particular trajectory, since many other factors are involved, the working career in particular.
23Last, the sense of having control over one’s life is also an interesting factor. Becoming a parent is a key dimension of this sense of freedom, both via the decision to have a child and via the opportunity to maintain a certain degree of liberty “despite” the presence of children. Individuals who feel constrained in their life choices less often report the births of their children as key events (39% vs. 50%).
24Taken as a whole, these results support the idea that the perceived meaning of parenthood and the capacity to express this perception are governed, in part at least, by the social position of individuals and their conditions of existence. The “comfort” of life – both perceived and experienced – in social, conjugal and employment terms is a factor that increases the propensity to report a birth as a key event. On the other hand, limited education, absence from the labour market in the case of women and the sentiment of having a difficult life with little chance of upward mobility are factors which alter the way individuals define and express the events that give meaning to their life. Hardships in everyday life tend to push the subjective importance of childbirth into the background, even if the children occupy a central place.
25The individuals most likely to report the birth of their child as a key life event – more often women – are recent parents with few children, a high educational level, and a qualified job, often a higher-level occupation. They are in stable unions or have separated from a first partner and formed a new couple. These parents have a positive, upwardly mobile perception of their trajectory and feel that they have a degree of control over their life course.
26The birth of a child is a normative transition in an individual’s life course, though the meaning given to this transition is partly subjective. As posited by T. Hareven and K. Masaoka (1988), the meaning attached to transitional events is the result of a sometimes extended process whereby they may ultimately be seen as turning points in life. The authors take this analysis further by adding a familial, societal, historical and cultural dimension to their approach, though in our case, the matching of life events to the way they are perceived in retrospect is an initial analysis level which already gives some interesting insights. Reporting a birth as a key life event can be compared with the notion of a turning point, in the sense that the event assumes a powerful existential dimension and suggests that the birth affected the rest of the trajectory in a way that is difficult to assess here. This turning point is partly linked to material wealth, social position and investment in a working career, which all favour the perception of a birth as a key event because parenthood forms part of a life project in which family choices are planned and weighed in the balance. However, it is clear that the material used – a retrospective quantitative survey – offers limited scope for exploring in depth this relation between events and their perception. Even in a questionnaire, alongside the reported information, omissions are also meaningful. But without further indirect questioning, we cannot capture the true significance of these omissions. For this reason, the results presented above must also be interpreted as reflecting the capacity of the most socially and materially well-endowed individuals to express a singular emotional tie with their children and, more simply, to convey an emotionally-charged memory to the interviewer.
Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin, Laboratoire Printemps. Translated by Catriona Dutreuilh.
In the 1950-1960 cohorts, around one woman in ten will be childless at the end of her reproductive life (Prioux, 2002, Table C).
Around 6 in 10 women in the 1950-1960 cohorts will have had one or two children at the end of their reproductive life (Prioux, 2002, Table C).
For a detailed presentation of the survey, see Ville and Guérin-Pace (2005).
Though an episode of unemployment at some point in one’s working life has little effect.
Only a minority (16%) did not mention any event.
The following question was asked: “If you were asked to draw a picture of your life today, which picture would you choose?” Respondents were shown 8 different arrows symbolizing upward-moving, stable and downward-moving trajectories. Not all arrows followed a straight line. Some were broken, some went down then up again, etc.