Gaudy Montero Chaves wants children. Two or three of them, she says. At 32, she feels she’s ready for the responsibility of raising kids in modern-day Costa Rica.
But she’ll have to wait another year or so because, well, first things first.
“My husband and I want to buy a house,” she says.
Saving her earnings as a Catholic school English teacher, and those of her automechanic husband, the couple might just put aside enough to get that house in a couple of years, and then start planning a family.
Montero seems content with that. “At 25, I definitely wasn’t ready for kids,” she says.
Ticas’ putting off motherhood could partly explain why the country’s fertility rate fell again last year, say demographic experts.
The rate reached an all-time low at 1.9 children per woman of reproductive age, according to Costa Rica’s National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC). The number dropped just below the two-child mark needed to sustain the population. In other words, Costa Rica may need more women like Montero, planning for two or even three children to bump the rate back to its happy medium.
Another ‘Reproductive Revolution’
Society has strayed a long way from the average 7.3 kids per household of 1960.
Demographer Luis Rosero calls it a “second reproductive revolution.” The first big rebellion occurred in the 1960s, when families began planning to have two or three, instead of seven, children.
Each year, Rosero, director of the Central American Population Center at University of Costa Rica (UCR), takes the annual national statistics and tries to map out demographic trends – and their implications.
The country’s 40-year downward birth spiral has been impossible to ignore.
But there is no need to sound the alarm yet, says Rosero. Despite Costa Rica’s subreplacement fertility, the trend does not pose a threat to the population, he says. Costa Rica has more than 4 million residents – a population that number-crunchers forecast will increase by 50% in 40 years.
The population is expected to grow to 6 million by 2050 and then it will stabilize – “unless the birth rate continues to drop below 1.8, and the immigration (rate) hits zero,” he says.
The demographer notes that 14% of childbirths in Costa Rica are from migrant women. Nicaraguan migrants, who make up the bulk of Costa Rica’s new immigration wave, have a fertility rate 20% to 25% higher than Costa Ricans, according to the population center’s director.
With its low birth rate, there’s little doubt about the need for baby power from beyond the country’s borders. Labor Minister Francisco Morales already made it clear in an interview with The Tico Times that, as upwardly mobile natives continue to shun agricultural jobs, Costa Rica’s labor shortage is “very close to a crisis that could affect production” (TT, Aug. 31). Though many would hate to admit it, immigration is vital, officials say.
Carlos Sandoval has his finger on the pulse of the migration issues. The director of the Institute for Social Research (IIS) this week launched his latest attempt to demystify the subject, “El Mito Roto,” or Broken Myth, a followup to his work “Threatening Others.” Sandoval says, “In demographic terms, Nicaraguans are forming an increasingly important part of Costa Rican society.
We (Costa Ricans) are having fewer children and living longer. In this context Nicaraguans – and their contribution to Social Security coffers – are crucial,” he says.
But what’s pushing Tica fertility down? One reason is the Paternity Law, says Rosero, referring to legislation passed in 2001 to force men to assume responsibility for their children and cut down on Costa Rica’s high percentage of fatherless children (TT, April 20, 2001).
Rosero attributes the decline to a number of other factors.“Higher education levels among women and their greater incorporation into the workforce, the high cost of raising children, more available contraception, changes in values.”
Clear signs of the country’s successful economic development, right?
Not that simple, he says.
“Economic theory would tell you that children are like an asset. Wealthy people should have more children because they can afford to. That’s not the case because there are other factors. If Ticos could afford to have more children, perhaps they would.
Nowadays, though, what’s important is quality in bringing up a child.”
Grandma Would Not Approve
Many women are considering something that would have seemed preposterous to their grandmas: Opting out of motherhood.
Lissette Acosta, 27, marketing director at Costa Rican airline NatureAir, says she may never have kids. “If it happens, it happens.
It’s not something I’m really looking for,” she says, saying most of her friends agree. Some friends, she says, are vehement about never having children.
Acosta’s mother was one of 13 siblings, which speaks volumes about the difference in mindset and circumstances between her and her grandmother.
Acosta imagines time management would be a big problem. “I work, and my job sometimes requires that I travel,” she says.
“To have a family, you need to spend quite a lot of quality time with them.My job doesn’t allow for that.”
Not long ago, Costa Rican women believed that the road to womanhood was motherhood. But, says Acosta, “there are many more opportunities today for women to realize their womanhood; not just through becoming a mother.”
However, researchers at UCR’s Center for Women’s Studies (CIEM) say the official numbers, and attitudes such as Acosta’s, tell only half the story.
For Rose Mary Madden, a member of the center’s team working to treat and prevent sexual harassment, the fewer or no babies phenomenon is happening only in cities.
“Urban women have access to greater education and more contraceptives. They’ve become empowered enough to make decisions concerning their body,” she explains.
“It’s not a luxury. Sexual and reproductive liberation is the goal for many women.” But women living in rural areas still face deep-seated machismo and religious beliefs that make them feel guilty about contraception, she says.
However, Rosero, the demographer, says religion had no effect on the country’s fertility rate. “We have found no difference between women who attend Mass and those who don’t in terms of the birth rate.”
Asked if she thought she’d get married some day, Acosta says her reply was pretty much the same as the one to the question of having children.
“If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
1961: 7.3 babies per woman
Source: National Statistics and Census Institute.