Spain labors to bring home baby - and the bacon

In the tiny southwestern town of Calzadilla, new mothers receive more than just a little bundle of joy.

The mayor awards a live Iberian pig - more valuable than a year's supply of diapers in this ham-producing region - to every couple with a newborn. It's his way of encouraging more births in a nation with one of the world's lowest fertility rates.

"I'd rather have free day care than a free pig, but every little bit helps," says Isabel García, a social worker who won the porcine prize - worth about $300 and the prospect of good eating - after her daughter was born in May.

While only 40 piglets have been awarded since 1994, the idea has spawned other incentives, including family discount cards for utilities and tuition, and a "fertility jackpot" in Valencia of about $3,500 to any woman who has a second child.

But many here say these efforts fail to understand the reasons behind reluctant motherhood. Some of the factors are economic. Others stem from a newfound independence among Spanish women who watched their own mothers wilt under familial burdens.

Spanish women's advocates list a host of disincentives to childbearing. As in Italy and Germany, two other European countries with falling birthrates, day care remains scarce. Employment discrimination against Spanish women is still prevalent, as are salary gaps between the sexes.

Twice as many women as men are jobless in Spain, and 40 percent of women lucky enough to find a job have temporary positions. While it's illegal to fire a woman for getting pregnant, employers often look for excuses not to renew her yearly contract, says Susan Brunel of Spain's Labor Commission. Many women put off having kids until they have more reliable employment. The situation is so dire that, this spring, Spain's conservative administration announced a plan that would, in effect, pay businesses not to fire pregnant women.

Would-be moms also cast a wary eye at recent history, when a stay-at-home mother with lots of children was the religious, cultural, and governmental ideal. Just a generation ago, families of eight or 10 kids were common, and the Franco regime also gave cash awards each year to the largest brood. The sale of contraceptives was illegal in deeply Catholic Spain, and a woman couldn't even open a bank account without her husband's consent, let alone end an unwanted pregnancy.

In 1976, a year after Gen. Franco's death, Spain was third in Europe in numbers of births, behind Ireland and Portugal.

With the advent of democracy in 1978, the suppression of women's rights gave way to a society that valued "freedom" above all else, especially sexual freedom.

The Pill can be bought without a prescription. Prostitution and abortion are legal, gay and straight couples have equal rights and, in Andalusia, taxpayers subsidize sex-change operations.

Rejection of motherhood, in this context, fits into a pattern of rebellion against the old, machista order says women's rights advocate Carmen Pujol of the Association of Women Jurists. "Women don't want to live the life their mothers did, so they go the other way."

Now, almost half (46.7 percent) of the adult female population is childless, according to the National Institute of Statistics. The European Union average is 39.5 percent. Spanish statistics on college graduates are even more dramatic: only 1 in 3 knows the joy of 2 a.m. feedings.

"I'm too selfish to be a mother" is a phrase often heard in conversations with childless-by-choice Spanish women. Their role models - stay-at-home moms who cooked, cleaned, and sewed for many - are just too hard to live up to, sociologists say.

"I didn't want to have a child, but my ex-husband insisted," says Pamplona native María Luisa Atarés, one of eight brothers and sisters. "I believe in family, but not the old-fashioned kind of family like I grew up in. I don't feel like I'm as good or as responsible as my mother was. I care much more about being independent."

In 1976, Spanish women birthed an average of 2.3 children each. Since 1996, the figure has dropped to 1.13, according to the United Nations Population Fund - well below the 2.1 rate necessary to replenish the population. Worldwide, only Bulgaria, Latvia, and Ukraine fare worse.

If the recent influx of young immigrants doesn't help, Spain, where health and pension plans are already overburdened, will have the world's oldest population in 50 years, according to United Nations estimates.

That worries the defense ministry enough that it will soon feature day-care barracks as a way of both encouraging births and luring more women into the Army.

And some corporations here are also trying to help working mothers. Santander Central Hispano, has recently announced plans to include a 400-child nursery in its new financial center in Madrid.

But while welcome, these efforts will do little to solve the larger problem of combining work and child rearing, say feminists. "It's all about image," as demographer Anna Cabré puts it. "Now everyone wants to appear family friendly."

Even for those women who embrace motherhood despite all the obstacles, there is an additional challenge: mama's boy syndrome. Due to steep housing costs, a high youth unemployment rate, and a typically Mediterranean parental tolerance for late-night cavorting, the average Spanish son doesn't leave home until age 30, Ms. Cabré notes.

And because Spanish women typically don't say "I do" until their suitors say "I bought a place," fewer years remain for childbearing.

When the first baby finally arrives, moreover, "the experience is often so traumatic that women don't want to have another one at all," Cabré says, referring not to temper tantrums, but to the difficulty in juggling work and family when husbands don't lend a hand. Few new dads have taken the four-week paid paternity leave offered since 1999.

Civil servant Asunción De Pablo of Calzadilla, who is trying to earn one of those piglets, says her husband won't fall into the lazy dad category. She's certain her husband - who didn't cut the apron strings until age 34 - will be an equal partner in raising both the animal until slaughter and their future child until adulthood.

"He's lived all his life with his mother, who's a widow, so he's used to helping out around the house," Ms. De Pablo says with pride.

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