Why are young Portuguese suddenly having more babies?

Recessions usually cause couples to hold off on children. But in 2015, Portugal's birthrate increased for the first time in five years.

Armando Franca/AP
A woman in a nun costume carries a baby dressed as "Little Red Riding Hood" during Carnival in downtown Lisbon on Feb. 9. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Catarina Alves Vieira and Ricardo Vieira knew they wanted children, but they hadn’t expected twins.

Nor were they entirely prepared for them when they were born last month. The couple makes a combined monthly salary of $700 to $1,400 from their at-home jobs. Ms. Alves Vieira works as a translator; her husband does graphic design.

But Alves Vieira, who is 25, had seen other women in her family struggle with infertility problems. So despite their precarious finances, she and her husband went ahead.

The couple is entitled to government aid – about $125 per child a month – but so far they haven’t received a single payment. In the meantime they’ve relied on the support of family and friends, who’ve given them everything from hand-me-down clothes to a secondhand crib.

“If you’re going to wait to be a parent in Portugal, you’ll end up waiting forever,” Alves Vieira says.  

Portugal has long stood out in the European Union as the country with the lowest fertility rate. And still, during the recent eurocrisis, the number of births fell even further. Between 2010 and 2013, when Portugal was under an EU-sponsored bailout that imposed strict austerity, its birthrate dropped 18 percent. 

Then, for the first time in five years, Portugal’s birthrate began to rise in 2015. Nearly 2,000 more babies were born last year than in 2014, leading analysts to wonder if couples have decided to no longer let the country’s economic slump stop them from starting a family.

“Some young couples are well aware that there’s no going back to the good times of ‘vacas gordas,’” says Conceição Faria, a leading psychologist in fertility studies, using the Portuguese expression for fat cows. “Younger people are shifting their priorities and turning their attention home.”

The average age of a first-time mother in Portugal has been steadily climbing every year till it reached 30 in 2014. But Maria Filomena Mendes, head of the Portuguese Demographic Association, predicts that trend could soon reverse as more and more young women are considering having a child sooner.

“People have realized that they won’t probably find the things that made them postpone having kids,” she says, mentioning travel and better job opportunities as two examples. “Now they’re thinking, ‘Why postpone it any longer?’”

'The best time is now'

In another Lisbon apartment, Sara Osório and Frederico Batista are expecting their first baby in a few weeks. They’ve already named her Salomé – and graciously accepted baby supplies offered to them by friends.

“We didn’t buy a thing except for diapers on sale, which we’ve stockpiled,” Ms. Osório says.

Both 29 years old, she and Mr. Batista earn a combined monthly wage of about $1,800. For nine years Osório has worked as a secretary in a public sector institute. She’s never held a full-time position. Batista works as a multimedia journalist at a major newspaper in Lisbon.

Portugal’s prolonged recession has left them wary of the future, doubtful that their job prospects will ever improve.

“My mother is convinced we’ll have a raise because we’ve been working for so long, but that won’t happen,” she says. “In fact, I’m making 120 euros [$135] less than when I first started working.”  

Financial constraints are just one obstacle you couples face in raising children. Maria João Valente Rosa, a sociologist at New University of Lisbon, says they’ll also have to contend with structural problems that have long pervaded Portuguese society.

“In Portugal, a child is almost exclusively a responsibility of women,” she says, recommending that the government implements policies like those found in Scandinavia that promote greater gender equality. “If we want to do well in our career, we can’t be moms.”

State-sponsored daycare alone will cost Osório and Batista $300 a month. Considering such costs, Dr. Valente Rosa says women are often forced to choose between holding a job and raising a family. Osório is determined to do both, regardless of her – and her country’s – economic woes.

“When have we not been in a crisis?” Batista asks.

Osório responds with a laugh: “We are the crisis generation.”

“There’s never a good time to have a baby so the best time is now,” her partner concludes.

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