The Great Birth Rate Freak-Out

Women are having fewer babies. Don't panic.


You may have seen the news that the U.S. birth rate has hit an all-time low. Part of the decline is a continuation of long-standing patterns: Women having children later in life; women having fewer children by choice; and a substantial decrease in teenage and unintended pregnancies. And part of the decline seems Covid-specific: In December 2019, before the pandemic hit, women had about 2,000 fewer babies than in December the year before; in December 2020, when women would be having babies conceived in the early days of the pandemic, they had closer to 23,000 fewer kids than the same month a year earlier. That’s a huge decline.

Which makes this a unique moment to talk about childbearing, social support, and desire.

One response to this new data has been for progressive folks to essentially say, yeah, of course women aren’t having all that many children in a nation that doesn’t offer paid parental leave or affordable childcare, where even a normal delivery can run you into the tens of thousands of dollars if you don’t have health insurance, and where most women with children work full-time without any formal support. Plus: crushing student loan debt, stagnated wages, a culture of obscene over-work, jobs tied to increasingly unaffordable cities, and skyrocketing housing costs tied to depressed home ownership rates. And it’s almost certainly true that our remarkable and unique lack of family-supportive policies impacts childbearing decisions. It is almost definitely true that the disruptions of the pandemic impacted both unintended and intended pregnancy rates.

But if progressives (or anyone else) are hoping that better family policies will equal a significant uptick in birth rates, they may be disappointed. And either way, it’s short-sighted and potentially counterproductive to attach our policy hopes to birth rate data.

Whether or not to have children, how many to have, and when to have them isn’t just about family policy; it’s also influenced by cultural norms, education, access to family planning and family expansion tools, and emotion. One of my favorite books, and an absolute journalistic masterpiece, is Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, which she spent 11 years researching by living in close proximity to the same multi-generational family in New York. I read it in college, and remember how much it shook my baby pro-choicer ideas about why teenage girls become young mothers — that it’s partly about access to reproductive health care, sex education, and contraception, but it’s not just about access to reproductive health care, sex education, and contraception. It’s also about having an answer to the question, “why wait to have kids?” As a teenager, I had a clear answer to that — college, a fun life as a 20-something, meeting the right guy, working my way up in a career that felt meaningful, plus significant social stigma attached to teenage parenthood, very little social approval for it, and a marked decrease in social status among teen moms in my community. But if none of that is on the table — if college isn’t an option, if a good and upwardly-mobile career isn’t an option, if good guys are few and far between, and if young parenthood is a route to adulthood and respect — then why wait to have kids, especially if you find yourself pregnant by kinda-sorta accident? That was the story of the women in the family LeBlanc profiled, and it was easy to see how, from their point of view, young motherhood made sense.

A lot of that has shifted. The number of high school students who go to college has exploded in the last decade, and girls are now likelier than boys to be college-bound and to graduate from both college and a long list of graduate programs, including law school. It is true, everywhere in the world, that educated women tend to have children later and tend to have fewer of them than women with less education. Long-acting contraceptive methods like IUDs, which you get inserted and then forget about for a few years, are much more common than they were 10 years ago, including for teenagers and young adults, and are much, much more effective at preventing pregnancy than condoms or a pill you have to remember to take every day. As teen pregnancies have decreased and pregnancies among women 40-plus have increased, norms of young motherhood conferring some benefits of adulthood may have declined, while any stigma attached to later pregnancy has virtually disappeared. Multiple paths to adult recognition and social respect are opening up for women, in addition to or in lieu of motherhood.

In other words, it’s easier than ever to prevent unintended pregnancy, and there are more reasons than ever to delay or forego childbearing for more women than ever.

Feminism also delays marriage in the first place, and for the record, that’s not a bad thing. Marriage is increasingly less of a social requirement for parenthood, and for adulthood generally; it’s less of an economic necessity for women, too, and more tied to love and self-actualization than external demands and community approval. Women largely make their own money, even if we don’t make as much as men. A whole lot of us have chosen to wait for someone we really, truly want to be with for the rest of our lives, and not to settle for a man who doesn’t pull his own weight — why would we? But that also means that a lot of us don’t marry at all, or that we marry in our 30s, 40s, or beyond — which has obvious implications for childbearing, as the number of years in which childbearing is biologically possible decreases as women age.

A lot of women also don’t marry at all, but still have children; or they have children and marry later. Most unmarried women who have kids are in their 20s when they give birth, and are foregoing or delaying marriage for a variety of reasons — often because marriage doesn’t look like it will confer any real benefit on them. One common calculus seems to be that it makes sense to defer childbearing until after high school, but that childbearing and marriage do not have to be tied. For the working-class and poor women for whom this setup is disproportionately common, it’s not hard to see the rationality behind it.

There’s also the more-amorphous fact that while women have made huge strides toward gender equality, men have not kept up. Women still do the bulk of childcare and at-home work in two-parent families, even though more women are working outside of the home and for pay than ever before. This is not a labor gap that most women want, and many of them believe they are entering egalitarian relationships, only to actually have a kid and see their husbands or partners shirk their duties. That very well might lead those same women to decide against having a second, or a third.

For wealthier couples, some of this gender inequity can be outsourced — that is, without husbands who contribute 50% in the home and without robust public services, those who can afford to pay for daycare and nannies, and perhaps a housekeeper to tidy up. I’d imagine that keeps a lot of marital discord at bay.

It also all came tumbling down during the pandemic.

When suddenly schools and daycares were shuttered, and it was dangerous to have non-family-members in your home, the facade of egalitarianism that lots of two-earner families enjoyed suddenly shattered. When it came down to it, lots of men simply decided, unilaterally, that their jobs mattered more, and lots of women were left frantically trying to figure out the rest of their family’s lives. Millions of women lost or quit their jobs. Untold numbers who surely thought they enjoyed equal partnerships had a rude awakening. And then there is the simple fact that job losses were concentrated in the kind of jobs that young (and typically fertile) women have. The U.S. took a massive economic hit thanks to the pandemic, and we know that when families are more financially stretched, they tend to delay childbearing.

My guess is that there are a lot of women who would have had a kid this year, or would have had another kid this year, who saw their lives radically shift and thought, oh hell no.

My guess is also that there are a lot of women who wouldn’t have intended to have a kid this year but, absent Covid, would have gotten pregnant and decided to give birth — but shutdowns meant that there were millions fewer first dates, random hook-ups, high school hijinks, and dorm room sex acts. More young single people stuck inside translates into less sex, fewer unwanted pregnancies, and fewer births.

All of which is to say: Family policy is one piece of the declining birth rates story. But it’s just one piece, and I’m not sure it’s wise, long-term, to justify good family policies by saying they’ll increase births. Because even if they don’t — and the evidence suggests that even the best family policies in the world may not nudge birth rates above replacement rate — they’re still good, necessary policies that women, children, and families need. Women aren’t valuable for our reproductive capacity alone, and our ability to live full, healthy lives shouldn’t be conditioned on an assumption, or a hope, that we’ll have an appropriate number of children. There is also the reality that having more children might be good for the economy, but it’s very clearly not great for the planet or the world. And one reason birth rates have dropped is because of right-wing anti-immigration measures — for many conservative “pro-family” folks, the desired outcome isn’t more babies generally, but more white babies specifically. When we talk about what is valuable, there are many scales on which to measure.

If women are indeed having fewer children than they desire, then falling birth rates are a problem worth addressing — but we should be investigating and assessing what the actual barriers are, not speculating. And even if women are having the exact number of children they want, good family policies are still worth investing in, because it’s very very clear that many women — and especially many mothers — are not living the lives they want, and are not being adequately supported in some of the most basic things human beings do. How do we know that? Because women say so, again and again, and make all kinds of difficult and often self-defeating “choices” out of an absence of real choice.

We can support mothers and families without buying into the assumption that women have an obligation to bear children, and that if childbearing rates decrease, then that’s a huge problem. If the problem is an aging population and too few young people, there is one easy solution: welcome more immigrants into the United States, and give them the tools to thrive.

Those tools, by the way, include generous parental leave, high-quality universal childcare, and affordable healthcare.

xx Jill


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