Coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s we heard and worried a lot about overpopulation. This week a friend forwarded an article to me from the Wall Street Journal about America’s plummeting birth rate and the problems associated with it.
The birthrate keeps falling
The birth rate in this country has now fallen for the sixth consecutive year and has reached its lowest point in a century, falling below the estimated “replacement rate” of 2.1 to a mere 1.6 children per woman. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic may have contributed, in part, to the year’s plunge but the decline in births is now looking less like a blip and more like a trend.
Thinking about why this may be the case, forced me first to confront some of my own life choices. My children (in their twenties) are what I value most and am most proud of in my life. No work I do outside the home holds a candle to what I did within it. That, of course, goes without saying, yet I often feel compelled to say it.
It’s impossible to regret a child once they are here, but I wonder if I were a 20-something today would I make the same choices I made 30 years ago?
After spending an afternoon with a friend’s baby, my twenty-four-year-old son declared the whole “having a baby thing” to be a scam. I’m not sure scam is the word I would use, but then again I’m not sure he’s wrong either. If by scam he meant that a baby transforms the pretty terrific life you have into a life you barely recognize and not necessarily in a good way, then there is truth to his assertion.
But I contend there is no fraud or dishonesty in any of it: It’s an open secret that raising kids is brutally hard. Like many other things, you just can’t know it until you experience it. If there is any dishonesty or fraud it lies in the fact that the burden of child-rearing rests so unevenly on mothers.
I always knew that I had to get through the infant and baby stages to get to this part of parenting, the part I love, having older children. But I didn’t account for the twenty-five years that I would age or the things I would give up or lose along the way. Ridiculous — I know.
I never realized how heavily the home burden falls on women
I went to college and law school and when I married a man who had the same education I did, I assumed that we would split the baby. In other words, we would share child-rearing and homemaking equally. Well, any mother reading this knows exactly how that went. I guess what has always shocked me was how quickly and how thoroughly it went that way.
Another shock was that my career was not sitting contentedly waiting for me to pick it back up after a twenty-five-year hiatus. No matter what anyone tells you, you cannot pick up a career after a long break and do what you previously did without a lot of catch-up.
Now, I’m working at something I love which I can only do because I have a spouse who can support us financially. Taking large chunks of time out of a career does not cause your earning power to go up; the so-called motherhood penalty or fatherhood premium is real. Coronavirus has exacerbated this situation for many women, who are three times more likely than men to carry the burden of housework and child-care according to a 2020 report by Lean In and McKinsey.
When my friends and I wonder why our kids dither about getting married and having a family, I sometimes think maybe this generation has it right. In a culture that does not value mothers’ work (if they did they would pay us) and that penalizes mothers who take time out to be home with their kids, why should our daughters place a premium on motherhood?
The scam nature of the endeavor is not buried so deeply that they can’t see it. Mom: you just pushed out a baby and you get to stay in the hospital for all of 24 hours. You must breastfeed even if it makes you miserable and you should lose all the baby weight quickly, making it look effortless. And when you go home, unless you have willing family or financial resources, you’re on your own. Does that sound like an appealing life exercise?
We need to do a better job of supporting women’s choices
If we supported moms by making it easier for them both to return to work or to take time off if that is their choice, would fertility rates rise? China recently dropped its two-child limit to boost its fertility rate and it is trying to implement reforms like generous parental leave policies and low-cost childcare that helped some Scandanavian countries boost their birth rates (albeit temporarily).
No one is entirely sure how to turn the population decline around. In some ways, the plunging birth rate is a harbinger of success. Women are more educated and are choosing to work longer and delay childbearing. They have access to birth control. Not having children is seen as a valid choice. That’s all great news; women should absolutely control their own destinies. But we should empower them to have families if they choose to by making it easier to do so and removing impediments to having a family. And we should do it, not to boost population growth, although that may be a by-product, but because it’s simply the right thing to do.
Years ago I was told that “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” If that is so, should we not support that hand, treating it with the reverence that is its due? Maybe then young women will begin to fill those cradles again.