Are too many millennials opting out of parenthood?

By Kaelyn Forde
Updated: May 17, 2019 @ 3:31 pm
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According to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of babies born in the United States fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 to a 32-year low. Not only that, the fertility rate 0f 1.7 births per woman decreased by 2 percent to another record low, meaning that Americans are having fewer babies each, and all together we aren’t having enough to replace the current population. But hold off on the Handmaid’s Tale comparisons for now.

“I don’t think we’re at the crisis point yet. I think we have a few more years before we really have to start to worry in terms of the long-term effects for our population,” sociologist Karen Benjamin Guzzo, Ph.D., tells InStyle.

One piece of good news from the report is that teen births have continued to decline. In light of recent news, it’s also important to note that “the decline in birth rates is not at all driven by an increase in abortion,” Guzzo says — the number of abortions has also hit a historic low, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Instead, women are avoiding pregnancy and putting off or opting out of having kids, and the reasons why are worth a closer look.

“At the individual level, I think it’s a little concerning because other research tells us that women — and men and families — still want to have children and have two to three kids, so this suggests to me that individuals are having trouble having the families they want to have,” Guzzo says. Half of women ages 15-44 say they expect to have a child in the future, the CDC found, and the majority of Americans say they prefer families with two or three kids, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. In it, 50 percent of Americans said two-kid families are ideal, and 41 percent said three or more kids are ideal. Only 1 percent of those polled said having no kids at all was best.

So, why aren’t more people having them? The falling fertility rate for women in their 20s and early 30s has a lot to do with the financial uncertainty they feel, and the fact that costs like childcare, health care, and higher education largely fall to individuals, Guzzo says. “Think of this as sort of a perfect storm of all the ways our society has not supported individuals and families. It’s now coming to fruition and to a head in terms of the decision about whether to have kids, and how many kids to have.” And the data shows that faced with those pressures, American women are choosing to wait longer to start a family, and more quickly finding their family complete. Here’s why that may be.

“They can’t afford to have kids.”

Many millennial women, who are now between the ages of 23 and 38, struggled to break into a tough job market after the 2008 financial crisis, but even as the economy has rebounded, they continue to delay everything from marriage to buying a home to having kids because of it.

And once they're in the workforce, women are faced with the gender pay gap, which means it takes them an average two years longer to pay off their loans than men — and they’re saddled with almost two-thirds of the nation’s student loan debt, a whopping $890 billion, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. “Women who have a lot of student loan debt are feeling like they can’t afford to have kids,” Guzzo says.

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Of course raising a child is costly, but merely taking time off after giving birth to one can mean a financial hit; the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, so some new moms face weeks or months without their salaries. Meanwhile, the average cost of full-time care for kids from birth to 4 years old in childcare centers is $9,589 a year, nearly the same as in-state college tuition, a study by the New America Foundation found.

Some women pull back from their careers when they have young children, to defray the costs, but in doing so lose much more than their salary, including health care and retirement benefits, and hard-to-quantify career growth, Guzzo says.If fertility rates continue to fall and stay low, there could be an economic impact for future generations — fewer workers, less tax revenue and aging, childless millennials who might not have someone to care for them. For now, Guzzo explains that migration into the U.S. and longer lifespans help keep the population from shrinking significantly, but easing economic issues — like student loan debt and affordable housing and healthcare — along with parent-specific ones like childcare could be what it takes to turn the birthrate around. “I would really love to see policies that are big and bold and universal,” Guzzo says. “This is the point to ask now, before fertility rates fall so much that we can’t recover.”

“It’s a mother gap.”

Tara Fowler, 29, who works in digital media in New York City, says she always thought she’d have kids, but now that she finally feels “adult enough,” she’s realizing that she may not want to. “For me, career is the biggest factor. I admire stay-at-home moms, but I don't want to be one. I fear becoming a mom too early in my working career and not being able to get back in, but I also fear it happening too late and being pushed out,” she says, adding that her finances play a role, too. “I can barely pay for my own life right now, I'm not sure how I would support a child.”

Fowler’s ambivalence also reflects the birth rate data; the average age of first-time mothers has been increasing for decades. In 1970, the average woman was 21.4 years old when she had her first child, according to CDC data; by 2000, she was 24.9 years old; and by 2016, she was 26.6 years old. So while women in previous generations started sooner, now, many spend much more time finding the “right” time to have kids.

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“It isn’t just a gender gap, it’s a mother gap, because mothers are perceived as being less dedicated to their jobs and they’re sometimes not given promotions or good opportunities at work,” Guzzo explains. One survey found that 60 percent of men and women said career opportunities are given to less qualified employees who aren’t moms. Women may interpret that as enough impetus to not to have kids, or go the one-and-done route, or perhaps to keep waiting so long that the choice stops really being one.

It’s a catch-22 that women’s most fertile years in their 20s and 30s coincide with their prime career-building time, which may explain why women are waiting until they are older, more established, and perhaps have more flexibility in their careers to have kids, says Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist and the co-author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood.

“We’re a country with so few social supports around childcare and maternity leave,” Sacks tells InStyle. “Essentially, it’s becoming more expensive to take care of children in America, and that correlates with what it takes for millennials to pay off loans and develop financial independence and stability.”

The data backs that up. While birth rates declined for all age groups of women under the age of 35, birth rates rose for women in their late-30s and early-40s, the National Center for Health Statistics report found.  

For those with the financial means to access it, assisted reproductive technology like egg freezing and IVF can be seen as viable ways to have a family after building up a career, Sacks says, but may also mean that many families stop after one child, because of costs and maternal age.

“When you have your first child at a later age, your biological clock may limit your ability to have more children, but perhaps there is also a reduction in social stigma around being a one-child family. I think for many families that feels like a more realistic responsibility, financially and otherwise,” says Sacks, who also hosts the Motherhood Sessions podcast.

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“I worry I won't have enough time to myself.”

Millennial women may also feel that they simply can’t live up to the “goddess myth” that motherhood must be all-consuming, selfless and perfect, Sacks says. Many worry that the professional and personal identities they have worked so hard to build will be replaced by just one: mom. And they’re often sent the message that taking time away from your kids to pursue a passion or succeed at work somehow makes you a bad mom. “It sounds selfish, but I worry about time. As I grow older, I feel I have less and less time to myself, and as an introvert, it's emotionally draining for me. I worry I won't have enough time to myself as a mom, and I worry that I could resent any child I have because of that,” Fowler says.

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There’s also the fact that on average, dads still don’t do as much at home as moms. Even though millennial women are working more outside of the home, a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of census data found, they are also still doing the majority of the housework. On an average day, women spent more than twice as much time cooking and cleaning than men, and three times as much time doing the laundry, a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report found. And while the amount of time men spend on housework has increased from one generation to the next, there’s still a major gap. “Men are saying, ‘I do so much more than my dad did.’ But women are saying, ‘It’s still on me,’” Guzzo says.

Faced with those pressures, some moms (and dads) are getting realer about the challenges of parenting, and showing the less-than-Insta-worthy side of raising tiny humans, to help others understand what it really takes. And that means doing away with the “misconception that children will make up for other areas of missing meaning or low satisfaction in life,” Sacks says.

“People are thinking, ‘Well, it’s going to be really tough to do it all, so I need to make sure I have my ducks in a row, that I have enough money to have the kind of childcare I want, and I need to make sure my partner is a really good person to have children with because we need to be in this together, I can’t do it on my own,’” Sacks says. “I think people are becoming more informed about parenting, and while it should be gratifying and joyful, it also requires a lot of sacrifice and work.”

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