The American birthrate is sinking: 3.8 million babies were born last year — the lowest number in three decades and down 2 percent from 2016, according to a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics.
It’s a decline that is alarming demographers and social scientists — many of them men who chart womb activity like the consumer price index or manufactured-goods sales.
If this keeps up, they fret, we may become like Japan, where adult diapers outsell baby diapers.
Babymaking dropped in the 2008 recession and kept sliding. That makes sense to the charts-and-graphs people. But by 2016, the economy was roaring, business was booming and experts kept wondering when, exactly, women were going to crank the baby factories back up.
“Every year I say when the economy is getting better then we’ll start having more children,” William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post last year, “and I’m still expecting that to happen.”
But it’s not. And there are plenty of reasons. Some have to do with moms like me who work outside the home.
We’re not making it look easy, because it’s not. As I’ve pointed out before, the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only nations in the world that don’t guarantee paid leave or paid benefits for new parents, according to a report from the International Labor Organization.
Ever been to a baby shower at the Pentagon? Don’t snicker. There are baby showers at the Pentagon. Some of its top-ranking women are parents.
But one of the most popular baby shower gifts at DoD, or any other federal office pregnancy fete, is personal days. Co-workers donate them to help extend parental leave so a frazzled new mom doesn’t have to go back to work six weeks after giving birth.
Not the gauzy vision of motherhood on Pinterest, is it?
Then there are the personal finance considerations. More than $900 billion of the nation’s $1.4 trillion in student loan debt belongs to women, who make up more of the nation’s university students and are more likely to take out loans, according to a study by the American Association of University Women.
And because of the persistent gender wage gap — women still make about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes in 2018 — those loans are harder to pay back. Maybe women just can’t afford to be mothers.
What about a Trump effect?
I talked to one therapist in left-coast California who specializes in helping women decide whether they want to become mothers. She said a potential client canceled her spot in a class right after the election.
“She left a message saying, ‘When Trump was elected, I didn’t need your class to decide,’ ” said Ann Davidman, whose niche as a “Motherhood Clarity Mentor” puts her in touch with hundreds of women struggling with motherhood.
She heard lots of versions of that.
But none of these factors make sense when you look at a place such as Sweden or Denmark, where women are empowered, they have generous maternity leave and progressive men named Bjorn who wear Baby Bjorns. Their birthrates are declining, too.
Here’s the answer: choices. For the first time in human history, women truly have them. A lot of women don’t feel pressured to have kids they don’t want.
“I think there is far more permission to choose a child-free life than there ever has been,” Davidman said. “There’s so much out there to help child-free women feel good about themselves, to not feel shamed.”
It’s not childless. It’s #ChildFree.
“The child-free movement is very much linked to women having more choices,” said Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine who staged a decidedly nontraditional shower (It’s a . . . Blog!) when she launched her journal of her child-free life with her husband.
For generations, women who weren’t feeling the parenting pull usually gave in and gave up, thanks to social, spousal or parental pressure. And that was the recipe for misery, the fuel for all those furtive, chardonnay-fueled “I Regret Having Children” posts and pages.
Women today are showing us it doesn’t have to be like that.
Can we make this world better for kids? Yes.
Can we make workplaces better for families? Yes.
Should we keep striving for equal and healthy partnerships? Of course.
But can we please stop — in research schematics and at the Thanksgiving table — wondering about women’s wombs?
They made a choice, thank you.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the amount of U.S. women’s student loan debt. It is more than $900 billion, according to the AAUW study, not $900 million.
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