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Why are Americans remaining childless? Surprisingly, it’s not just time and money

Two caretakers look down at an infant.

My husband and I agreed when we married in 2003 that we’d have two kids within a few years. But as time marched on, we eased our way into the decision to be child-free. To friends and family who assured us we’d be “such great parents,” our choice was mystifying; however, a whole new generation of adults seem to understand. Couples who do not anticipate having children have become more common, and our ranks are growing. 

A Pew Research Center study published in November found that, even though rates were falling before the pandemic, the financial and social strains brought on by COVID are bringing about an additional “baby bust.” This year, 44 percent of adults under age 49 say it is not at all likely or not too likely that they will ever have children. This is up 7 percent from just three years ago. 

So why are Americans so skeptical about becoming first-time parents or having more children? As a sociologist and expert in families, gender and social class, I can attest that economics, gender inequality and fears of the future all play a role.

As part of my research, I have interviewed young adult couples about their work and family plans. One clearly cited reason for smaller family sizes is the simple cost of rearing children in a world where real wages have stagnated for 40 years. 

The cost of rearing children is cited by 17 percent of non-parents as the reason for never expecting to have children, and over a quarter of parents under age 40 as their reason that they do not intend to have more children. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raising a child today from birth until age 18 costs more than $267,000. This number does not include the cost of education after high school, which long has been considered the pathway to a stable financial future

Unfortunately, in a period when virtually everything from education to housing to groceries seems more expensive, prospective parents have to work so much just to get by that they experience an even more scarce resource — time.

Finding the hours to meet the demands of work and family plays into women’s fears, especially, about having children. Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University, documents that young adults increasingly want egalitarian relationships, but many doubt that such an arrangement will be possible given the nature of work. Instead, the expectation is often that, while both partners in a heterosexual relationship will work for pay, the female will be primarily responsible for child care and housework — an arrangement that many young women find untenable.

The female “second shift” is often combined with an expectation that middle-class women, in particular, will engage in “intensive mothering.” Intensive mothering is the expectation that moms will spend massive amounts of time and money crafting a magical, personalized experience that best sets their child up for success. 

Whether they have a name for it, young adults understand the high expectations for motherhood. One of the women I interviewed for my research was excited to start a family with her fiance shortly after the wedding, but she worried about finding the time. She said, “To be a mom sounds like a big job. … Their job is larger than the father’s job.”

Still, money and time are not the only reasons many Americans intend to remain childless. The fear of what type of world their prospective children will face — be it with climate change, viruses such as COVID, or growing political unrest — keep at least some from taking the leap. 

To be clear, no person should be required to have a child. And a lower birth rate is not all bad; some of the decrease, for example, stems from a lower teen pregnancy rate, which few would argue is a negative trend. 

But a shrinking population can bring some very real concerns. They include a rise in nativist attitudes and concerns about financing programs many older adults rely on, such as Social Security and Medicare. Poignantly, another concern is simply that people who want to become parents may never feasibly be able to do so. It is not as if the desire to have children has uniformly evaporated; rather, the reality of having them seems out of reach.

Fortunately, there is a clear set of solutions to help couples have the families they want and support the population replacement we all need. The Build Back Better Act, pending in the Senate, offers pro-natalist policies that could help those individuals who wish to have children or grow their families. It includes not just funding for universal pre-kindergarten, child tax credits, and paid family leave (which can lead to greater parental gender equality) but also billions of dollars to help fight climate change and reduce the cost of health care. These steps would go a long way toward alleviating some of the concerns prospective parents cite for remaining child-free. 

Given the discrepancy in the United States between how we talk about families — as precious commodities worthy of a village’s support — and how we actually treat them — as tiny islands expected to be self-sufficient — it is not surprising that fewer American adults intend to have children, even if they would prefer to. 

Senators who care about the next generations, or even care just about our financial futures, should prove they are pro-natalist and vote “yes” to supporting American families. It is not too late to put our money where our mouths are and truly support prospective parents and their offspring. 

Amanda Jayne Miller, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and director of faculty development at the University of Indianapolis. Her book, with co-author Sharon Sassler, “Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships,” won the 2018 William J Goode Book Award for Family Sociology. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project. 

Tags Build Back Better Act Family

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