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The Growing Cost of Having Kids Is Tipping More Women Towards Ambivalence about Motherhood

Our family-unfriendly society exacts psychic and financial tolls that many women won't accept.

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In a society with a weak safety net, zero paid parental leave, and a minimum wage that fails to bring a family of two above the poverty line, more and more people are considering skipping parenthood because it’s just not financially feasible. A shrinking middle-class may mean shrinking families.

Pushed and Pulled into Childlessness

If there is a large group of women who could go either way, then their childbearing choices will likely be strongly affected by the opportunities and constraints of modern life. First, there’s the pull of childlessness, its draw. For middle- and upper-class women especially, childlessness may be attractive because it offers them the freedom to do other interesting things. This is a still rather new opportunity for women. Only since the women’s movement of the ‘70s have women had the opportunity to excel in challenging, respected and high-paying careers. For women who have access to these occupations, childlessness is a tempting choice precisely because having children is no longer the only way for women to feel like they’re doing something valuable with their lives.

And then there’s the push, the realization that having children may incur financial and psychic costs that a person can’t or doesn’t want to pay. The conditions for parenting today are, in many ways, incredibly averse. Whereas for most of human history, children contributed to households and communities, today they are a financial burden instead of a help. Alongside this development, the amount of time parents are expected to invest in children has skyrocketed, as have the demands on workers. The bars for good parenting is set higher than ever, spending significant amounts of time at work is non-negotiable for most, and social and state support has been waning. This turns life into a macabre version of the old spectacle of spinning plates.

It’s likely a life with which young women are all-too-familiar. Young women today are the second generation facing these conditions. They may remember their mothers struggling to balance work and family, their parents’ relationship straining under the burden of two jobs and a family, the fiscal struggle as they tried to make ends meet. They may have watched their mothers sacrifice career ambitions or experienced the economic tragedy that often comes with divorce. A  third of single moms are in poverty; motherhood is the  single strongest predictor of bankruptcy in middle-age and poverty in old-age. By the time these women are adults, some think that skipping the kids and focusing on the self, the job or career, and their partner, if they have one, sounds like a pretty great life.

A New Era

Both highly effective birth control options and abortion have been legal and accessible since the '70s (or so), so saying no to parenthood is more possible than ever before. And most women can think of good reasons not to have kids, whether they be optimistic reasons (like the hope for a life of leisure time and travel) or pessimistic ones (like the worry that they won’t be able to give their child a good life). In the meantime, the government is doing little to entice women into parenthood; we treat childrearing like a hobby, not the reproduction of the nation (which is what it actually is).

So, some women will say “no way.” Many others will be open to going either way, letting the trajectories of their careers, their relationships, and government indifference decide for them. Together, they will change what it means to be a woman, the nature of families, and life in America.

Lisa Wade is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in human sexuality from New York University.

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