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

Samantha could not be more sure that she does not want to have kids. “Because it just looks awful,” is how she put it. I asked her to elaborate: “Because it looks exhausting. It looks like so much work. It just makes me tired. It makes me tired just looking at it.”  

Samantha, a 34-year-old professional I interviewed for a research project about choices around childrearing, was a No Way. She was absolutely sure she didn’t want kids. Her certainty came from a combination of two things: a distaste for the daily life of parenting – “the little baby voices, and the screaming, and the tantrums, and the constant questioning. Not for me” – and a different kind of life that she was excited to pursue. She wanted to continue to excel in her career, travel, have delicious meals, and bask in quiet afternoons. 

I‘ve interviewed plenty of No Ways and many are quick to articulate the time, energy and money it takes to raise children. They see parenting as a choice between further investment in their own “human capital” (their knowledge, skills and talents) and investing in someone else’s. The answer for them is obvious. 

No Ways are contributing to the growing trend of childlessness. Many women today have not or will not become mothers by choice. One out of five American women over 40 is currently childless. Generation X is even more likely to decide against parenting; as many as one-in-three may skip parenting. While some of these women will face infertility, at least half will have very purposively chosen a childfree life, often alongside supportive partners. And, while traditionally it has been women with higher levels of education who have chosen childlessness, women with less education are looking more and more like their more educated sisters on this variable.

Happy (or Unhappy) Either Way

Interestingly, however, among those choosing childlessness, No Ways are the minority. Instead, I suspect that the majority of women who grow to old age without having children will do so not out of resolve, but out of a deep sense of ambivalence. Most women who are considering childlessness are Either Ways. 

Callie, like Samantha, is a 34-year-old professional, but she’s an Either Way. This is how she describes her life: 

I'm married and in a long-term stable very happy relationship and the question is, is it the intention that we go on together, [have a child] and see what happens… or is my life so full and happy the way it is that I don't want to do anything that could jeopardize that? I really do think that it’s gotten to a point where I'm going to be happy either way.  

Knowing that she would be happy either way, however, didn’t alleviate what Callie experienced as a rather crushing pressure to decide.  But she just couldn’t; so she decided not to decide. She is leaving it up to fate. She and her husband are going to let nature take its course (that is, use no birth control) for exactly three years. If she gets pregnant and has a baby, they’ll be parents; if she doesn’t, they’ll settle in to enjoy the pleasures of a childfree life.

Sometimes Either Ways, like Callie, feel ambivalent because their lives carry so much potential… with or without kids. Others are unsure not because they see a wide array of options for themselves, but because they don’t. They add up the costs of a child and subtract the lost wages that balancing work and a family might entail and came up with a “this may not be possible.”

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.

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