It’s Not Women’s Jobs to Fix Falling Birth Rates

Listen! Do you hear that? It’s the plaintive call of the tradwives, Fox News commentators, and alt-right blowhards rising in unison throughout the land. They’re calling out to all the miserable childless career-driven, solo-living, 401(k) maxing, biannually vacationing, home buying, weekend relaxing women and telling us to get our asses back in the breeding huts, stat, before the entire population of the United States collapses and Amazon can’t find anyone else to slave away in their warehouses.

Apparently, fertility rates in the United States are on the decline, as women are waiting longer to start their families and having fewer children. While women in the 1950s were having an average of four children, women now are “having an average of 1.3 babies and an increasing percentage [of women are] giving birth at age 35 or older.” Even though the majority of women in the United States are still having at least one child, some measures show that the American population is below the “replacement level,” which means that there will be “fewer young people to support the country’s otherwise aging population.”

Experts’ views on falling birth rates is mixed. Some see falling birth rates as a crisis: a collapse of the tax-base and workforce that older generations rely on to fund their social safety net programs and care for them in their old age. As one article puts it, a replacement level birth rate is necessary to “staff the hospitals and nursing homes we’ll use in old age but also sustain the economy by funding our pensions when we retire, paying the taxes that finance Social Security, Medicare, and many other government programs we’ll rely on, and buying the homes and stocks we invested in to build our savings.”

Other experts say that the falling birth rate isn’t necessarily a reason to panic, as a shrinking population can “eas[e] ecological pressures, prevent overcrowding and reduc[e] the infrastructure costs that come with a growing population.” They insist that amending our country’s economic policies, from creating universal health care and paid parental leave, to investing more in childcare and early childhood education, can create more productive workers for the future, and make it easier for adults to start their families.

It’s no mystery why birth rates may be falling. Even though studies show that the majority of women “intend to have slightly more than two children throughout the reproductive life course,” the same research also shows that women may be postponing childbearing due to economic and societal stressors, thus leading to shorter fertility windows, or adjusted reproductive intentions (i.e aiming to have one child instead of two). Only about 15% of the population intends to be childfree, so pressuring women to have children isn’t the right answer. They already want children, but are choosing to delay pregnancy in hopes of a better economic future. The reality is that unintended pregnancies in young people (i.e teen and early adult pregnancies) are falling and women are choosing to have children later in life. This may result in lower fertility rates overall, but it also results in women who have more economic and educational opportunities.

If women have to choose between having children at an early age and delaying their career, or focusing on their career now and delaying childbirth, many women will choose the latter option. The reason is simple: women lose substantial economic opportunity by delaying their careers, and they receive little reward for bearing children. When women become pregnant, they pay the “motherhood penalty.” When men become fathers, they receive the “fatherhood bonus.” On average, women earn 4% less for every child they have, while fathers earn 6% more for every child they have. Working mothers are seen as the least desirable employee by employers, while working fathers are seen as the most desirable employee. Due to traditional gendered views on household labor sharing, employers see fathers as “more stable and committed to their work” while employers see working mothers as employees who “work less and [are] more distractible when on the job.”

When women become pregnant, they pay the “motherhood penalty.” When men become fathers, they receive the “fatherhood bonus.” On average, women earn 4% less for every child they have, while fathers earn 6% more for every child they have.

The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus by Claire Cain Miller (2014)

Employers penalize working mothers because they expect them to take off more time for childcare, while working fathers aren’t burdened with the same expectations. It doesn’t help that in all actuality, women are forced to provide the majority of domestic labor and childcare, regardless if they are working outside the home. Pew studies show that women do the majority of cooking and childcare in their households, and while 63% of men perceive that they are as equally involved in childcare as their wives, only 43% of women perceive it that way. Most mothers are “either breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families,” but on average, working mothers do about 0.8 more hours of total work than working fathers do per day, including paid work and unpaid domestic labor.

This adds up quickly. Women are working as many hours as men, but making less money and performing more unpaid labor. No wonder women want to delay having children; they know that in doing so, they’re delaying the inevitable deluge of workplace, wage, and household labor discrimination that will hit them as soon as they become pregnant.

The idea of the baby-hating self-obsessed feminist spinster is a myth. The majority of women in the United States want and intend to have children, they just don’t want to have them until they have achieved a certain level of career success and economic security. Like men, they want to prioritize self-development, save for their futures, and achieve their dreams. But unlike men, they’re lambasted for delaying or refusing to participate in the unfair burden created by childbearing. Why must women give up their aspirations and hopes of economic prosperity so that men can achieve theirs? Women are expected to be the ground beneath men’s feet: providing them the stability of domestic labor and the rewards of childbearing so that men can climb the career ladder in comfort. Men are just as capable of working fewer hours and taking over more domestic labor so that women can have an equal share of career success, but they don’t want to. Even worse, society doesn’t expect them to. Men are expected to be workers, and women are expected to be mothers. If men take care of children in addition to working, they’re drowned in praise. If women work in addition to providing childcare, they’re penalized economically and scolded by society.

Men are just as capable of working fewer hours and taking over more domestic labor so that women can have an equal share of career success, but they don’t want to. Even worse, society doesn’t expect them to.

So yeah, it’s no wonder that women are having babies later in life, if they are having them at all. They don’t want to be a drudge while watching their husbands reap the rewards of their labor. Tradwives and conservative commentators try to shame and blame women into leaving the workforce and becoming mothers by showing them “what they’re missing” from traditional marriages. They claim that women are burned out from having to work and be mothers, which is definitely true, but they never blame fathers’ unequal participation in domestic labor for that burnout. They claim that it’s beneficial to let men take over the role of providing for their family, so that they can do the more “fulfilling” work of taking care of the house and children, while of course glossing over the fact that being entirely economically dependent on another person is a pathway to abuse, isolation, and deprivation. They claim that women in the 1950s were “happier” than women now because they were able to rely on men to provide for them, when in reality, women in the 1950s were dependent on men because they didn’t have a choice (remember how women couldn’t even get a credit card until the 1970s???). And of course, this entire trad-wife fantasy ignores the reality that poor and middle income women have always been working, because even on a 1950s salary, only rich bitches like Betty Draper could afford to do nothing but drink wine and lie on their couches all day.

If conservatives want the fertility rate to increase, the solution is simple: incentivize women to have children. Forcing women to bear children by taking away abortion, making it hard to access contraception, and eliminating sex-ed will never work. It will only further entrench modern women’s views that childbearing ensures a lifetime of bondage, and it will only make us work harder to avoid getting pregnant at any costs. But incentivizing women to have children with progressive policies like universal healthcare, mandated paid parental leave, and low-cost childcare will make women feel more confident about having children at earlier ages. Another thing that might help? Making men do their fair share. Until we change societal expectations about childcare and domestic labor, progressive policies can only do so much. If men want the birth rate to increase, they need to stop blaming women and shoulder their fair share of parenting. It’s their child, too, and there is no reason they should receive the economic and societal rewards of fatherhood without putting in the work. Perhaps then, workplaces will stop discriminating against working mothers and women won’t have to trade economic security for a chance at motherhood.

In conclusion, if people want to fix the falling birth rate, they should look at men. Men need to do their fair share, stop discriminating against working mothers, and for god’s sake, stop scolding childfree women for daring to be happy. It’s not women’s job to carry society on our backs. Men need to make these sacrifices, too.

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