Why Women Aren’t Being ‘Selfish’ When They Wait Longer To Have Kids

Yet another article has been published bemoaning the declining birthrate in the United States. Perhaps as a result of treating anecdotal evidence gathered from four people at a hookah bar as if it were actual research, this latest piece gets a number of things wrong.

According to the authors, young people no longer want to have children for “legitimate, if perhaps selfish, reasons.” Leaving aside the all the ways in which it is problematic for two men to assert that it is “selfish” for women to choose not to have children, there are still a number of issues with their assessment. First, they do not bother to actually look at what is happening with the birthrate. Yes, the total number of births per 1,000 women has fallen to its lowest point since 1920. But the birthrate for teenagers is also at its lowest point since 1946. That’s probably something we should all feel good about.

In fact, birthrates have only fallen for young women. While the birth rate has declined for women between the ages of 15 to 29, it has remained stable for women 30 to 34, and has actually increased for women ages 35 to 44. And by the time women reach age 40, a whopping 85 percent will have given birth. So the real story is not that women are eschewing motherhood, but that they are choosing to delay it later in life.

Why might that be? Perhaps because the United States remains one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave for mothers? Or that in addition to the gender wage gap, women with children experience an additional motherhood wage penalty of about 7 percent per child? Or maybe it’s because unless a woman works in San Francisco, Seattle, or Connecticut, she is not guaranteed the right to paid sick days and can be fired if her baby is sick and she has to miss a day of work? Could it have something to do with the fact that less than half of working mothers have the ability to change the hours or days in their work schedule, and only about a quarter can change the location of their work if a family emergency arises?

A generation ago families could get by on one income, and the most common family formation was a working father and a stay-at-home mother. But times have changed, and today in most families all of the adults work. If people are truly concerned about the birthrate, and not just trying to gain attention by publicly judging women’s reproductive choices, then perhaps they should start focusing more on the structural factors that make raising a child more difficult than it was in previous generations, and less on the colorful stories told by a random group of friends the authors met in a bar.

Our guest blogger is Sarah Glynn, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.