Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Why American women everywhere are delaying motherhood

A major reason women are able to be more intentional about when to have children is better access to birth control

By Sabrina Tavernise, Claire Cain Miller, Quoctrung Bui and Robert Gebeloff
Published: Jun 19, 2021

Why American women everywhere are delaying motherhoodLuz Portillo at home in Avondale, Ariz., where she receives clients for her eyelash extension business, on May 30, 2021. Portillo plans to delay pregnancy until she establishes her career. Image: Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times

PHOENIX — Luz Portillo, the oldest daughter of Mexican immigrants, has many plans. She is studying to be a skin care expert. She has also applied to nursing school. She works full time, too — as a nurse’s aide and doing eyelash extensions, a business she would like to grow.

But one thing she has no plans for anytime soon is a baby. 

Portillo’s mother had her when she was 16. Her father has worked as a landscaper for as long as she can remember. She wants a career and more control over her life. 

“I can’t get pregnant, I can’t get pregnant,” she said she tells herself. “I have to have a career and a job. If I don’t, it’s like everything my parents did goes in vain.” 

For decades, delaying parenthood was the domain of upper-middle-class Americans, especially in big, coastal cities. Highly educated women put off having a baby until their careers were on track, often until their early 30s. But over the past decade, as more women of all social classes have prioritized education and career, delaying childbearing has become a broad pattern among American women almost everywhere. 

The result has been the slowest growth of the American population since the 1930s, and a profound change in American motherhood. Women under 30 have become much less likely to have children. Since 2007, the birthrate for women in their 20s has fallen by 28%, and the biggest recent declines have been among unmarried women. The only age groups in which birthrates rose over that period were women in their 30s and 40s — but even those began to decline over the past three years. 

“The story here is about young women, whose births are plummeting,” said Caitlin Myers, an economist at Middlebury College who analyzed county-level birth records for The New York Times. “All of a sudden, in the last 10 years, there’s this tremendous transformation.” 

A geographic analysis of Myers’ data offers a clue: The birthrate is falling fastest in places with the greatest job growth — where women have more incentive to wait. 

In more than two dozen interviews with young women in Phoenix and Denver, some said they felt they could not afford a baby. They cited the costs of child care and housing, and sometimes student debt. Many also said they wanted to get their careers set first and expressed satisfaction that they were exerting control over their fertility — and their lives — in a way their mothers had not. 

“I can not have a kid and not have to feel bad about it,” said Eboni McFadden, 28, who grew up in rural Missouri and is now two weeks from graduating as a medical technician in Phoenix. “I feel powerful that I can make that decision with my own body. I don’t have to have a kid to be successful or to be a woman.” 

The annual fertility rate may be dropping — births have fallen for six straight years and declined precipitously during the pandemic — but the share of women who have children by the end of their reproductive years has been climbing. Still, in the past decade, births to women over 30 have not offset the decline for women in their 20s, driving down overall births and leaving an open question: Are young women delaying childbirth or forgoing it altogether? 

Child Care Costs, and Opportunity Costs 

The declines in childbearing over the past decade have varied by region, according to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau. They were greater on the West Coast and in the Mountain West than in the South or Northeast. The large urban counties that have gained the most jobs and population since the recession have seen birthrates fall twice as fast as smaller, rural counties that have not recovered as strongly. The birthrate fell 38% in Denver County and 33% in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. 

In economically stagnant places, fertility tends to be higher, and having a child is seen as a primary route to fulfillment. 

Kara Schoenherr moved to Maricopa County, Arizona, from a small town south of Seattle a few years ago. She was tired of paying $1,500 a month for a house in a town with no stoplight and a drug epidemic. Her friend lived in Phoenix, and she had heard it had lots of good colleges and jobs. 

She married last year, but she and her husband, a sous-chef at a casino, have been holding off on having children. She will graduate this summer as an aesthetician, doing things like facials and waxing. But she wants to have a base of clients before having a baby. 

“I still don’t think I have everything I want to set myself up for success,” said Schoenherr, 27. “I want to have a house and a career first.” 

The cost of living is adding to her hesitation. Houses in areas that she likes sell overnight with dozens of offers. Day-care rates gave her sticker shock. 

In interviews with women from immigrant families, almost all of them Hispanic, the delay was less about the cost of children than about a desire to set their lives on track. 

Portillo, who is 22, said her immigrant parents had raised her and her three siblings frugally and done fine. 

“If they did it, I certainly should be able to,” she said. 

Hispanic women, who once had by far the highest fertility of any major racial or ethnic group, have had the single largest drop in fertility of any group, more than a third since 2007. In Arizona, Hispanic women made up approximately 60% of the total decline in births in the state since 2007, according to a University of Arizona analysis. 

Miguel Brusuelas, an instructor at GateWay Community College, where Portillo is a student, said that 20 years ago, most of his students in their 20s were single mothers, struggling to make ends meet. Today, far fewer have children, he said. Many have specific career goals for their education. About half of GateWay’s students are Hispanic, and nearly half are the first in their families to go to college. 

“What I see now is students looking beyond, ‘OK, I have to pay this bill next week,’” Brusuelas said. “I see them looking into the future.” 

Some women said they wanted to build a career as a way to avoid repeating difficult childhoods. Jakeisha Ezuma grew up on the South Side of Chicago, one of 10 children. Her older sisters, she said, had several children, and for a while in her teens, she wanted nothing more than to become pregnant, too. But she did not. Now 26 and living in Denver, she wants to wait. She is earning her dental hygienist degree, which comes with more money and a more flexible schedule than her current job as a dental assistant. 

“I’m trying to go higher,” she said. “I grew up around dysfunctional things. I feel like if I succeed, my children won’t have to. I’ll be breaking the generational cycle.” 

Fewer Unintended Pregnancies 

The largest declines in births have been in unintended pregnancies and those to single mothers, Myers found. The birthrate for unmarried women dropped 18%, compared with 11% for married women. 

A major reason women are able to be more intentional about when to have children is better access to birth control. Long-acting reversible contraception, such as arm implants and IUDs, have given women new options, and the Affordable Care Act made many of them free. 

The lower rate of unplanned pregnancy is a signal that the decline in births — despite the hand-wringing about what it portends for the nation’s workforce and social safety net — could be good news for individual women. 

“One of the big shifts has been fewer people having kids before they wanted to,” said Amanda Jean Stevenson, a demographer at the University of Colorado. “Maybe there are fewer babies right now, but people are able to live the lives they want to, and that’s a profound thing.” 

Demanding Jobs, and Demanding Children 

Researchers cannot say for sure if education is a cause of the fertility decline, but there appears to be some connection. What is clear is that women are far more educated than they were in past generations, even since the Great Recession in 2008. 

Women’s graduation rates are now rising faster than men’s. One-third of women in their 20s had a college degree in 2019, up from one-quarter in 2007. 

Their place in the labor force has changed, too. Forty-four percent of female workers are in professional or management occupations, compared with 38% before 2008. The number of women doing jobs that do not require as much education, like office assistant, has dropped. 

The emphasis on career has spread beyond women with bachelor’s degrees — as has a recognition of how children can derail it. 

“The perceived price of having children has really increased since I first talked to women in the mid-1990s,” said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Princeton University who has spent years writing about low-income families. “Even among the poorest women, there’s a recognition that a career is part of a life course.” 

At the same time, there was more of a glorification of work in American culture, and workplaces began expecting employees to be available around the clock. Yet there is little in the way of policies to help parents combine work and family. 

Parenting, too, became more stressful. American parents spend more money and time on their children than any previous generation, and many feel immense pressure to be constantly teaching their children, enrolling them in enrichment classes and giving them their undivided attention. This is known as intensive parenting, and while it used to be an upper-middle-class phenomenon, it is now rising fast across all social classes. 

Schoenherr is acutely aware of how much the demands of parenting have changed. She was born on a bean and corn farm in Illinois. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and her grandmother babysat while her mother was at work. She remembers long days of riding her bike and coming home when the streetlights came on. 

“Back then you could let your kids do whatever and you wouldn’t be judged,” she said. “Now there’s so much mom shaming. You are looked down on if you are not fully focused on your kid.” 

A number of women said they wanted to avoid the schedules of their working-class parents because they were inflexible and allowed little time for play or family activities. 

Alejandra De Santiago, of Surprise, Arizona, remembers yearning for her mother to stop by school during lunch the way other mothers did, but she was always working. Her parents, a house cleaner and a truck driver, both immigrants from Mexico, divorced when she was 7, and she was raised mostly by her grandmother, while her mother worked. 

“I want to know who I am first before having kids,” she said. 

De Santiago, 23, said she wanted to start a spa business, which would allow her to control her schedule more than hourly work. 

“I don’t want them to feel closer to their babysitter than to me,” she said. 

It is uncertain whether young women will end up having the children that — at least so far — they are putting off. In surveys, they say they still want them, though the number of children they intend to have has fallen. It is possible that the drop over the past decade is a new normal for fertility in America, one that looks more like what has happened in Europe and some Asian nations. 

Kristal Wynn, 36, grew up in rural Florida. Her best friend from high school had three children by the time she was 19, and Wynn knew she did not want that. She eventually became a nurse. Now living in Denver, she is going back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree, a longtime dream and something no one in her family has done. 

“It was something no one ever expected me to do, I never expected myself to do,” she said. 

As for children, she said she still wants them but that “it won’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t happen.” She loves learning, traveling and living in Denver. “I’m at the point in my life where I could be fulfilled by other things.”

©2019 New York Times News Service