Recently, a handful of articles have revisited the decade-old anxiety that people who could procreate are declining to do so. The statistics are there, as they have been for some time: Before the pandemic, the number of births recorded in the United States had dropped to its lowest point for the fifth consecutive year. Now, some estimates predict an additional 300,000 fewer births in the immediate aftermath of covid-19. The “baby bust,” long predicted by researchers and feared by the sorts of people who wring their hands over the death of the family as a signal of American decline, is definitively here.
Bolstered by a rather vigorous online community of “childfree” women, the most recent interpretations of these statistics frame declining to have a kid as a sort of internal moral calculus based on a woman’s ideal lifestyle, a courageous choice that defies society’s longstanding expectations around what a person’s womb is for. Reporters refer to the rising population of people going child-free as a mass “lifestyle choice” bolstered by the “budding understanding that self-fulfillment isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition”: Basically, a decision not to become a parent as an advanced form of self-care.
Last month, the New York Times profiled a photographer working on a documentary project about women without children. She said she was trying to break the “taboo” of a woman saying “the reason I don’t have kids is because I don’t want them.” In a recent story in Today, a 32-year-old describes the years of “honest observation” and “considerate introspection” that helped her realize she didn’t have to procreate to be a whole woman. And in HuffPost this week, a reporter interviews a number of people about their decision to go child-free, some of whom cited the stress of raising children and the opportunity to engage in meaningful work. But at least one of them, thank God, made the obvious connection between precarity and her particular choice: “Who the heck has housing and money for three kids!?” asked a 47-year-old psychologist. “I think Americans need to get it through their heads how awful the safety net is here.”
The acknowledgment that the generation of people who are currently of child-bearing age have the worst economic prospects of any in American history has been conveniently muted since at least 2013, when a Time magazine cover story pondered whether “having it all means not having children.” But there’s something particularly ludicrous about framing a person’s decision not to be a parent in this very moment—one in which over 4 million women just left the workforce and 40 million recently experienced housing insecurity—as a sign of mass self-actualization and broad feminist progress. If a person delivers their child in a hospital, it can cost them thousands of dollars even if they have insurance. In 2015, the USDA put the average yearly cost of raising a child at a little over $13,000, which seems fantastically low considering full-time child care programs around the same time were found to put parents out around $16,000. And none of that really begins to account for the less easily quantifiable variables a person might consider when it comes to raising a human being, among them stable housing, whether their elder family members have recently died in a pandemic, or an economic future that’s certain at all.
The articles that interpret declining birth rates as a matter of a woman’s personal identity lean, to various degrees, on the personalities central to the online childfree movement, which like most groups on the internet naturally gravitate towards labels and vague aphorisms. One of them, mentioned in the HuffPost article, is “Rich Auntie Supreme,” a motivational Instagram account that describes the kind of life a child-free auntie can have. “Rich means owning a summer home or the extra time to hone a craft,” one post reads. “Rich might mean a weekend ritual of sleeping in until 1 p.m. or luxury skincare items.” It’s meant to shatter preconceptions about women who decide not to have children, but it inadvertently presents the decision as another step towards total actualization, a mode of being that must be endlessly tended to with affirmations and Instagram quote cards. It’s a tone that’s replicated in stories that center a woman’s decision not to have kids as a spiritual calculus. But wouldn’t it be equally useful to point out, particularly in the broader media, that there are specific, material reasons a person doesn’t feel they can have a kid and also a complicated skincare routine?