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  • The majority of young adults I treat are ambivalent about getting married and having children. Tweet This
  • The declining birth rate is not just a failure of the economy, but a failure of society to value nurturing and family above all else and to model our joy in parenting to the next generation.  Tweet This
Category: Fertility

The U.S. birth rate fell 4% last year, the largest single-year decrease in nearly 50 years, according to the CDC. The rate dropped for moms of every major race and ethnicity, and in nearly every age group, falling to the lowest point since federal health officials started tracking it more than a century ago. Births have been declining in younger women for years, due to the commonly cited reasons such as economic insecurity, family postponement, and higher rates of education. These factors, along with COVID-19 and fears over health and the economy, are certainly influencing the birth rate decline but do not tell the whole story. 

Another major driving-factor behind declining birth rates that I witness every day as a psychotherapist is the increasingly individualistic ethos in this country, which includes parents moving to states far away from their children to “retire” and children leaving their parents in nursing homes and assisted living to avoid responsibility. This me-first mentality has replaced more traditional family and communal values. There is a dwindling interest in marriage and parenthood, especially among young adults, even those who are financially secure. Young women and men do not want to make the sacrifice of time and compromises to their lifestyles that are required to have multiple children. 

According to a recent survey through Tumblr and Google forms by the website Mic, Millennials cite “children as a possible hindrance to their lofty career goals.”  This is consistent with a Morning Consult poll, which finds that Millennials, more than all adults, are more likely to report the desire to focus on their career rather than having children.

The majority of young adults I treat, and even the ones I come into contact with through my adult children, are ambivalent about getting married and having children. They are incredibly ambitious and do not want to interrupt their self-driven, individualistic paths. They also feel ambivalent due to gender stereotypes and fears that they will be trapped in a lifestyle that limits their individual options. If they do plan to get married at all, they frequently talk about marrying later in life and possibly having a single child.  

This dwindling interest in having children is the consequence of three generations of confusing commercial and feminist messaging insisting that one’s career is more important than family. For instance, the popular French Feminist Simone de Beauvoir once proclaimed “No woman should be authorized to stay home to raise her children. Women should not have that choice, because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” It is also the result of the modern conception that mothering is not really work, or that it is somehow less valuable than careers outside of the home. Somehow, we have managed to convince a generation that working 9 to 5 for a corporation is more noble than sustaining and nurturing human life.   

This value system is self-perpetuating: when parents prioritize work over their children, the child learns to do the same. One of my patients, “Jane,” a single, 29-year-old attorney who lives in the city, came to see me because she was conflicted about getting married and having children. She grew up in a professional family with a mother who was a full-time physician and a dad who was an attorney. She couldn’t remember a time when her mom or dad were home before 7 PM and she often felt lonely in her empty suburban home. As a result, Jane grew up feeling that having children was a compromise she was never willing to make, and that her mother’s career first path of is a model she should follow. She admitted to me that she found little joy in the possibility of parenting compared to her career goals. 

Somehow, we have managed to convince a generation that working 9 to 5 for a corporation is more noble than sustaining and nurturing human life.   

Jane’s experience as a child is a common pattern—according to a Pew research study, working parents spend on average 1 1/2 hours per day with their young children, which is not enough to provide them with a foundation of emotional security, nor is it enough to model the fundamental importance of family. Many of the young adults I treat who are ambivalent about becoming parents feel they were burdens to their overstressed working parents who they saw only on weekends and for 30 minutes before school. They were often alone or left to their own devices with siblings or babysitters. They lack any reminiscence of a joyful childhood experience during which their parents prioritized them over their careers. 

Jane is just one of many of my young adult patients, both women and men, who consider marriage and children sacrifices that they are not willing to make. We want to blame the economy, or better education for the decline in birth rates, but what we fail to realize is that the desire to have and to care for children comes from feeling that we as children were desired and cared for, and that we were a priority to our parents. It requires that we put aside our individual desires to care for others and to view nurturing as enriching and rewarding. The declining birth rate is not just a failure of the economy, but a failure of society to value nurturing and family above all else and to model our joy in parenting to the next generation. 

There is no easy answer to the question of how to modify the confluence of economic, psychological, and cultural forces that are decreasing the birth rate in the United States. Family values were already deeply entrenched in American culture in the Sixties, but priorities shifted as contraception became easy and reliable, and married women shifted en masse from homemaking into the labor force. So returning to this previous status quo is no solution. But sacrifice is and will always be an essential part of parenthood. The difficulty of the modern dilemma is that it’s a borderline spiritual one: in order to accept the sacrifices of becoming a parent, one must perceive the inherent value in producing children. This can be a difficult undertaking for today’s young adults, who are steeped in modern materialism and individualistic ambition, as some research suggests. We cannot lose sight of the underlying cultural and psychological forces that are discouraging childbirth in even wealthy couples. Until we confront this devaluing of parenting, the birth rate will continue to decline.

Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years and soon to be released Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.