Published January 24, 2024
The end of the calendar year traditionally allows publications some space for pieces that aren’t tied to the normal news cycle. They can often be the most illuminating type of long-read, shedding light, rather than heat, on cultural trends that need careful consideration rather than hot takes. Several recent pieces—by female writers at different points along the political spectrum—provide a collage that helps explain the state of affairs when it comes to fertility, marriage, and the decline of both.
Rachel Cohen, a progressive-leaning journalist who covers abortion and family policy for Vox, provided a much-needed corrective to the narrative around parenting that New York Times columns and best-selling memoirs can sometimes offer. The landscape of mommy blogs and parenting how-tos often fuels an endless drumbeat of what she terms “mom dread.” Kids are expensive, the elite narrative goes, and a threat to your life and livelihood—you’ll probably never sleep again and say goodbye to your professional goals.
But in talking to Millennial moms who took the plunge, Cohen found the narrative doesn’t meet reality. Conservative influencers, of course, have traditionally been quicker to talk up the joys of family life and motherhood. But Cohen found that even progressive moms find meaning and fulfillment in the sacrifices they’ve made to welcome a child, even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing that to the world. “If joyful motherhood or equitable parenting is seen as a rare accomplishment these days, then, like many other small and large achievements, women learn to keep it to themselves,” Cohen writes.
What Cohen’s piece smartly highlights is that the dominant messaging of parenthood as non-stop slog—from sleepless nights to ruined sex lives to the “rug rat race” that turns parenthood into a status competition—increases the perceived costs for many young women contemplating parenthood.
That point was underscored, intentionally or not, by the progressive writer Jill Filipovic in a column for Slate. Her self-described “ambivalence” over having children—and the realization that deferring the decision whether to do so may end up allowing biology to make the decision for her—was an admirably honest exploration of the dynamics at play. Her piece helps explain why professional-class women opt to push the decision off as far as possible, and how questions about how many children one “expects” to have are so difficult to answer in the abstract.
“If I lived in a culture in which nearly all women had babies, or in which motherhood was a woman’s primary path to life meaning and community respect, I would probably have had a baby too,” Filipovic writes. “But I live in a particular American subculture in which it is well within the norm to have children well after 30…and [where women are] widely expected to filter life’s biggest decisions through the lenses of desire and meaning and self-actualization.”
For questions about tradeoffs, parenthood, and opportunity costs aren’t solely matters of individual decision-making—they’re a complex calculus of social pressures, public resources, and metaphysics. As Elizabeth Grace Matthew, a visiting fellow at the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum, wrote in a longread for Law and Liberty, it is impossible to understand the decline of fertility without acknowledging the decline in religion. Responding to Filipovic’s celebration of individual autonomy, Matthew points out that the loss of the transcendent in our cost-benefit analysis means fewer people recognizing “the work and sacrifice of motherhood is not so much a personal choice as it is a civic service.” In a world of declining fertility, she states, we have to be comfortable saying that “some choices are better—more socially useful, and more civically worthy—than others.”
If boosting fertility rates is important for societal well-being, Matthew unabashedly argues feminists should encourage religious participation, not for the instrumental impact it could have on raising fertility rates, but because women who have kids surrounded by the web of support of a religious community will find it easier than those who go it alone.
That seeming lack of support for parents in the U.S. is highlighted by Stephanie Murray, a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Based on her experience as an ex-pat, she argues that “when you sign up to be a parent in the U.S., you are signing up to navigate threats to your kids’ safety and your family’s financial stability that you would not have to consider if you lived in any comparable country.” Being a parent in America, she argues, shouldn’t be this hard.
Some of the policies she highlights falls in the “mom dread” category Cohen tries to deflate. High-intensity parenting is a choice that American parents can (and should) opt out of, even if scare stories and social media influencers may tell you otherwise. Some could be addressed by better public policy. Others, like school shooting, are uniquely American tragedies that make parents lives more stressful but remain, blessedly, low probability events.
It’s true that our infrastructure, policy design, and even built environment (as Murray previously wrote about for The Atlantic) can and should be better oriented around the needs of parents and children. But a warming planet, gun violence, or a lack of family-friendly play areas don’t really explain why so many individuals who may have otherwise had kids are choosing, like Filipovic, through the “lenses of desire and meaning and self-actualization.”
As I’ve written for the Family Studies blog before, and more in-depth scholarly work has confirmed, the biggest driver of declining fertility isn’t what parents have to purchase, but what women have to give up in order to have a child: in economist-speak, their rising opportunity cost. Perhaps the biggest change in American fertility since the Great Recession is that women without a college degree are now putting off having a child just like their college-educated peers have for decades.
For them, the opportunity cost of having a child may not be forgone promotions, but a decrease in optionality—a sense that becoming a mother is tying them down, potentially to a partner whose earnings or status isn’t dependable enough to forgo other options. This was tartly demonstrated by the freelance journalist Anna Louie Sussman in a New York Times opinion piece. Though she seemed to paint pro-marriage scholars like Brad Wilcox and Melissa Kearney as foils, they would agree with her that there should be more concern around the seeming decline in marriageability among working-class men.
Writing about fertility and marriage across a country as diverse as the U.S. runs the risk of overgeneralization. We know more about the concerns and tradeoffs facing college-educated women because the op-ed pages and online journals that publish pieces on fertility and motherhood are more likely to feature the voices of college-educated women. And these pieces, of course, tend to focus on women for the simple, if unfair, fact that men are not faced with nearly the same ticking biological clock.
But those caveats aside, these essays—written by some of the most talented writers working on family-related issues today—should increase our understanding of the tradeoffs at play. And they can inform what steps policymakers, and the rest of us, can do to make the future more hospitable to would-be parents taking the plunge.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.