- The US birth rate is declining partly because women are delaying childbirth.
- Workplace culture that discriminates against mothers plays a big part in deterring women from having children earlier in life.
- Now is the time to address the part our workplaces play in families’ reproductive options.
- Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a writer living in New York City.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
I will never forget that moment: It was just a few weeks after giving birth to my second child — I was 26 years old and on unpaid maternity leave (I had not worked the full year required in order to take advantage of my company’s policy) . I was staring at a hospital bill for childbirth, and ping! I received an email notification: my monthly student loan payment was due. I looked around and thought: Welcome to American millennial motherhood.
For the last few years, I’ve been reading the latest studies on the declining American birth rate with an amused smile.
Of course my generation of American women is choosing to push off childbearing, and having fewer children once they start. It’s not only because of the obvious price tags of healthcare and childcare, but also because of the less-easily quantified cost: The price of working in a culture which has little tolerance for mothers, a culture which gives women little time to have children.
We can’t talk about the declining American birth rate without talking about how workplace culture — sometimes, in ostensibly progressive spaces — often deters women from choosing to have children during their most fertile stage in life, which often results in women having fewer children than they themselves may want.
In far too many workplaces, pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing in the early chapters of one’s career is a liability — and few young women are ready to take that risk, knowing they’ll have little support for it. In contrast, studies show that women who have children later are more equipped to “catch up” on earnings after taking time to have children, and are less likely to find themselves on the dreaded (and possibly mythical) “mommy track.”
In a recent New York Times report on why American women are delaying motherhood, several women said they are waiting to “establish their careers.” For years feminism has pushed the idea that freedom can be found in work, but somehow, women accept this dogma without questioning: Who says careers need to be “established” before having children? Why are our offices so designed to keep mothers out?
The workplace isn’t built for young mothers
I knew this challenge intimately, because I was the anomaly who attempted to do both.
Throughout my twenties, it was made clear to me that having children while pursuing a career in New York City was a career risk. I disregarded it; as an Orthodox Jew, I believed family was primary.
Alas, I quickly learned that in the media industry, young mothers are hard to find. While my twenty-something-year-old peers went out for drinks after work, I would dash home to relieve my babysitter. And while I constantly missed my children’s pediatric check-ups during their first years out of fear of stepping out of the office, I watched older colleagues, who had reached a senior-enough position, calmly step out for pediatric appointments without concern they were being perceived as uncommitted.
Open women’s advice books — “Lean In” or “Drop the Ball”, for example — and the advice is targeted to someone else — someone older, more senior, with at least a decade of work under her belt. These books are written for women who have put years into climbing corporate ladders; they are for those who can afford to cover necessary childcare costs.
Many of my peers who became mothers in their twenties have had similar experiences; we exchange damning stories in a sort of whisper network. One friend, a journalist, was promptly fired from her job after she raised concerns about being discriminated against after returning from maternity leave. Another friend, in a white shoe law firm, got pregnant at 26 with her first child, and told me how she was treated like an alien — “The only other pregnant lawyer in the firm was 49.” Another friend entered a job pregnant, and was required back at her desk two weeks after birth, the lack of recovery costing her health later on.
Many of the inequities working mothers face were particularly exposed during the pandemic, when mothers were judged against unattached peers who could work all hours. After all, why hire a parent, when you can get someone who will work weekends and all their waking hours for the same price?
American women want more children than they are having
The declining birth rate shouldn’t be a concern owned by pro-natalist hawks who want to keep women in the proverbial kitchen. It’s also not a crisis in “family values.” In fact, if we would only listen closely to actual American women , we would see that this is in fact contrary to their desires: According to 2018 data from the General Social Survey, while the birth rate is falling, millennial women’s desired fertility is actually rising. While American millennial women report wanting 2.7 children on average, they will likely have 1.8 — that gap is the highest it’s been in 40 years.
That may be because women simply don’t have the time to bear children, because they are pressured to push off childbearing for half of their adult lives’ fertility windows in order to “establish careers” or save up money. This is, perhaps, a story of shattered family dreams for countless Americans, and it is this data that we should be paying attention to most closely.
While rising costs of living and childcare expenses require long-term policy changes at a high level, what we can change now is how we treat mothers in the workplace, particularly those who are lower in the office hierarchy, and therefore have less resources at their disposal. To support young mothers, workplaces ought to offer flexible hours, remote work options, paid maternity leave (even for those who enter a job while pregnant), and sensitivity training to management.
Remember that in every hostile workplace, there is a woman making painful reproductive choices because of that very hostility.
Every traumatizing experience of a maternity leave denied, every litany of nasty emails questioning one’s “availability,” every threat of being fired, is another voice whispering into a young woman’s ear: “There’s no way I can have a child now, here. It ‘ll have to wait.”
And remember, that for every woman enduring this — know that there is a group of young female interns watching from the water cooler, wide-eyed, taking note of what awaits them.