No, Millennial Women Are Not 'Failing' At Fertility

Powerful men say women wish they were having more babies. If you actually listen to women, you'll find it's more complicated.
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Let’s be straight, this International Women’s Day, about women’s chief purpose in the eyes of men. Our worth throughout human history has mainly been measured by our fertility. We produced as many babies as we could, because we had to ― to survive as a species, to subsist as agrarians, to produce workers and consumers in the industrial age. But ever since the pill and safe abortions have allowed us to plan our parenthood, men have worried that we’re not planning enough of it.

Lately, some of these men are saying they are worried that when we don’t have more babies, we’re letting ourselves down. We’re not living out our dreams. Even worse, we’re not achieving our goals. We’re failing. Or as The New York Times put it recently, because of our low birth rate, “millennial women won’t fulfill their wishes.Plenty of men seem concerned about our baby-producing, but I have a hunch that women’s truest wishes are not what they are really worried about.

This piece, which appeared in the Times’ data journalism section The Upshot, compares data on what’s known as “fertility intentions” (how many babies women say they want to have) with new projections that say millennial women will probably ultimately give birth to 1.8 babies (that’s an average; I don’t mean to alarm you with images of headless toddlers stumbling down your block). The author, Lyman Stone ― more on his organization in a moment ― bemoans the gap between reality and desire: Those same women say they’d like to have 2.7 babies. The gap between “intentions” and projected reality is the highest it’s been in 40 years.

But here’s the thing about those expressed intentions: They are the product of surveys conducted before women confront the realities of child rearing. Or use a mortgage calculator. Or navigate an equity-deficient workplace. Those surveys are directed at women who have not yet become parents. Women whose dreams of motherhood are free of compromise and drudgery, who have yet to experience the realities of stepping out of the unequally paid workforce to have babies in a country that doesn’t even guarantee paid family leave.

When I was reporting my book One and Only, in which I interrogate our cultural norms around family size, as well as a cover story I wrote for Time about women who opt out of motherhood entirely, I delved deeply into the data and thinking around women’s fertility intentions. I read every existing study, interviewed every major researcher in the field, attended conferences in Vienna and Washington. I asked why young women say they want 2.7 children. The answer I heard repeatedly from researchers was essentially: Because they do, and we know they do because that’s what the numbers tell us. But there is much the numbers don’t tell us, because there is much the surveys don’t ask.

These surveys don’t ask women questions like: Are you comfortable passing up a promotion for a kid? Or even: How many times a year do you want to go to a movie or have dinner out with friends? As I wrote in my book, it’s like asking a tween girl what her perfect wedding looks like. My childhood fantasy was to get married on an island in Boston’s Public Garden in a dress my grandmother would take me shopping for in Paris. Instead, my grandmother was confined to a nursing ward, I wore a $200 off-the-rack dress, and we got hitched at my parents’ house. My grandmother’s absence aside, it was grand. We envision one thing; we live with another. Our ideals change in concert with our emerging realities ― even more so if, as we age, we opt to interrogate what we thought we wanted, and why we thought we wanted it.

“These surveys don’t ask women questions like: Are you comfortable passing up a promotion for a kid? Or even: How many times a year do you want to go to a movie or have dinner out with friends?”

Lyman Stone is part of a for-profit forecasting company called Demographic Intelligence, a consortium of demographers who measure fertility intentions. On its homepage, Demographic Intelligence proudly displays the logos of the companies that buy its services: Disney Baby, Pfizer, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Procter & Gamble. For these corporations, low fertility is bad for business.

Demographers have long charted the birthrate alongside the economy. Downturns make people feel anxious about affording a kid, while upturns yield baby booms. Except this time. “Far from reversing as America grew out of economic recession, this lost fertility has worsened,” Stone argues in the Times. “Lost,” “worsened” ― so many women’s dreams grievously deferred, right, guys?

It’s not mere cynicism to suspect, as I do, that companies are hiring Demographic Intelligence out of something besides deep concern for women’s life-course desires. Capitalism requires the production of babies to be workers and consumers, and companies that obtain the services Demographic Intelligence offers ― “to strategically prepare and invest for the future” ― are right in line with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s belief that more babies will save the American economy. “I did my part, but we need to have higher birth rates in this country,” Ryan (R-Wis.), a father of three, told reporters who’d gathered in December to hear him talk about welfare reform.

In overseeing a GOP that cuts funding for effective contraception and triples down on outlawing abortion, Ryan has certainly “done his part” to ensure more babies are born. But he has done nothing to get American women the structural support found elsewhere in the world, which might enable us to participate in a marketplace that has become dependent upon us while also birthing all those dependents. Researchers have long asserted that even in a down economy, progressive family policies like paid leave and affordable or free child care will raise birthrates, as they have in Europe.

Any demographer will tell you the key predictor of how many babies a woman has is the age at which she first becomes a mother. The average American woman does so at age 26; for European women it’s age 30. Certainly, college loans, housing costs, and other concrete factors can help explain why we choose to become mothers when we do. It was hard enough for my generation to achieve a level of stability ― in our bank accounts, our homes, our work lives, not to mention our relationships ― before a positive pregnancy test signified anything other than a true crisis. For millennials, who have come of age in an even more egregiously lopsided economy, it’s harder still.

“It was hard enough for my generation to achieve a level of stability before a positive pregnancy test signified anything other than a crisis. For millennials, it’s harder still.”

At the same time, our ideas about what it means to be a woman are shifting. They have been, in fits and starts, for a century now. Millennial women are finding that the reality of American motherhood is not the stuff of their youthful dreams. They do not want to sacrifice what they’ve worked for, alongside dudes who didn’t have to fight as hard to be heard. They do not want to have their lives reshaped drastically by child rearing. They have seen that the more women are mothers ― having 2.7 instead of two or one, or none ― the less they get to be other elements of themselves.

Hidden away in Stone’s Upshot piece, uncloaked in concern about what women want, are data that explain the reality of our intentions in practice: a significant increase in the number of women using long-acting contraception (like intrauterine devices and implants) to prevent pregnancy, and a decline in births outside marriage. And consider this, and Stone’s framing between em-dashes: “What began as sharp declines in pregnancy and childbearing among teenagers — typically considered a socially desirable result — has slowly spread up the age cohorts, first to women in their early 20s, then to those in their late 20s.”

Women are telling us what they want, when they have access to birth control and safe, affordable pregnancy termination. In other words, what women want is not to have babies they don’t want. If that’s “socially undesirable,” as Stone seems to suggest, then it’s worth considering whose desires are really in play. I suspect they reflect the corporate concerns of Disney and Pfizer, and the political ones of Paul Ryan, rather than what women want at all.

Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.

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