Peggy O’Donnell Heffington is the author of Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother.
On a Wednesday morning in March, several hundred parents and early childhood educators met in downtown New Haven, in Connecticut, for a rally they called the Morning Without Childcare. Instead of protest chants, the group sang nursery songs such as If You’re Happy And You Know It and You Are My Sunshine, but their signs were serious and to the point. “Childcare is essential,” read a hand-painted poster on the podium. A child in a fuzzy unicorn costume held a sign that read, “No Funding = No Childcare.”
The point was to highlight the unsustainable, teetering precarity of the child-care system in the United States, which is a private market that manages to both pay workers near-poverty wages and be wildly, prohibitively expensive for parents. The average cost of daycare in the United States for one child is around US$16,000 a year, roughly equivalent to the entire pretax income of someone working full-time at the federal minimum wage. Nearly half of women in the U.S. do not qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act, a 1993 law that guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 per cent of pregnancies are given inadequate or no prenatal care; health care premiums for a family of four can easily cost more than US$1,000 a month. Considering all of this, it doesn’t seem terribly surprising that American fertility is falling, or that the number of young people who say they don’t ever plan to have children is on the rise.
In the U.S., politicians are scrambling to find the magic bullet to fix these trends – the right set of policies that will send births skyward and end childlessness for good. But few have stopped to question the premise: Can family-friendly policies solve the problem of falling fertility? Nor have we asked the more philosophical question: Should we even be thinking of it as a problem at all? In both cases, I think, the answer is no.
Gazing north from the Morning Without Childcare rally, Canada looks a bit like parenting paradise. You have things such as paid maternity leave, universal health care and daycare subsidy programs – admittedly relatively basic provisions to support parents, but ones that we, your neighbours to the south, can only dream about. On the political left in the U.S., politicians have pointed to places like Canada as models, offering proposals for sliding-scale daycare, universal prekindergarten, universal health care, and monthly support payments to families with children. Maybe if we were more like Canada, the thinking seems to be – or more like the Scandinavian countries, or more like France – more people would feel able to have more kids. It makes sense. Policies that make it easier to be a parent will help people become parents. Right?
Not so fast. The weird thing is, Canadians are actually having fewer babies than we are here in the United States. In 2020, the Canadian fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.40, meaning an average of 1.4 children per woman. In the U.S., we’re averaging 1.74. The number of babies born each year has been falling in Canada for more than a decade, just like it has here in the U.S. And Canada is not alone in seeing fertility fall, despite having supportive policies for families. In Sweden, parents are entitled to 16 months of paid leave, which can be split evenly between parents regardless of gender. Starting at the age of 1, Swedish children can attend a full-time, subsidized nursery school; health care is provided by the state; parents who have to stay home with sick children can receive payments to make up for lost wages. In spite of all of this, Sweden’s fertility rate has been falling since 2010, hitting 1.7 in 2020, neck-and-neck with the U.S. In France, it’s the same story: Despite a drool-worthy slate of policies that support parents financially and materially, the French fertility rate fell to 1.83 in 2020, down from 2.03 a decade earlier.
For at least a century, governments have seen falling fertility as a problem, and have tried implementing policies to fix it. Sometimes, these policies have been helpful to families. Others – such as the bans on birth control and abortion that have accompanied pro-natalist efforts in the United States since the late 19th century, in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and in Soviet Republics into the 1970s – have focused more on punishing those who wouldn’t conform. But for all the enthusiasm that politicians and governments have for cajoling or coercing us into having more kids, most of these efforts haven’t worked particularly well, historically speaking. When Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed abortion and contraception in 1966 in an effort to boost that country’s population, births barely budged, but deaths from illegal and unsafe abortions skyrocketed. When Spain introduced a child allowance in 2007, births rose by just 3 per cent, and some researchers speculated that the initial change could be attributed to women having children earlier, not more over all. In Hungary, under Viktor Orban, the government has enthusiastically pursued pro-natalist policies to support its ethno-nationalist goals. One of them – a favourite of Senator J.D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio – gives loans to newly married couples that are later forgiven if the couple remains married and has children. Hungary’s fertility rate? Just over 1.5.
In the summer of 2020, a paper published in the medical journal The Lancet suggested that just two factors could account for an astonishing 80.5 per cent of any change in a country’s fertility rate: women’s access to reproductive health care, and women’s education. In countries where contraception is readily available and where women can attain high levels of education, the study found that fertility tends to decline and then settle around 1.4 or 1.5 births per woman, regardless of cultural or religious norms – and pretty much regardless of whether or not that country has supportive policies that make parenting an easier or happier endeavour. In other words, if women have effective means to limit births and the economic and professional options made possible by education, it seems like they overwhelmingly choose to have smaller families. “There’s no mystery here,” said Christopher Murray, a professor of metric science at the University of Washington and one of the scientists involved in the study. “Fundamentally, the trajectory of fertility is driven by what happens in the circumstances for women.”
A lack of supportive policies, especially in the United States, is certainly part of the reason people are having fewer kids, and there is some indication that women in the U.S. are having fewer than they want to have. But places like Canada – or, even more so, places like France and Sweden – show us that policy failures are not the only reason fertility is down. We work more, change jobs more, and move more than people did in the past, and the demands of parenting have ratcheted up: American mothers today spend nearly twice as much time providing child care for their children than they did 50 years ago, despite the fact that they are also much more likely to work outside the home. But we also travel more, pursue more degrees, and – at least for women – have many more options than our grandparents did for what our professional and personal lives could look like. There are realities of our modern world that make smaller families, or even having no children at all, seem increasingly appealing.
It’s time to stop thinking about falling fertility and people without children as a problem. As the sociologist Philip Cohen suggested in The New York Times in 2021, rather than trying to “fix” our fertility rate, there is a better, possibly more effective option that is also definitely more morally sound: “create conditions that allow people to control their fertility, and have children if they want to.” What if we stopped asking how to get more people to have more babies, and instead started asking how we could truly value and care for the ones we are having – and the ones we already have?
The point of the Morning Without Daycare isn’t that funding daycare will lead to an uptick in our fertility rate. The point is that people in the U.S. who have kids are struggling to afford them, and people who work in daycares – people who want to spend their days loving and feeding and caring for other people’s kids – are struggling to pay rent or feed their own families. Policies such as paid maternity leave and sick time, affordable child care and health care, even cash payments directly to families with children: If we think of them as ways to increase a country’s fertility, they are exceptionally expensive methods with the power to exact, at best, tiny changes. If we think of them as efforts to radically alter the experience of parenting here in the United States – or as ways of continuing to support people who are and want to be parents in places such as Canada, France and Sweden – they become essential to securing all of our futures. There are ways of valuing human life as a society, beyond just wishing we’d make more of it.