The projected pandemic baby boom never materialized, and a new survey indicates birth rates may continue to decline. Experts share why the pandemic may have people re-thinking pregnancy plans.

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Back in March of 2020, when we thought the pandemic was going to be more like a snow day than an ongoing crisis, there were plenty of jokes about a pending baby boom.

The opposite has happened.

According to CDC data, 3,605,201 babies were born in the U.S. last year, down 4 percent from 2019 and a record low. And new research indicates we may not see an uptick this year. One-third of people who were thinking about becoming pregnant before the pandemic but had not yet begun trying said they were no longer considering it, according to a survey of 1,179 New York City mothers conducted by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The women already had at least one kid, age 3 or younger.

"COVID is a stress test highlighting all kinds of weaknesses in our system," says Linda G. Kahn, Ph.D., MPH, an epidemiologist and the study's lead author.

An image of a mother hugging her daughter.
Credit: Getty Images.

Dr. Kahn notes that many issues exacerbated by the pandemic existed long before 2020, particularly for underprivileged families. A recent New York Times report pointed out that, on average, other wealthy countries contribute $14,000 annually to child care for toddlers. The U.S. contributes $500. The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation without paid family leave.

Over the last year, the pandemic caused people to reckon with issues, like child care, in ways they may not have otherwise.

"There is a fundamental problem in our society that is making it more and more difficult for people to balance supporting themselves and being the kinds of parents they want to be, and people are not willing to start a family that they are not willing to commit to," says Dr. Kahn. "It's too much to ask an individual to do that."

Though Dr. Kahn and her team did not ask mothers why they decided not to have more children, she and other experts have theories. They discussed why people are delaying or foregoing pregnancy and what it might mean for the future.

Why People Are Having Fewer Children

There's no perfect blueprint for starting or expanding a family, so it's not possible to list every reason why someone may decide to forego or delay pregnancy. But several common threads have emerged during the pandemic.

Job loss

There's an old cliche that you "can always make more money. You can't put a price on kids." The take is well-meaning but privileged. First, not all people can conceive via intercourse. Couples who are same-sex or have fertility problems or someone who plans to raise a child themselves may opt for IVF. The process can cost $25,000 with medication. Research shows the average cost of giving birth in the United States ranges from about $8,300 in Arkansas to almost $20,000 in New York. Insurance typically covers some or much of it—if you have a plan.

Once the baby is here, the bills continue to pile up. U.S. families spend an average of $8,355 per child on child care each year, according to a survey for BankRate conducted by YouGov.

To afford reproductive assistance, birth, and child care, a person needs income. For most, that means holding down a job where they may also gain access to health insurance. In December 2019, women made up 50.04 percent of the workforce. But about two months later, that all drastically changed as COVID-19 began to ravage the U.S. economy, shutting down businesses, child care centers, and schools. Ultimately, about 1.8 million women dropped out of the workforce because of the pandemic. Black women have been disproportionately hit. Even as the economy showed signs of recovery this spring, Black women saw their unemployment rate go up slightly.

Some may have been laid off, a particularly jarring experience for a person who had once had a reliable job with access to employer-subsidized health insurance and family leave.

"Having jobs taken away," says Dr. Kahn, "is making people realize that even if they thought they had it all together, they could lose it in an instant, and there's no safety net."

Some of these decisions to leave jobs were voluntary, and data indicates child care issues may be partially to blame. A recent study by the Center for Global Development found that women worldwide put in three times more child care responsibilities than men.

"We talk about families in the broadest and most inclusive sense, but the bottom line is there is a gender difference," says Dr. Kahn. "When push comes to shove, and someone has to stay home to take care of the kid, it is the woman because women typically have lower-paying jobs than men. That is going to pull them out of the workforce."

Burnout

The increased child care responsibilities and economic anxiety have led to emotional exhaustion. In May, TODAY Parents released a survey that found 83 percent of moms felt burned out by pandemic parenting.

"Moms have had to spend more time and energy caring for their young children with daycares being harder to come by or not being able to send kids to school," says Shari Botwin, LCSW, author of Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing. "The idea of not being able to go to work, fear of losing jobs, paying for services you can't utilize [is stressful]."

And Botwin says a person may feel they do not have the emotional bandwidth to have a child.

Loss of a village

More than 700,000 people have died in the U.S. alone from COVID-19. These people were parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. And BIPOC individuals suffered at higher rates. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people were at least twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.

"A lot of us have had family members pass from COVID who would have helped us out with children," says Rachel Miller, M.D., a North Carolina-based board-certified OBGYN and founder of Pocket Bridges, LLC. "Logistically, who is going to help you with your child? There could also be that feeling of, 'I don't have this support person. I don't know I can do this on my own,'" says Dr. Miller.

Existential crisis

The pandemic has created a perfect storm where people wondered if it was even moral to bring a child into the world right now.

Existential crises around having children aren't new. Recently, Dr. Khan says people have been concerned about bringing children into the world because of climate change.

"COVID is another existential problem," adds Dr. Khan. "[People think,] 'We're in this crazy world of potentially ongoing pandemics with strife, economic issues, and health hazards. Do I want to bring a child into this world? It's too messed up."

That said, you could make the argument that something bad is always happening. The U.S. spent two decades fighting the War in Afghanistan, and people had children during famines. But for some, COVID may feel different and more personal.

"For most of us, [those problems] are at a distance, and we can go our merry way in this country…but this has impacted everyone...in a way we haven't seen since WWII and The Great Depression," says Dr. Kahn.

What Do Declining Birth Rates Mean For Our Future?

Birth rates in the U.S. have actually declined every year since 2008, when the Great Recession happened, except for 2014. In 2020, data shows that there was an average of 1.93 children under 18 per family in the U.S., a decline from 2.33 per family in 1960.

If the trend continues, the U.S. is unlikely to notice the effects for the next several decades. But Dr. Kahn says the aging populations of other countries can provide a look into our future.

In Japan, more than 20 percent of the population is over the age of 65, and the average number of children under 18 per family in 2020 was .37. Its population was 124 million in 2018 but is expected to be 88 million in 2065. Officials are concerned about the economy's future, workforce, and ability to care for an aging population.

"The people who are older need care," says Dr. Khan. "There aren't enough people to support them with taxes and care."

How People Can Decide Whether to Have Children Right Now

Ultimately, experts share neither choice is moral or immoral. Instead, they say it's important for people to decide what's best for them. Here's how.

Evaluate your circumstances

The pandemic has affected people in different ways. While some feel burned out, others have enjoyed the slower pace and have job security and support. Botwin notes that this is why it's important to block the noise and hone in on your personal situation. She advises considering:

  • Your level of burnout
  • Finances and job security
  • Whether or not you have time to care for yourself, let alone another child
  • Your support system and child care options

List pros and cons

Botwin says writing out the pros and cons of having a child can help you organize your thoughts. But don't just note which is longer and let that be your decision. "Go back and re-read it a day or two later, and see if you still feel the same way," Botwin says.

Talk it out

Though it's tempting to crowdsource in Facebook parenting groups or with several friends, Botwin suggests limiting the conversation to people who can remain objective. For example, your mother may want another grandchild, which can cloud her advice. She recommends speaking to your partner (if applicable), the person who may provide caregiving assistance, and a therapist.