Starting a Family: The New Timeline in Today’s America

By Brenna Kehew Sculley

by Elliot Derhay

The United States is experiencing a widespread decline in birth rates. Changing social norms have led to later marriages and parenthood, as more people prioritize education and careers before starting families. Beyond overarching trends in gender equality and increased access to birth control, changing attitudes about personal fulfillment and freedom have all combined to lead to smaller and later-in-life families.

You may have noticed this feeling among your friends and relatives. Happy people, single and loving it, or married DINKs (dual investments no kids), traveling and living their best lives. Once stigmatized as unusual, they are rising in numbers and embracing their own happiness. When confronted with a challenging parenting future, many are simply opting out.

Parenting, often portrayed as an all-consuming endeavor, has made many apprehensive about the prospect. Amid the chaos of modern life, one glance at TikTok reveals a legion of frazzled moms navigating the everyday struggles. For those on the fence, the complexities of parenting’s impact on happiness loom large.

There is a pervasive narrative that parenting is hard. It can be hard to see through the chaos if you’re thinking about having kids. If you’re on the fence, it helps to understand the complex paradigm of happiness/unhappiness that is parenting. There is data that supports the thought that people do want to have children, it just never seems like a good time. Deep down, many yearn for parenthood but are caught in a web of uncertainty. The omnipresent fear of an unpredictable future — from climate crises to existential dilemmas — casts a shadow over the decision-making process.

The New York Times reported that birth rates across the United States have fallen almost everywhere and asked the question: Are young women delaying childbirth or forgoing it altogether? The reasons and answers to that question are varied. Children are expensive. Women now have less unintended pregnancies and more demanding careers. To many, it just seems so hard. Hard to find the right partner. Hard to envision a life where your focus is pulled away from your work and your passion.

The childcare crisis in this country is real. There are simply not enough spots for little ones, so women dedicated to their careers have to manage their expectations. Looking to “have it all” requires a village, one that is increasingly dispersed geographically, and given the realities, many wait until they have the capacity and funds to build their village with nannies and the support needed to maintain a full-time career and raise children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to maintain the current population size, the birth rate needs to be 2,100 births for every 1,000 women, or an average of 2.1 children per mother. In Washington, mothers average about 1.4 children. Only two states — South Dakota and Utah — have rates at 2.1 or above.

Some traditionalists may argue that the societal decision to delay or abandon marriage and parenthood is to extend adolescence. Maybe for some it is, but in reality when women are educated and have more control over their future, they tend to have fewer children. It isn’t a prolonging of adolescence but an acceptance and embracing of never settling for less than what makes you happy.

Motherhood and family life undeniably hold profound meaning and enduring bonds, yet the struggles of parenting are not to be underestimated. The adage, “The days are long, but the years are short,” resonates with many.

For those grappling with infertility or those who found love later in life, the decision to reject parenthood might be easier than persisting with regrets. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in six people globally faces infertility. While the infertility rate remains stable in the United States, accessing fertility care can be a formidable challenge in a nation with specialist shortages.

In truth, there’s no simple answer to why birth rates are falling and parenthood is being postponed. The reasons are as diverse as the people making these decisions. Projections even suggest a global population decline by 2050 — a testament to a world in flux. Some people find contentment in their current lives, shunning the challenges of parenthood. Others yearn for children but await the perfect moment, while some have been unable to realize their aspirations.

Regardless of the reasons, for eager grandparents awaiting the pitter-patter of little feet, patience becomes a virtue. As the landscape of family planning evolves, understanding, empathy, and adaptability are the keys to navigating this shifting paradigm.

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