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Column: Worried about the declining birthrate? How about giving mothers a break

Mother and crying baby
Educated women are given better access to the facts, and the facts are that, especially in America, it is really bloody hard to be a mother.
(Constance Bannister Corp/Getty Images)

Despite the world’s myriad problems with overpopulation, many people are freaking out about the recent baby bust in California, the United States and, indeed, the world.

For reasons known only to themselves, some people apparently expected women to react to a pandemic that led to a horrific number of deaths, high unemployment and the trauma of off-site elementary school by having babies.

But as it turns out, a pandemic lockdown is not the modern equivalent of “there was a guest host on Carson,” the late-night doldrums that gave us so many millennials. Women were not interested in padding their often overflowing nests; instead they caused a dip in the already sliding population-replacement rate.

(Isn’t that a great way to think of a motherhood? As unpaid population-replacement work.)

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Suddenly, after decades of hand-wringing about what we should do to curb an unsustainable population boom, we are faced with dystopian images of marauding retirees and gestation fixations that conjure “The Handmaid’s Tale.” A recent story in the New York Times threatened a geriatric dust bowl:

“A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But … “ Pause for laughter, please, because solving climate change and female burnout isn’t enough. But: “Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation.”

Imagine this instead: If everyone is really super-concerned about the drop in birthrates, why don’t we, as a nation, make having and raising children a little bit easier?

Whenever anyone asked Alan Weisman, author of “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth,” what the world should do to slow the overpopulating of this planet, he invariably said one thing first: “Educate women.”

The humble IUD is just one of many reasons California is expected to see almost 50,000 fewer births in 2021, the nadir of a national COVID ‘baby bust.’

As countless studies have shown, the more education women receive, the fewer children they will have. The reasons for this “negative relationship” are obvious. Educated women generally have better access to birth control, work outside the home and contribute significantly to their family economically. They tend to have children later in life and at greater intervals. Increasingly, many choose not to have children at all.

In other words, educated women are given better access to the facts, and the facts are that it is really bloody hard to be a mother.

That is especially true in this country, where it’s easier to envision Super Bowl ads promoting fertility than programs that provide federally subsidized childcare as in every other industrialized nation.

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The pandemic educated everyone even further: Far more women than men lost or left jobs in the last year, in part because women still tend to work in the hardest-hit sectors of the economy — hospitality, retail and education — but also because many were forced to stop working when schools and daycare providers closed or family members fell ill.

Given the general exhaustion — and in many cases grief and fury — of the childbearing populace, is it so surprising that women are rediscovering the IUD?

I have three children and a career that has, thus far, survived motherhood. But it hasn’t been easy. Like many Americans, my husband and I had no family members to provide any kind of childcare; for years we worked in offices far from our home in jobs that often ate into our evenings, weekends and holidays. We were fortunate enough to find, and be able to afford, quality daycare and to have jobs with enough flexibility that — with the aid of friends — one of us could usually cover for the other.

We have both made important career decisions based on our desire to have and raise children, but we were lucky to have ambitions that aligned with those decisions and to work in an industry where those decisions were possible.

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Not everyone does; indeed, most women do not. Despite this country’s economic reliance on two-wage-earning and single-parent households, the workforce, and far too much political rhetoric, is still built around the notion that a family is made up of a breadwinner and a stay-at-home parent.

Most American mothers work outside the home and have done so for at least two decades, so any talk about supporting “family values” should reflect that reality.

But instead of providing any tangible help to American workers with children, our culture offers amorphous and never-ending criticism, most often leveled at mothers.

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Are you abandoning your child to the multiple dangers of screens or smothering them with your helicopter methods? Are you falling down on your family-dinner duties, thereby consigning your children to a life of obesity, or are you showering them with so much attention you create a generation of narcissists? Are you breastfeeding, and if so, is that breastfeeding occurring for the precise number of months that fall between “too few to count” and “so long it’s pathological”?

Are you doing all you can do to protect them from evil forces or becoming hysterical with the “stranger danger” that ended the golden age of play? Are your children vegetating or over-scheduled? Somehow or other, they are failing and so are you.

Why on earth would anyone want an unpaid, unsupported job for which virtually anyone can offer a performance evaluation at any time, a job in which you are literally damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

I sometimes think it’s a wonder women have any babies at all.

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Over the years, when young women have asked me about having children, I’ve always compared it to living in New York City. It’s very expensive and loud, people yell at you a lot, the simplest things become unreasonably difficult and there will be vomit. You should do it only if you are quite certain you will never be happy if you don’t.

So if the declining birthrates are really a problem (and given the state of our planet, I am not sure they are), the solution is very simple: Make the prospect of parenthood less daunting. Extended parental leave, and the expectation that people will take it, should be the baseline. Federal and state governments should help create or subsidize all sorts of childcare and offer financial support to homemakers. Education, including after-school programs, should be a priority.

Instead of judging or trying to socially engineer mothers’ decisions, give them a choice beyond “to be or not to be.”

You want more babies? Give mothers a freaking break.

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