For medical reasons, a close friend of mine is unable, or at least very unlikely, to become pregnant. “I feel like I’ve failed,” she says to me regularly.
“How do you feel you’ve failed?” I usually respond.
She sighs, and confesses: “It just makes me feel so inadequate as a woman that I can’t.”
This notion—that a cis woman is only “complete” if she gives birth with her own body—is common, and easy to internalize. It runs deeper than mere personal inadequacy: it’s held to be something of a social failure, too. “Women are supposed to perpetuate the species,” my friend tells me, reaching for something that sounds like science.
In the last year or so, a spate of headlines have bemoaned the global “baby bust”—women are inadequate failures all over, it seems. The average number of births has dropped worldwide, partly due to COVID, but partly due to other, more long-term factors. According to a gloomy report in the New York Times: “by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.” The language in the article’s subhead is dire: “Fewer babies’ cries. More abandoned homes. Toward the middle of this century, as deaths start to exceed births, changes will come that are hard to fathom.” A separate Times op-ed by philosopher Tom Whyman evokes the specter of Children of Men, a dystopian novel and its popular movie adaptation about a world without hope in which human beings have become completely infertile. The “Global Baby Drought of Covid-19 Crisis Risks Population Crunch,” warns Bloomberg, and “Spare a Thought for the Billions of People Who Will Never Exist,” weeps Businessweek.
More locally, many terrified headlines inform us that the U.S. birth rate has fallen dangerously low. According to a recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics, the fertility rate is the lowest since 1979, with a 4 percent drop in the number of births since 2019. Last year, far fewer teenagers became pregnant—an 8 percent drop since 2019—and births among women in their early 20s also dropped off by 6 percent. “‘The birthrate is the lowest it’s ever been,’” says demographer Kenneth Johnson, quoted in yet another New York Times article ominously titled “The U.S. Birthrate has Dropped Again. The Pandemic May Be Accelerating the Decline.” “‘At some point the question is going to be: The women who delayed having babies, are they ever going to have them? If they don’t, that’s a permanent notch in the American births structure.’”
Oh no! A permanent notch in the American births structure! That’s bad! Is that bad? “That the rate has gone down is not necessarily bad,” says sociologist Caroline Sten Hartnett, quoted in the same Times article as Johnson but much further down. Ok, whew. But nonetheless, the birth rate—both globally and locally—remains a matter of public interest, something that must be noted and tracked by demographers and sociologists, its consequences reported on, over and over, in the paper of record and business publications. (The New York Times in particular simply can’t shut up about the birth rate.)
So why do these outlets care so much? What exactly are “birth rates” in the first place, and why are they considered an issue of national and global importance? Why is everybody freaking out?
There are many reasons, of course, why people might choose not to have children these days. In the U.S., the lingering specter of Covid, plus a teetering economy, plus the medical expense of childbirth in a for-profit system and lack of social support for parents and children—plus, maybe, a tentative mainstreaming of the belief that child-free living isn’t tragic—all of this helps explain why many Americans are choosing to delay parenthood, have fewer children, or opt out entirely.
Of course, if women—and others—want to have children, and they can’t for financial reasons, that’s a problem, in the way that not being able to achieve any dream due to financial hardship is a problem. But is there such public interest in the declining birth rate solely because we want everybody to have the right and the financial comfort to have children if they so choose, or is it for some other reason?
“It is, after all, the right,” Elizabeth Bruenig notes in the New York Times, “that frets most vocally about the nation’s declining birthrates.”
Now, why would that be?
Birth rate concerns often arise from a specific demographic terror: that if certain births are too low, then others may be too high. The far right states this out loud in the form of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory: that white people will be replaced, socially and demographically, by people of color (who conversely are held responsible, particularly in India and in sub-Saharan Africa, for global overpopulation).
This clearly racist formulation may not be the way some liberals and leftists think about birth rate, or at least not the way they think they think about birth rate. In a practical sense, a low number of births, especially compared to the rate of deaths (aka “below replacement”; the U.S. has been below replacement since 2007), can spell economic trouble in the future: a country may not have enough people to fill the employment ranks, and the economy will shrink. But this is predicated on the assumption that a healthy economy is one that continues to grow forever, even as our planet loudly demonstrates the limits of this kind of permanent growth. There is no reason whatsoever that our economy should be forever based on the principle of line go up, other than the fact that capitalist economies have simply been structured this way. We could just as easily move toward a degrowth model, which unpegs economic progress from the GDP “while at the same time,” economic anthropologist Jason Hickel explains, “maintaining and even improving people’s standards of living” through shorter work hours and increased social services.
To the extent that having fewer people does present an economic problem for the United States, there is of course an easy solution: let in more of the immigrants who are queuing up in multitudes to get in. There is no difference between babies born here and babies born elsewhere, so if babies boost the economy, then so do immigrants. The economic concerns over birth rates tend to presume that more immigration won’t happen, but that’s a policy choice. The reluctance to treat “letting more people in” as a solution to “we have too few people” shows why concerns about birth rates seem to be less driven by true economic concern than ethno-nationalism. (On the right, this is made much more explicit.) But even more liberal conceptions of immigration as the solution to population decline aren’t about the free movement of people—again, choice isn’t really the goal here—but instead the same kind of exploitation of low-wage workers that currently defines the U.S. economy. Immigrants are viewed in this context as a labor solution for unharvested crops and overstuffed nursing homes, not as human beings who have decided to live in one place rather than another. Any way you look at it, generalized “concern” about the birth rate is inseparable from racist replacement anxiety and an obsession with maintaining a certain kind of economic progress forever.
These underlying racist prerogatives are also evident when we consider the matter of “selfishness.” Yes, the economy is bad and healthcare is a joke, but aren’t millennial women just too selfish to have a baby? Aren’t they too focused on their careers, their Instagram accounts, their avocado toasts? As often happens with the term “millennial” itself, the discourse here doesn’t refer to the actual generation as much as a specific subset of it: the white, upper-middle class, college-educated portion. When poor women or teenage girls have babies—especially if they’re Black or brown—it’s presumed to be an act of selfishness, or at least carelessness. Race, age, and class markers all signify whether women and their babies are automatically presumed to be potential burdens on the state (the result of a selfish “lack of control”); or, conversely, whether their babies are expected, even insisted upon, and their withholding is considered selfish.
It’s almost impossible to talk about having a baby versus not having a baby without raising the specter of selfishness in one direction or another. In one of these tedious Times articles, a woman who was delaying parenthood confessed, “I’m feeling a little bit selfish.” She went on: “Everybody in my friend group is saying, ‘When is the right time to let go of that selfishness?’” she said. ‘We are all putting it off.’” It’s simply taken as a given—for some women—that refusal to have children is an act of selfishness, rather than a valid and allowable choice.
Experiences differ, I’m sure, but I’ve found that as an educated white millennial who’s been married for a while, people tend to assume I must want babies, and they’re frequently bothered that I don’t have them. Not long after my wedding, at age 24, a coworker scrutinized me in the bathroom mirror. “Are you pregnant?” she asked, doubtful, surprised, confused. I wasn’t; I’d just eaten a big burrito. But whether it was a burrito or a baby, my belly was her business.
Babies—and the uteruses that produce them—have long been considered public domain, open to judgment, commentary, and national concern. People with uteruses are so accustomed to their reproductive capability being a matter of social and state interest that we rarely spend much time wondering why that might be. There’s a very long history here, but one of the best studies of it might be Silvia Federici’s classic Caliban and the Witch. According to Federici, the transition to capitalism required “the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force.” By this she means the literal acts of conceiving, carrying to term, and giving birth, but also caring for children, feeding them, cleaning up after them, and generally ensuring that the next generation of workers will be ready to be fed into the meat grinder of capitalism. This work, which had once simply been part of ordinary social life, became “unwaged labor” next to the waged labor of men; even when women take part in the workforce, it’s still generally presumed that they will perform this unwaged labor alongside it.
More proof can be found in the gendered (and cis-heteronormative) nature of this brand of “selfishness.” Why do we ask if it’s selfish for millennial women (again meaning upper middle class cis white millennial women) to opt out of having children, but not if it’s selfish for men to do so? Because despite feminist gains, reproductive labor is still considered to be a woman’s job. Failure to do so—whether it’s to have children, or to perform other forms of care work such as looking after sick parents, or looking after other people’s children or sick parents in a low-waged capacity—is a perceived failure to be a woman. In the most essential (and essentialist) sense, being a woman is caring about other people.
In her Times op-ed about the baby bust and parenting, Bruenig writes movingly about the sacrificial quality of motherhood, and says that for her:
“I knew [my daughter] would envelop my world. I had worried about that very thing. In Sheila Heti’s novel ‘Motherhood,’ the narrator, a cynical writer contemplating whether to have kids before it’s too late, laments the absence of new parents from their friends’ lives, a phenomenon she calls ‘that relieved and joyful desertion.’…What I didn’t understand—couldn’t have, at the time—was that deserting yourself for another person really is a relief.”
There’s nothing wrong at all with finding great personal meaning in losing yourself in the care of someone else, but the entire passage reminds me of a panel discussion I once attended featuring the great (and greatly underappreciated) novelist Kate Elliott. She said—I’m paraphrasing, I didn’t write it down—that she had to teach herself how to take time away from her husband and children in order to write. “You had to learn to be selfish?” prompted one of the other panelists. “No,” replied Elliott. “I had to learn that it wasn’t selfish.”
Women desert themselves for other people all the time: we’re supposed to, we’re expected to, whether it’s for children or lovers or family or friends. And this can be wonderful, as love always is. But it isn’t selfish to make other choices: to carve out your own time, for yourself, away from the people you love. Nobody would say that of a male novelist of course, and this isn’t a demand for women to be just as selfish as male novelists (society would really collapse then!) Similarly, we need to recognize that the choice to not have children—or to have children that are considered inconvenient under capitalism—isn’t selfish either, because you do not owe the world those choices, because your adequacy or inadequacy as a woman—as a person—has nothing whatsoever to do with childbearing.
And what we see in societies where women have a much fuller ability to make those choices—say, for example, Finland, which already had excellent parental leave policies, but just extended them to seven months per parent, or 14 months for a single parent—birth rates are low, and likely to remain low. It turns out that if people can actually choose freely whether to have children or not, they often won’t. Amid the fear-mongering about the “jaw-dropping’ global crash” in birth rates, the BBC notes that the reduction is “driven by more women in education and work, as well as greater access to contraception, leading to women choosing to have fewer children. In many ways, falling fertility rates are a success story.” Even the New York Times grudgingly acknowledges that “many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.”
We are so accustomed to the engine of capitalism—the sleepless roar, the bodies churned beneath it, the silent unwaged labor of women that feeds and keeps it chugging along—that we don’t know quite what to do when it starts to slow down, and fall silent. “[M]ost of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” says researcher Christopher Murray, quoted by the BBC. “I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.” It is extraordinary! It’s an enormous experiment in lessening the harm we’ve caused; figuring out how we can provide for everyone who wants children but stop pressuring them to do so (or shaming them for doing so) just to keep an outdated system of white supremacist capitalism intact.
My friend who can’t have children returns again and again to the question of her “inadequacy,” I think, because she can’t stop feeling she’s done something wrong. She regrets not being able to have children in part because she did want them, but the obsession driving our continuous conversation seems to be that feeling of social disappointment: she has let the world down. Rather than fussing over birth rates, or insisting upon the joys of parenting, I wonder if we need to reconstruct “selfishness” and “selflessness” themselves. It would be nice if women no longer felt that caring about their own art was selfish; it would be nice if what it meant to be a “woman” was no longer constructed around care labor at all (and that “man” no longer meant “one who does not do care labor.”) Individual “selfishness” is a peculiar concept anyway when a particular system of economic exploitation—one which enriches a few at the expense of countless others—has selfishly wrecked this planet. The solution in any case is not, I think, to encourage personal acts of sacrifice but to ensure that everyone has the freedom to actually pursue what they want; so that no one feels inadequate, so that it really is a choice.