Illustrations by Tara Jacoby.
At the start of 2020, Tara Finley and her husband were hoping to get pregnant with a third baby. Now, they’re seriously considering scheduling a vasectomy.
Finley, 31, lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., with her husband and two sons, ages 18 months and 3. She is adamant about maintaining their compact family of four — a complete reversal from her stance less than a year ago.
“We always planned on having three kids,” Finley said. Then 2020 happened, and “it felt like everything that could go wrong did.”
Finley, who works at a media company, was furloughed early in the pandemic, and although she has started working full time again, “every single sense of power that I didn’t even realize could be taken away from me was, and that is such a scary feeling.”
In a time of tremendous uncertainty, getting pregnant — or not — is one of the very few things Finley feels she has control over, she said. “Making sure that we don’t add more kids to our plate” became a top priority.
For Finley, the tense political climate, the pandemic and, perhaps most significantly, the ensuing financial toll collectively compelled her to rethink all previous pregnancy plans.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to catch up to the sense of comfort we used to have. We’re now going to be on a paycheck-to-paycheck scramble,” Finley explained, adding that the compounding stresses of working remotely full time and caring for her children full time solidified her desire to stop having kids.
Finley is among the many women who are pausing pregnancy plans during the pandemic. Some are deciding against having children altogether. According to survey data published in December by Modern Fertility, a company that offers an at-home fertility hormone test, of 4,000 individuals questioned, 30 percent said they were changing their fertility plans because of the pandemic. Of that group, nearly half are delaying having children, while 26 percent said they are now unsure about having kids at all.
If history is an indicator, we should expect a birthrate drop in line with the economic downturn. Despite initial thoughts that mass quarantines could spark a baby boom, experts are, in fact, forecasting a covid-19 “baby bust.”
In December, Brookings issued an update, noting that the drop in births would likely be at the lower end of the estimated range, but other factors not incorporated into the modeling, such as continued school and day-care closures, could further exacerbate the decline.
The report is based on data from the 1918 flu pandemic and the Great Recession, both of which sparked a notable reduction in the national birthrate. The findings underscore a clear correlation between the unemployment rate and the birthrate, because children are expensive, and for many individuals and couples, the decision of when and how much to reproduce comes down to what they can afford.
What makes the current situation more complicated — and perhaps more troubling in the long term — is the fact that in January 2020, the U.S. birthrate had already dropped to a record low of 1.73 children per mother.
“A one-year drop of a few hundred thousand children is not earth-shattering in terms of population patterns, but with this ongoing decline which has been taking place since the Great Recession, you’re now talking about hundreds of thousands to possibly a million fewer children in a birth cohort,” said Phillip Levine, the co-author of the Brookings report and an economics professor at Wellesley College. (A birth cohort is a group of babies born in a particular period of time.)
Although the Brookings report relies mostly on labor market conditions to form conclusions, Levine says there are other significant pandemic-related factors affecting fertility patterns. Melissa Schettini Kearney, the co-author of the report and an economics professor at the University of Maryland, echoed this sentiment.
“We have no experience with school closures and day-care closures to separately predict the effect that’s going to have on birthrates, but I’m confident that it is going to lead to fewer [births],” she said, adding that the pandemic has “hurt women’s ability to be productive in the workforce,” as well as hindered “their own perception of whether it’s a good time to embark on childbearing.”
That is definitely the case for Lauren Warner, 34, a mother of one.
“I couldn’t add another child into the mix while working from home,” said Warner, a New Hampshire-based attorney who used in vitro fertilization to become pregnant with her son who is almost 2 years old. She and her husband recently decided they will no longer consider having another child and are planning to donate their remaining embryos.
In conjunction with the stress of working full time while caring for her son, “we were always on the fence about whether we could afford a second child,” Warner added.
Plus, she “wouldn’t want to be pregnant during the pandemic” for health-related reasons, she said.
For other women, the past year has undermined their desire to have children in the first place.
Lindsay Lemon, 30, a marketing manager in Bangor, Maine, always envisioned having a big family. But upon seeing friends struggle with their children during the pandemic, she promptly shifted her stance.
“I started to rethink a lot of what I wanted with regards to having a family,” said Lemon, who is single. With everything that transpired in 2020, Lemon asked herself: “Is this the kind of world I want to raise a family in? Is it really going to get better as the years pass, or is it going to get increasingly worse?”
Lemon came to the conclusion that she no longer wants children, a decision, she said, that provided a sense of relief.
Kess Ballentine, 34, also decided to put off having children indefinitely — at least biological ones.
Ballentine, a PhD candidate in social work at the University of Pittsburgh, struggled with infertility for several years. After four miscarriages, she and her husband scheduled an appointment with a specialist this past September, hoping to eventually have a successful pregnancy.
With everything going on in the world, though, they ultimately decided to cancel the appointment. Their reasons range from financial to political, and climate change is also a considerable concern.
“Between health-care prices, day-care prices and housing prices, that’s a lot of pressure. And that doesn’t even take into account climate change or a global pandemic,” Ballentine said. “The country is an inhumane place to raise children. I think until we deal with poverty and education and the environment, we aren’t taking care of future generations right now.”
Alaka Basu, a sociologist and professor at Cornell University, predicts that — beyond the financial, political and environmental concerns driving people to avoid having children — a portion of the decline in births will be entirely unintentional.
“The ability to get pregnant is affected by stress and nutritional status, which is not always in one’s control,” Basu said, explaining that given the multitude of current stressors, it would make sense for many women to have a harder time getting pregnant. Additionally, the medical uncertainty of how the virus could impact pregnancy and childbirth is “very nerve-racking,” she continued.
Medical uncertainty was top of mind for Lauren Trakhman, 29, who lives in Annapolis, Md. She and her husband began trying to get pregnant with their first child in January 2020; once the pandemic hit, they abruptly stopped.
Given that Trakhman is asthmatic, “we worried about my health and also worried about overcrowding the health system. We didn’t want to be the reason someone didn’t receive care, or receive the level of care we normally would.”
But they didn’t entirely give up on the idea of a child. They followed the coronavirus waves, opting to start trying for a baby again once cases were down in the summer. Trakhman got pregnant in September and is due in June.
For her, the pandemic brought into focus how badly she wanted a child. Having a baby to look forward to, she said, carried her through an otherwise difficult year.
“This pregnancy has been such a bright spot for us,” Trakhman said. “We feel really lucky.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the Modern Fertility survey was released in April; the survey data referenced was published in December. The story has been updated.