by Alexa Peters
It’s been widely reported for some time that birthrates in the U.S. are plummeting. In fact, according to a New York Times report in mid-2019, the birthrate was at the lowest level it had been in 32 years.
A dominant factor in this unprecedented decline in births is a cultural shift: millennials are choosing to have kids later than previous generations, if they’re even having families at all. After all, millennials — recently deemed the unluckiest economic generation — have a laundry list of good reasons why not to procreate. And in 2020, that list continues to grow.
Before this year, millennials typically cited the economy and global warming as major deterrents to child rearing. Come 2020, even more millennials are turning their backs on having families, as burdensome student debt and melting ice caps are compounded by the unpredictability of a pandemic and the social unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd.
Washington-based millennials are no exception. Twenty-nine-year-old Jennie Ulsh, who lives in Bellingham, WA, says when she was a kid and people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her first response was always, “a mother.” In fact, Ulsh says wanting to have children was something she had always planned her life around until quite recently.
“Being a mother has been something that’s been on my mind for a lot of my life. That, oftentimes, has been the foundation for my decision to be in a relationship,” she said.
But Ulsh, who is currently single, said she began to have a change of heart around having kids when Donald Trump was elected and his presidency started to feel a lot more like a “a dictatorship,” to her. In addition, with the federal government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020’s racial strife, her aversion to having kids has only deepened.
“I am just feeling generally unsafe as a human in this political environment,” she said. “Looking at the way our government is responding, or isn’t responding [to these issues], it makes me feel like this isn’t a safe place to have and raise children.”
Ulsh has experienced the stress of what she sees as the federal government’s “lack of response,” firsthand. When COVID-19 hit, Ulsh was left unemployed, and she still hasn’t been approved for unemployment income. Meanwhile, she still has the financial burden of supporting herself, her two dogs, and paying her mortgage.
“If I was in this exact same situation with children, it would be a lot more challenging. Not just financially, but taking care of their emotions, their stress — while I’m also going through unprecedented, unexpected amounts of stress,” she said.
Ulsh isn’t alone in this logic. Pamela Heron, 32, is a nurse at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and a newly-wed. Though she says she often fields questions from strangers about starting a family, Heron says she and her husband’s inclination not to have a family — already influenced by climate change and student debt — has turned into certainty in 2020. Heron says her unique perspective as a first-responder during a pandemic has definitely played a part in her decisiveness.
“I think the way the government handled giving us PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] makes me wonder how good of a future we have in the U.S. if it can’t even take care of first-responders, and then downstream all the sick people,” said Heron. “Also, the public’s response, like not wanting to wear masks anymore or in the first place and ignoring the health advice of experts, makes me really nervous for future generations. Like, as a family you can try to protect your kid, but the public and environmental factors affect them too.”
Likewise, a 27 year-old Yakima-based social worker, who asked to remain anonymous, is experiencing doubts about having kids due to the risk involved with her husband’s work as a police officer. More recently, she says the protests over George Floyd’s death, which have sparked a rapid change in people’s views of law enforcement, have shaken their sense of safety and further influenced the couple’s thoughts on family. She says she isn’t alone: many other law enforcement families she knows are going through similar changes of heart, she says, primarily because they don’t know where the larger societal conversation about law enforcement is going to land.
“People have been driving by, taking pictures of our home so that they can come egg it, or threaten us. That’s one thing for us — but to feel like we’re putting a child in danger, I think is a whole other thing. A lot of other police wives I’ve talked to that have kids are having the conversation of — if school goes back in the fall, who knows, but if they do — do we teach our kids to lie about what their dad or mom does? So that [other kids] don’t hate them or make fun of them?”
At the same time, there are some families who want to bring kids into a world that is reckoning with police violence and race. Emily Pinkerton, a 34-year-old mother of one, says that the white community’s newly-invigorated response to the Black Lives Matter movement has given her hope for the next generation.
“I feel like a lot of the barriers imposed by white supremacy are coming down in my white community in a really good way. The parent group at the daycare [my son goes to] has organized a book club where we educate ourselves about what we can do as adults and in raising children to be antiracist. That kind of thing makes me want to have another baby to bring more people into the fold,” she said.
Still, Pinkerton and her husband, who have a three-year-old and were hoping to have a second child soon, are grappling with whether bringing new life into the world during a pandemic is responsible — or even feasible for them financially, emotionally, and physically right now.
“I think [I am still] taking into account all the risks,” Pinkerton said. “There’s the gestational risk, there’s the having to go into a medical establishment risk, then [there’s] knowing that I might not be able to have the birth experience a certain way, like I might not be able to have a doula, for example. And, my parents are really risk-averse, so that creates a lot of sadness thinking, well … what [does] that mean for emotional closeness and physical support once the baby is born?”
“There’s also the financial component,” she added. “While my husband and I are both able to work from home [currently], I also acknowledge that one of us could lose our jobs quite easily, and that also factors into not feeling comfortable with the idea of shaking it up and getting pregnant.”
Whatever the specific reason that has tipped the scales for each person or couple, these millennials noted that forgoing parenthood does upset them from time to time. Still, many mentioned that they believe this is the responsible choice for themselves and the world.
“I feel sad[ness.] And shame. And grief. But more like, it’s something I still want but it feels wrong,” said Ulsh. “I feel like it would be irresponsible to bring a child into a world where it feels really uncertain and really unsafe.”
Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based writer.
Featured image: Sourced from Flickr.