Like many other kids, I loved playing with dolls growing up. I found brushing their hair, swapping their outfits, and making them hug after a particularly vicious catfight to be a delight, rather than a chore. As was the experience for many children, there were elements of maternalism in the joy I took in taking care of my dolls. I believed they were mine to take care of, mine to love, and I worked to fulfill these duties.
But as I grew up, things changed. I kept my dolls in a box in the corner of my room out of respect for the fun they’d once been, but I didn’t see the appeal in playing “mommy” anymore–it seemed to me more of a chore than something that contributed to my individual happiness. As my sister envisioned potential names for her future children and my friends took pleasure in caring for their baby relatives, I noted my own lack of interest in such activities. When I reached adolescence, I realized that I had drifted further from my former maternal instincts than I’d thought: I realized I didn’t particularly want to ever have kids.
At first, I assumed my indecision was simply an abnormality: after all, the cultural norm seemed to remain that all girls wanted babies, and would eventually find husbands who felt the same. But the more I conversed with people my age, the less isolated I realized my feelings were. I discovered that my indecision concerning parenthood was reflective of a generational shift away from labeling parenthood as a necessary stage of life.
As it turns out, more young people than ever are choosing not to have children. Studies from the National Center for Health Statistics show that current birth rates in America are at an all time low, with less millennials choosing to have children than older generations could have imagined. Generation Z kids like myself are expected to have even fewer children.
But why are so many of us suddenly so anxious at the idea of becoming parents? Contrary to what some may believe, it isn’t simply because people don’t “like” children anymore. Instead, the negative trend in birth rates seems to be chiefly rooted in the economic insecurity of a generation. Members of my generation are navigating a market in which jobs are becoming more competitive, student loan debt is in the trillions, and buying a house has become as elusive of a fantasy as the Baby Boomers retirement yacht. Especially for those who do not receive financial assistance (or a small loan of one million dollars) from their parents, the economy is more unfriendly to young people than it has been in a long time.
As a result, members of my generation are beginning to view children as a luxury they simply cannot afford. Clothing, food, education, and healthcare, among other things, are necessary yet expensive investments into a child’s future. Plus, studies show that the cost of raising a child in America has grown exponentially, rising 40% in the last decade alone. This, coupled with rising living expenses and an accumulating student debt, has instilled a fear in young people of not being able to achieve the stable income needed to support a family.
But it isn’t just money that’s holding people back from having kids. In tune with their American optimism, plenty of parents still attempt to raise children despite the economic odds against them. So it goes to reason that there’s another lingering reason for people’s inhibition to have children–the same reason, perhaps, that I stopped enjoying taking care of my dolls. Specifically, this pertains to young people’s changing attitudes toward individual happiness and self-fulfillment. Members of previous generations may have agreed that the journey of parenthood was essential to living a fulfilling life, but many young people, myself included, aren’t as convinced.
As a result of growing up in an era that touted self-esteem, self-care, and greater emphasis on the self in general, millennials and members of Generation Z are choosing more frequently to focus on their own personal happiness and relationships–a trend which has earned our generation the title “Me Generation” by some. Many people are simply no longer finding it necessary to rely on parenthood to lead a fulfilling life.
Critics old and young have presented backlash to this cultural shift. Some people, including Pope Francis, claim that the choice not to have children is essentially selfish. They stress the greed and self-indulgence apparent in a generation which would rather live a leisurely life than a meaningful one, implying, of course, that life cannot be meaningful without experiencing parenthood.
But others wholeheartedly disagree. In fact, some even argue that the choice to have children is selfish. After all, they argue, many of the people who choose to raise children are in some way unfit to do so. According to this argument, many parents lack the knowledge, economic means, and/or emotional availability to raise a healthy child, but do so anyway out of the selfish desire to have a child which is their own and carry on their bloodline. USC student Anshuman Patnaik, for example, views parenthood as a decision that should be reached rationally–an attitude he does not think previous generations held. “We think things through more than older generations did,” he explained. “We understand overpopulation, we know our planet has a carrying capacity that we have crossed, and we would rather not raise a child [at all] than raise a child badly.”
Parental Perspective: Anshuman Patnaik
As a freshman at USC who plans to pursue a medical doctorate upon graduation, Patnaik is unsure of many of the factors that make up his future, including the possibility of parenthood. His primary concern seems to be financial. “With residency, fellowship, specialization, all of this… by the time I have a job, I’ll be in my 30s,” Patnaik deduced.
In addition to the practical obstacles of becoming a parent, Patnaik also expressed some of his fears for bringing a child into America’s current political and social turmoil. “The education system is shit, healthcare is going to shit… [and] apparently people want guns.”
Still others view adoption, rather than natural birth, as the more practical option. Lilia Destin, a freshman at USC, explained that she would like to be a parent someday for the conventional desire of “raising kids” and “sharing [her] values,” but sees herself doing that primarily through adoption. “There’s so many kids that need homes, all over the world,” she explained, “I want to be able to be that person that takes them in and loves them.” Still, Destin respects the choice of others to have or not have kids.
But why does it matter how other people react to an independent adult’s decision to have or not have children? It should be easy enough to simply make your choice, ignore the haters, and let life go on–right?
The reason such criticism is problematic is that for most people, being shamed is an unpleasant experience. And being shamed by society your entire life for a decision you made to preserve your own happiness and/or security can be downright destructive. Plus, it can push you to have children you never really wanted, negatively impacting both yourself and the child.
Lilia Destin, a freshman at USC, sees herself having kids in the future but not in the traditional sense. When asked if she’d like to be a parent someday, she explained that she would, for the conventional desires of “raising kids” and “sharing [her] values.” “But,” she paused, sighing, “I think I’m more interested in adopting kids.” When prompted, Destin explained further: “There’s so many kids that need homes, all over the world. And there’s just so many kids that grow up in the system, without having that feeling of like… I will have a family. I want to be able to be that person that takes them in and loves them.”
As a member of Generation Z herself, Destin has plenty of friends who express more insecurity than she has in the realm of parenthood. And she understands why her friends are considering the option not to have kids: “I mean, it saves a shit ton of money,” she said bluntly. But she also seemed to understand the emotional motivations of people choosing not to have money, explaining “Why live your life if you’re not feeling fulfilled in what you think is right, and what you want to do?” She expressed understanding of why some people may choose not to have kids in order to preserve their own well being, concluding “Honestly, I think that’s OK.”
It should also be mentioned that the playing field is different for different genders. A double standard continues to exist–one that shames bachelorettes who don’t want to become mothers, but doesn’t reserve nearly as much negative attention for the eternal bachelor. In previous generations, this meant that many women became mothers less out of choice, and more out of succumbing to various societal and familial pressures.
For the most part, that double standard still exists–just look at how Jennifer Aniston, who chose not to have children years ago, still has to clarify that she’s not “damaged goods” to the press. But to some extent, the social landscape is shifting. In the opinion of Ann Davidman, a “Motherhood Clarity Mentor” whose job is to advise struggling young mothers, “there is far more permission to choose a child-free life than there has ever been.” Women who make the choice not to start a family in the traditional sense now have more resources to feel supported doing so, and are fortunately facing a little less shame.
Parenthood, as can probably be attested to by members of every generation, can be a wonderful thing. And indeed, plenty of young people today agree that few experiences in life can replicate the sense of purpose, joy, and education which raising a child brings today. UCLA student Brenda Coronel, 25, who had her first child at 19, loves her daughter and has no regrets. “I wasn’t doing so well, without my daughter,” Coronel admitted. “I didn’t care about myself, I didn’t value education. But after I became a mother, I realized that education is the key to success. So now I’m confident… I can get a good job and be able to support my daughter.”
Brenda Coronel had her first child at 19 and is a proud mother. Coronel recounted that when she first had her daughter, her parents were disappointed. They feared having a child would get in the way of their daughter’s academic and professional goals. But according to Coronel, having a child actually helped her gain the motivation to pursue an education. “I wasn’t doing so well, without my daughter,” she admitted. “I didn’t care about myself, I didn’t value education. But after I became a mother, I realized that education is the key to success. So now I’m confident… I can get a good job and be able to support my daughter.”
While Coronel herself has always wanted children, she acknowledges that not everyone may feel the same. “What [other] people do, it’s their life’s choice,” she clarified. Coronel also understands that not everyone may have the fiscal means to make the decision to be a parent, and therefore shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. “Why bring a child to this world that you can’t afford, you know? It’s gonna make you struggle,” she explained. “It’s gonna make that child struggle.”
Coronel does admit that she wished he had gotten married before becoming a mother, but regardless of the circumstances that brought her daughter, Zoey, into the world, Coronel loves her daughter and has no regrets. “She brings me my joy,” she concluded happily. “I actually find joy in taking care of her.”
Even as proud mothers like Coronel continue to exist, our generation is experiencing an undeniable shift. And such a shift should not be seen as shameful or wrong, but rather natural and at times simply practical for the individual. Parenting is not for everyone–especially for those who cannot afford it, or those who simply don’t want kids. Instead of shaming others for this choice–or even the indecision young people face surrounding this choice–it would do everyone a little good to leave such judgement to higher powers.
And, for the love of God, leave Jennifer Aniston alone already.
Photo Credit: Jose Cardenas