Demographers are complaining, but Americans have many good reasons for not wanting so many kids.
Last year, American women gave birth to the fewest number of children in the past three decades. The total number of children born in 2017 was 3.8 million, down 2 percent from the previous year. The birth rate decline was most noticeable following the 2008 recession, but now the economy has picked back up and the birth rate has not followed. Apparently this has demographers and social scientists in a tizzy, fretting that the U.S. may "become like Japan, where adult diapers outsell baby diapers." So if Americans are not as interesting in having kids as they once where, what has changed?
Women are having more honest conversations about what it means to be a mother, and how very, very hard it is. The expectations placed on moms these days are more demanding than ever, described in Marie Claire as "a domestic throwback to the '50s, combined with the '80s-era working mom." In other words, they're expected to do it all.
"A 2015 study found that American mothers now spend 13.7 hours a week with their children, compared to 10.5 hours in 1965–even though a significantly larger percentage of mothers also now work outside of the home. The combination, for many, is exhausting."
There is a growing movement of women who say they wish they'd never had kids, and it's even making the front covers of major media publications, such as Maclean's (Canada's version of TIME), and its huge recent feature called "I regret having children."
Just look at some of the challenges that new parents face. It's nearly impossible to find the medical caregiver you want. Women in my province of Ontario have to get on the midwives' waitlist basically as soon as they're done peeing on the stick, if they want to take advantage of the excellent provincially-funded midwifery care. Same with daycare spots; you put your fetus on a waitlist and cross your fingers that there will be a place by the time he or she is a fully-formed human. (The birth rate is even lower in Canada, with 10.3 live births per 1,000 people, compared to 12.2 in the U.S.)
Then there is the U.S.'s appalling lack of parental leave benefits, shared only by Papua New Guinea. Perhaps if the U.S. rethought its approach and adopted a model similar to that of Germany, where recently implemented benefits have stimulated the plummeting birth rate, then many U.S. adults would reconsider having children.
On a more positive note, the lower birth rate reflects women's relatively new ability to choose whether or not they want children and to prevent pregnancy. From TIME: "It turns out that once women have the means to control reproduction, they will almost always choose to have fewer children." This became particularly apparent to me when a refugee woman I knew requested birth control as soon as she landed in Canada; back home in Syria, she said, women cannot get birth control without a husband's consent -- and her husband wanted more than the 12 children they'd already had.
One cannot talk about birth rates on a site called TreeHugger, however, without mentioning that it is far better for the planet not to fill it with shopping, consuming American babies. Did you know that the U.S. comprises 5 percent of the world's population, but consumes 24 percent of its energy? The average American consumes as much as 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, and 370 Ethiopians. (More eye-opening consumption habits here.) It's ultimately the environment that bears the brunt of so many new people, and if they all maintain lifestyles and diets on par with that of the average American, it compounds the environmental woes that we face already, from deforestation to climate change to plastic pollution.
All this is to say, I don't see the declining birth rate as a bad thing. It means women are taking control of their bodies, enjoying their careers, social lives, and partnerships, and realizing that they do not need to be defined by motherhood in order to feel fulfilled. More are choosing this, and by extension helping the planet; for that they should be commended.