Martha Farnsworth Riche

(WOMENSENEWS)–A record number of women are childless, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But for Barbara Downs, the census report’s author, the big story is not the childless rate but what is happening with working mothers.

In addition to the lower fertility rates, the survey showed fewer women with infants in the labor force. In 2002, 55 percent of women withinfants under 1 year old were in the labor force, down from 59 percent in 1998. Thegreatest decline occurred among white mothers over 30 with at least some college education.

"Something is going on but we’re not sure what," says Downs.

A recent New York Times magazine article touched on this trend with a cover story about a small group of elite women who had down-shifted from the career fast track.

For David Popenoe, such stories–combined with the census data–reveal a conservative trend among the younger generation of women.

"They feel that the feminist revolution is to some extent a success and they don’t have to keep fighting that," says Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project, a think tank at Rutgers University in New Jersey that examines U.S. marriage trends. "And they’re not quite so much into their jobs anyway. But they also feel–especially perhaps those who grew up in broken homes–that they would want to spend more time with their kids than their own parents did with them."

Few Mothers Can Forego Incomes

Popenoe notes that the number of women opting out of the work force is still fairly limited since–unlike the mothers featured in the article–few women can afford to forego their own incomes.

Amy Caiazza agrees, but also wonders if those women who are choosing between careers and children feel forced to do so by the weakness of the U.S. culture’s commitment to high-quality and affordable child care.

"If someone decides they can’t have it all–that it’s too difficult because we as a society have not addressed a whole range of policy issues that are associated with having two parent working families–is that really a choice?" asks Caiazza, study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research based in Washington, D.C. "Yes, you’re choosing between two options. But in another sense you’re between a rock and a hard place."

The results from the survey of 50,000 households taken in June 2002 were released last month in the Census Bureau’s biannual report on the fertility of U.S. women. Among the findings: a record 44 percent of women between 15 and 44–or 26.7 million–have never given birth. That is up 10 percent from 1990, when 24.3 million women in that age range were childless.

"What we are looking at now essentially is people just having the children they want," says demographer and former head of the Census Bureau Martha Farnsworth Riche.

The numbers appear to confirm the well-documented trend of women either putting off motherhood or choosing not to have children at all.

"Part of what we’re looking at is a generation that has grown up assuming they are going to have reproductive rights," says Caiazza of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. "They assume they’re going to have control over contraceptive decisions and abortion. And with that comes the mindset that says ‘I can decide when and if to have children.’"

Caiazza adds that women now have choices and having children is no longer every woman’s ultimate goal.

‘Opportunity Costs’ of Motherhood

"This is the first generation of women who have had equal opportunities to men in education and career," says Riche. "That increases the cost of having children even more, because you add what economists call ‘opportunity cost.’ What is the woman forgoing by staying home?"

According to census data, women with higher incomes had the highest childless rates. Just over half of Asian women were childless, followed by 46 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 39 percent for blacks and 36 percent for Hispanics.

Last year, about 33 percent of all births were to unmarried women, about the same rate as in 1998. Black women were more likely to give birth outside of marriage than Hispanic or white women.

Popenoe, with the National Marriage Project, says few women choose to remain childless and the increased number of childless women is due largely to women delaying both marriage and childbirth. "Of course," Popenoe says, "the older the woman is the less likely she is to be able to have a child."

For the first time, the census looked at the new mothers who live with an unmarried partner and found they accounted for 8 percent of all births.

"That’s the most rapidly advancing trend on the family scene today," says Popenoe. "And it reflects to some extent the delay of marriage, that people live together first. And to some extent and I think to a growing extent the weakening of marriage. People don’t want to commit for the long term and are hedging their bets, so they’re just living together."

According to the census study, 18 percent of women at the end of their childbearing years–between 40 and 44–are childless, a figure that has held steady since 1995 but is up sharply from 10 percent in 1976, when the census first started keeping track.

Caiazza points out that some of these so-called childless women may be adopting, which would not show up in fertility statistics.

Trend Mirrors Other Industrialized Countries

The trend of women bearing fewer children is occurring in other industrialized nations, such as Germany, Italy, France and Japan. While those countries’ population are declining, however, this is not so in the United States. Even with an increasing number of childless women, the population is growing because those who do give birth are having more children on average than other countries.

"We are the only ones that are really replacing ourselves through birth," says Riche. "And because we accept immigration, we are the only industrialized country that has a robust population growth."

As she considers the latest fertility statistics and the discussions underlying them, Riche, takes a generally positive view of what it all means for younger women. "I had no kids because I was told that I had to make a choice (between children and career) and I made a choice," says the demographer. Then, she says, came the female baby boomers, who believed in "having it all" and wound up spending most of their time working.

With that experience to guide them, women in their 20s and 30s can now see their choices fairly plainly, according to Riche. "You can have it all at once and be under a lot of stress and strain or you can have it sequentially," she says.

With higher life expectancies, she says, women are looking at 50 years of potential work life. So for them to "sequence"–or take time away from their careers to be at home with their children and then go back to work when the time is right–will not cost them as much as they think, she says and adds that changing and recycling careers is now much more common.

"It’s really up to what people’s preferences are," Riche says. "So they can do it. They can stay home and still have a career."

But Caiazza takes a different view, saying most women–and their husbands–are still left with "no satisfying answer and not a whole lot of sympathy from policy makers."

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer in New York.



For more information:

U.S. Census Bureau–Fertility of American Women:

The National Marriage Project: