Why I, Like So Many in My Generation, Can’t Make Up My Mind About Having Kids

One millennial’s journey to the heart of parental angst.

millennials having kids

Why aren’t more millennials having kids? Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images, Illustration by Bruno Guerreiro

It seems like it used to be easier. Or at least that there wasn’t much deliberation involved.

First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes the baby
In the baby carriage.

My future rolled off my tongue in a nursery rhyme on the playground long before I was old enough to understand the concepts of love, of marriage, of babies — or of expensive-as-hell baby carriages, for that matter.

But I’m 32 now, and it’s not easy at all. Yes, I fell in love, and I just got married a few months ago. Once my husband and I entered wedded bliss, we started looking to do married-people things that weren’t in the song: buy a house, get our 401(k)s figured out, assess health-care plans. But the baby in the baby carriage? For now, the kid question hangs between us, unanswered.

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One recent Thursday evening, as I cooked scrambled eggs for dinner in my Fairmount apartment, I called my mom, who lives in Scranton, in the same house where I grew up. I told her I was working on a story about having kids. She had three cesareans in order to give birth to me (born in ’87), my brother (’90) and my sister (’94). I asked if she’d ever questioned whether or not to have children. It was a solid no. As she started talking about that time in her life, her voice softened — it was almost like I could hear her smiling.

She told me she was positive she wanted to be a mother — three times over. Even after the first two required surgery.

But that made sense. She came from a big family. My grandma had 10 kids. Ten. Two of them died in childbirth. She raised my mom and her seven siblings alone, because my grandpa left her and moved to Las Vegas. She worked as a nurse and eventually went on to get graduate degrees. How did she do everything she did with all those kids? I wished she was still around so I could ask her about it. Because here I was, ideally situated — educated, solidly middle-class, married, employed — yet suddenly unsure if I wanted even one kid.

It’s not just me. My generation is firmly entrenched in its child-rearing years, so this life decision is front-and-center. In the past few months, I’ve read six stories about kid-conflicted 30-somethings in national magazines and listened to three podcasts devoted to helping dithering women like me — including one that featured a “reproductive psychiatrist.” (Turns out there’s a growing market for these, as well as for “baby-decision clarity mentors.” Yup. Look it up.) It’s a topic that comes up with my friends and co-workers often. The number of babies born in the United States in 2018 was the lowest in 32 years.

None of this should really come as a surprise. Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996, roughly) look at the world differently than our parents did. Every step of the way, my generation has questioned the conventional paths our parents took, opting instead to try to build a future that’s more in line with what we value, what we believe to be better.

We think differently because the world we live in is so different. The challenges we face on the daily are many, and because of that, we’re rooted in an ever-present state of uncertainty and anxiety. For many of us, income inequality is real, and college was out of reach. Plenty of others who had more comfortable upbringings and more family support are still cash-poor. We’re tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Many of us are employed but have little hope for significant income improvement or long-term job security; the climb up the ladder feels slow or nonexistent. We work evenings and on weekends and call it a “side hustle” to try to brand it a little more pleasantly. We are riddled with depression — our health is declining faster than that of previous generations. And we’re inheriting a world that seems to be, quite literally, on fire (California) and flooding (New Jersey). One major generational hallmark is a sense of impending doom.

The women of my generation have an especially altered perspective. We grew up with third- and fourth-wave feminism — surrounded by literature and voices that insisted women should be given their due but often weren’t, because society and culture hadn’t quite gotten there yet. Through these lenses, we watched the way gender and power dynamics played out in our own families. Across racial, cultural and economic boundaries, we observed how moms took smaller salaries and hit glass ceilings; we saw the division of labor fall heavily on women, who ended up with the bulk of the child care and housework, at least in cis-hetero relationships (which were the status quo back then).

What’s more, divorce rates in this country were at their highest point during the ’80s and ’90s, and so many kids (like me) lived through situations in which our mothers were left behind, stranded with limited career options and young children. We saw our moms, aunts and grandmas get the short end of the stick in one way or another.

Amid this general pessimistic outlook and the current chaos of the news cycle, the neat packages we carelessly assumed would be a given for us back when we were little — married by 28, a house with a backyard, kids a few years later — now seem out of reach, if not downright fanciful. Like relics from another time.

Silly rabbit, kids are for the ’80s.

All of this has made many in my generation question what makes for a successful and meaningful life. We saw how our parents sacrificed for us, and we’re just not sure we want that. Maybe this makes us “selfish,” as some say. Or maybe it means we’ve got different priorities and perspectives on where meaning can be found. Maybe a full, rich life is one that’s overflowing with creativity, travel, exploration — all stuff that kids make more difficult.

There are, of course, plenty of millennials — many of my close friends included — happily having babies, without any of these doubts. And many others are so committed to having families that they must work through infertility issues. But the numbers tell an interesting story. The fertility rate in 2018 was the lowest it’s been in this country … well, ever. And that cuts across all racial lines. In Philly, total births hit their lowest point in a decade in 2016. And the share of childless women ages 15 to 44 in America leaped from 35 percent in 1976 to 49.8 percent in 2018.

There’s no single reason for the across-the-board birthrate drop in this country, but experts speculate that it’s a lingering effect of the recession, since a bad economy means fewer children. They point out, though, that it could also have to do with the fact that women are more educated, more career-oriented, and more upwardly mobile than ever before. Fertility is definitely tied to socioeconomic status: A New York Times article noted that first-time mothers in 2016 were older in urban and coastal areas and younger in rural areas, where there isn’t as much gender equality or economic opportunity. Plus, couples are marrying later than ever before.

(Worth noting: These declining birth rates probably won’t impact the overall U.S. population because of high immigration numbers. Pennsylvania’s population is expected to increase in the future.)

millennials having kids

Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images, Illustration by Bruno Guerreiro

I asked my friends and acquaintances if any of them were wrestling with this kid conundrum. Those who already had children acknowledged all of these factors as true but said they paled in comparison with the fulfillment they felt parenting. “You just figure it out,” one mom of two young children told me matter-of-factly. She also told me it wasn’t about logic — it was about love. But many others feel differently, or just don’t feel called to have kids. “I’m 35 and recently single,” one friend, Elizabeth Fernández-Viña, told me when I called to chat about her perspective on parenthood. I’ve known Elizabeth, who works in education in South Jersey and lives in South Philly, for years — we met in a running group. “I’ve been working very hard, in school or at my job or a combination of both, for my entire life. I moved up professionally pretty quickly, and now I’m an assistant principal. I think finding a balance between my professional and academic goals and having a child would be difficult,” she said.

There are other factors at play, too. Elizabeth’s mom moved to the U.S. from Cuba and worked hard to raise her with the help of her own mother. “My mom was a single mom, and I wasn’t convinced that the person I was with wanted to be the father of my children,” said Elizabeth. “I don’t want to raise children on my own.”

But Elizabeth isn’t really panicking about her relationship status, which makes sense, considering that medical advances and egg-freezing make it possible for women to put off the decision until later. On top of that, the concept of family and marriage has shifted in the past few decades. There’s no longer one right way to be in a relationship or have a family. Nonbinary and LGBTQ+ couples are much more accepted in the U.S., especially in major cities. And that’s not the only way relationships are changing: A 2014 Pew Research report predicts that 25 percent of millennials will never get married. It’s not unusual now for people to marry and never have children, or live together and never marry, or even live next door to one another because the thought of living together makes them ill.

Infertility used to be a reason to dissolve a marriage, and voluntary childlessness invited disdain across many cultures. That’s sometimes still the case, but change is coming rapidly. Millennial-focused websites such as Bustle bristle with clickbait-y titles like “14 Quotes About Being Child-Free, Because It’s Nobody’s Business But Your Own.” And more people than ever choose to refer to themselves first and foremost as “dog parents.” (To be fair, I would die for the kitten my husband and I just adopted.)

Plenty of millennial women I’ve encountered say they want to be aunts. This has led to the creation of a somewhat awkward new term: PANK (for Professional Aunt, No Kids), joining the more ubiquitous term DINK (double income, no kids). My younger sister recently sent me a meme on Instagram that read: “Baby fever, but like in an aunt way.”

It reminded me of something Liz told me: “I actually really love being an aunt and would love to skip all the way to being a grandma,” she said. “I would love to have a strong emotional connection to a child, but I don’t know if it necessarily has to be my own for me to feel fulfilled.”

One of the nice things about marriage is that it often brings financial stability. But my first and largest anxiety about having kids is financial. I just don’t think my husband and I are going to make the extra couple thousand a month we’d need to be able to support a kid (or kids) in the way we’d want to — at least, not anytime soon.

We’re both well-educated. Together, we bring in a decent income. We live comfortably now — we have a nice apartment and a car-share and bikes to get around, and we can order Grubhub sometimes and pay off our loans. We travel, albeit mostly on credit-card points. But neither of us sees rapid income growth in our immediate future.

And we’d need it. The cost of delivering a baby in the U.S. with private insurance can be upwards of $10,000. The annual average cost of day care is about $10,000. Then there are all the other expenses: doctor visits, health insurance, clothes, food, toys — extra plane tickets for when we travel.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says families shouldn’t spend more than seven percent of their income on child care — but there’s no state in the country where that’s a reality for parents, according to a 2018 analysis by Child Care Aware of America. The government recently estimated that raising a child born in 2015 through her 17th birthday will cost $233,610. And then comes college. Higher ed feels entirely out of reach — the cost to attend a university increased nearly eight times more than wages did between 1989 and 2016 — and Aunt Becky is shelling out big dough to make sure her influencer baby gets ahead of yours.

millennials having kids

Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images, Illustration by Bruno Guerreiro

Several women I spoke to expressed the same overarching concern I have: We just can’t afford to do for our kids what our parents did for us, and that feels like failure. It’s not just that many women my age don’t want to have kids; I’ve always wanted kids, but I’m terrified of falling into financial ruin. According to a recent New York Times study, the difference between the number of children American women want to have (2.7) and the number they’re likely to have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.

Lindsay Fiegleman and I were discussing this over cocktails last fall. We met while I was working on a different story for the magazine — she works full-time and also has her own accessories line that’s sold at local stores. We instantly bonded because she grew up near my hometown of Scranton, and she’s also 32. She expressed the same fear of failure: “If I were to have kids, I would want them to grow up with as positive of a lifestyle and family dynamic as I had, or greater,” she said, underneath the dim globe pendant lights at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown.

She’d just been hired as the head buyer for URBN’s newly entered Asian market. She now spends a lot of time in Shanghai. And yet: “I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to where I’d like to be financially if my salary was taking care of another person — and paying for child care on top of that.”

My friend Nikki Volpicelli, a 32-year-old writer who lives in Fishtown, echoed the sentiment. “The main reason I don’t want kids is because I’m still working on digging myself out of student debt 10 years later,” she said. “And I envision my future being one where I travel and enjoy life with my partner debt-free.”

My husband feels the same: Like me, he always wanted kids (we often joked about it when we were dating — he wanted two, I wanted three), but he also thought life would be more linear and he would feel more established by now. He thought graduate school would bring him enough money to provide for a family. But that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s fearful of what the economic stress would do to us.

A concern that came up as often as money in these conversations was the environment and climate change. Reminders of imminent doom are everywhere. Headlines like “I Got a Vasectomy Because of Climate Change” and “Why Don’t You Want Kids? Because Apocalypse!” flood my social media feed. When I watch Big Little Lies, Laura Dern’s second-grader is having an anxiety attack about the Earth melting. When I walk to my neighborhood yoga class, I pass a flier for a “Climate Beers” event at Triple Bottom Brewing. It’s led by the Philadelphia chapter of Extinction Rebellion, whose website notes, “A child born today will have a short, miserable existence unless we, as a people, force government and industry to change immediately.” Cool, cool, cool.

When I hear about a major disaster, my mind goes to my womb: How could I shield a child from world destruction?

The idea that major disasters are going to become more frequent terrifies me. When I hear about one, my mind goes to my womb: How could I shield a child from world destruction? Plus, I’d be adding to the problem! My baby would steal more resources and amass plastic junk made in China. That’s a lot of guilt to bear. An article in the Guardian“Want to Fight Climate Change? Have Fewer Children” — said the best way to reduce your carbon emissions is to breed less. One local mom told me she installed solar panels on her house because she felt so guilty after having a child.

Yet even amid the messaging we’re constantly receiving, other women my age (all new moms, actually) told me this was B.S. They thought the climate-guilt argument is a red herring, a trick to distract us from the real Earth-bashing culprits: giant Jeff Bezos-esque corporations pummeling our resources. I had to admit, the more I considered it, the more I agreed. Was my hypothetical baby really the problem when the literal Amazon is being slashed and burned?

On one of my usual Monday-morning commutes to Old City, I popped open The Cut’s podcast. I had been mindlessly walking through the damp stone tunnels of the Broad Street spur, but when I heard the topic of conversation, I paused. The episode was called “What If You Regret Becoming a Mom?” It featured a conversation between reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks and a 35-year-old named Anne who never wanted to be a mom — but now was one.

As Podcast Anne told it, she felt despondent during her entire pregnancy, but everyone reassured her that when her baby came, it would be different. Her child was now two, and she was still miserable and regretful.

Shit! I thought. That’s my worst nightmare.

Podcast Anne grew up in a hard situation. Her dad, she felt, had been irresponsible; he left her mother caring for Anne while he chased financial success in California and then, when he died there unexpectedly, saddled her with a lot of debt. “Any sort of life with kids … looked difficult to me,” Anne told the therapist shakily. “I didn’t see any real excitement and joy to be a parent. Thinking about my mom and my aunts … they were the ones waking up in the morning and cleaning the house and cooking and spending the money that they have on their children, for their husbands, people around them. … ” She went on: “My mom never shopped for herself. That is pretty much how I envisioned what a parent is or what motherhood is, and I can’t do that. And I’m really hard on myself, and I know if I didn’t do it that way, then I’d always feel like I’m not being a good mother.”

It was heartbreaking to listen to, but also illuminating. Anne sounded like so many women I interviewed about this subject. Her stumbling blocks were those of a generation that grew up with financial uncertainty, a high divorce rate, parents eager to prove that they were better than their own parents — inherited foibles that are hard to unpack. Issues that are in our bones.

I was so fascinated by the episode (both the subject, and the fact that They! Broadcast! A! Therapy! Session!) that I texted a friend when I got to work. She told me she intentionally skipped the podcast when she saw the title because it was too on-the-nose.

Spurred on by the podcast, I started internet-searching on my own for reproductive psychiatrists and motherhood clarity mentors. After spiraling down a Google rabbit hole, I landed on the homepage of San Francisco Women’s Therapy, where the psychological offerings were described thusly: “Deciding whether or not to have a baby is a fundamentally life-changing decision. … It can be difficult to tell the difference between the biological urge for motherhood, the inclination to surrender to pressure from your family and society, and your own deepest desires for motherhood.” It resonated.

I didn’t see a baby-decision therapist myself, but I probably wouldn’t pass up the opportunity. I sometimes feel like the life I’ve cultivated is at odds with motherhood. This isn’t new — every woman (and man) facing potential reincarnation as a parent has these doubts. But I do think my generation’s perspective is different because of our circumstances.

Feminism continues to evolve, and most men my age are way more educated about the issues that women face than they were just a decade ago. But despite best intentions, women continue to shoulder more of the domestic and child-related work. A study by Michelle J. Budig, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found there is still a fatherhood bonus and a motherhood penalty, and that men earn six percent more when they have and live with a child, while women earn four percent less for every child they have.

How do I square that with my ambition and pride?

Then there’s the distinctive millennial (all-gender-encompassing, mind you) perspective on happiness and a life well lived: We want to travel. We want to go out to cool experiential dinners. We want to be unencumbered — unlike our parents.

Those parents told us from our babyhood that we could do anything we wanted to do. They told us this because it was exactly what their Depression-era parents didn’t tell them. That’s one major reason we have the confidence to live the kinds of lives that we want to — and also why we’re afraid of not living up to the expectations that were set.

“I want to retire early because we have a select time on this Earth, and I don’t want to waste it working. I don’t feel like paying for college, nor would I want to strap a kid with the burden of loans. I also wouldn’t want to set the kid up for failure.” That’s my 28-year-old guy friend we’ll call Chris (he requested that his real name not be used), who works in accounting in Center City. “I had a very awesome, loving family and a privileged upbringing. I don’t understand why my parents sacrificed what they did. Maybe it’s because they all grew up poor. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m strapped for cash because of day care, college, kid sports.”

Like Chris, I was taken care of, shuttled to soccer games, given every book I ever wanted. I was told I could do anything, and that I could be great at it.

The flip side of this is that many of us lived through some serious achievement-based parenting: We knew we had to get into good colleges and balance our extracurriculars so we could grow up to be successful and secure and, more than that, find our passion. To make our parents, who doted on us, proud. So we could live our dreams, be successful, and return the favor when they got old.

We did what we were supposed to. We went to college and sometimes graduate school, got good jobs, worked hard — yet we still ended up in an economic situation where our wages aren’t high enough and the things we need to buy cost too much money, where we’re never able to outpace our loans, where our parents still foot our cell-phone bills and help with security deposits. We checked all the boxes and still ended up in a losing battle, living with a gnawing internal shame about our failure to “grow up.” Do we want to put our hypothetical kids through that kind of pressure?

We don’t have the same built-in hope for a better future that our parents had for us — in fact, we have the opposite. I’m not only unsure the future will be better; I’m afraid it will be worse. We may be the first generation that can’t optimistically look forward to a better situation for our children. Basically, we tend to be short on hope.

Many people I spoke to for this story admitted they were afraid of having kids because they were afraid of more stress. They’re afraid of losing what happiness they have, which generally comes in the form of free time at night and on weekends — precisely when they would be taking care of kids.

“Anxiety about having children is a real concern,” David Fask, a clinical psychologist and therapist in Bryn Mawr, said when we talked on the phone for this story. “There are many valid reasons to be anxious. Children are enormously time-consuming and financially burdensome, and they radically change one’s lifestyle and sense of identity. Children also can fundamentally change one’s relationship with one’s partner. This, in and of itself, can be a source of stress and anxiety. For many, children are a joy, but they’re almost universally a source of stress.”

The relationship aspect struck a chord. Studies show that kids, especially young kids, at least temporarily diminish relationship and marital happiness — and that leads to decreased life satisfaction, since your relationship with your partner (if you have one) is one of the biggest predictors of overall happiness. Then we’re back to the beginning: What if we get depressed, get divorced, and end up like our moms?

Better to just spend the extra cash on trips to Greece, no?

And yet. In those same studies, empty nesters report higher life satisfaction than those who have younger children do. Another study, by University of California, Riverside-based happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, found that parents across the board report higher levels of happiness than non-parents do, “suggesting that the rewards of parenting may be more ineffable than the daily highs or lows.”

This makes complete sense, of course. The reasons to have children are primal, indelible and profound — they speak for themselves. In fact, they ring out in my head just as loudly as my anxieties do. So is the real problem that I just don’t know what I want? Or that I know what I want and am angry that I feel set up for failure?

millennials having kids

Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images, Illustration by Bruno Guerreiro

My friend Chelsea Fleming acknowledged that things were different after she had her daughter. She had to balance her art and writing with the needs of the tiny person she’d created. Not long ago, I watched a video she posted on Instagram of her two-year-old destroying her vision board, which hung on her wall and was filled with clippings, photos, sayings, things that kept her inspired. My eyes widened in horror as the kid tore off magazine pages, art cutouts, pictures of beaches and a sign that said DREAM.

I texted Chelsea a series of crying emojis.

“It’s just different now,” she wrote over iMessage. “I feel scattered. Like there’s Goldfish in every purse, random diapers everywhere. I have so much stuff and never anything I need. It’s like I’m going camping 24/7 — but without a bonfire and bourbon.”

Then she continued: “But it is fulfilling in a really weird way. And I think it’s good to do things you’re afraid of.”

A beat later, another text: “I think you guys would be great parents.”

Recently, someone 10 years younger than me asked if I had any advice about a career in magazines. I said something to the effect of, “I love it, but I can’t count on it. The industry is changing; money is scarce. I’m going to do it as long as I can before it inevitably becomes unsustainable. Then I’ll use my skills to do whatever else I can.”

Her response was that I was “pretty fatalistic.” And she was right. But I don’t just feel that way about writing — I feel that way about life. Should I buy a house? Maybe, but most of the East Coast is going to be underwater in 100 years. Should I have a baby? Maybe, but I’ll probably end up poor and depressed. This is essentially an ingrained defense mechanism: Plan for the worst outcome, and maybe you’ll survive it.

If I have a baby, I’ll end up poor and depressed. This way of thinking is a hallmark of my generation.

This way of thinking is known to be a hallmark of my generation. We’re well-versed in uncertainty. We’ve been formed in a world that’s constantly in flux, where everything from politics to the environment to business and personal finances looks a little unstable — a little untrustworthy. (Maybe that’s why we live and die by positive meme affirmations.)

Our situation is different from that of any generation that came before us. We’re the most skeptical, and we put a lot of energy into trying to deal with that. We live in a world marked by patent absurdity. (Donald Trump is president; The Masked Singer is a legitimately popular TV show; our careers are best exemplified by a meme of a cartoon dog in a room on fire saying, “This is fine.”) Previous rules simply don’t apply.

In short, we’re a pessimistic lot. And having a baby is a fundamentally optimistic thing — perhaps the most fundamentally optimistic thing you can do.

The hope is that the tiny human you’re creating will have a good life, ideally one that’s better than or as good as yours. The truth is, I love imagining my husband and me having little kids. I love picturing a mini of me and Anush, with his curiosity and my enthusiasm. I love the idea of my parents being grandparents, my siblings being an aunt and uncle. I love the idea of creating a little someone who will discover lightning and baseball and Harry Potter and remind us of how very surprising and magnificent everything actually is.

So, can I, and the rest of the bleakennial generation, trend toward the light?

The other day, I was having breakfast with my friend Kate Thompson, a Bucks County native who now lives in Fishtown. We met in college, back when we ate cheese-steaks every weekend and played Mario Kart. Now we were grown-ups, splitting pancakes and eggs and catching up on life.

Kate works a full-time job in pharmaceutical clinical trials, plus two other jobs on the weekends — at a gym and a restaurant. She’s determined to pay off her student loans in the next 10 years. We bond over this shared aspect of our personalities; like many of my generation, I take on extra work to try to make more money, too. We both love working too much; we both love living in the city. I asked if she thought it was smart for people like us to have kids.

“Kids are a gamble under the most desirable conditions,” she said. “It’s nature vs. nurture. You can have all the money and resources and be ethical and do everything right … and there’s still no way to guarantee a good future.”

I nodded and sipped my coffee.

“At the same time,” she said, “I feel like if you want kids — if that’s what you want in life — then none of this matters.”

“Yeah,” I said, chewing slowly. I had nothing else to say, because she was right. All of it mattered, of course. But it also deeply didn’t. My husband and I could come up with every rational reason on Earth, calculate and measure the financial disasters and government failures and environmental onslaughts, pinch pennies and still want — despite all of it — to grow our family.

And the truth is, I do want kids. I just don’t know if I should have them. I feel this way, and I’m infinitely luckier than so many in much worse economic and relationship situations who have nowhere near the success and support systems I have. It makes total sense why many women are choosing to abstain from parenting altogether.

During that call with my mom, I also asked her if she thought I should have kids. Much to my surprise, she wavered. “I don’t know,” she said. “I loved having kids. But the world seems so crazy these days. It’s scary to think about bringing children into it.” She was having anxiety for me.

I couldn’t disagree, and yet I instantly bristled. Why was she always sheltering me? Telling me what to do? The world is just fine. I can figure things out for myself!

“Come on! Grandma had all of you right after World War II,” I counter-argued. “How bad could things be right now compared with that?”

She acknowledged that was true.

“I’m sure we could figure it out somehow,” I said huffily.

So, memo to boomers desperate to become grandparents: Tell us millennials that we shouldn’t have kids, and those fertility numbers should go up immediately.

You’re welcome, America.

Published as “I Kid You Not” in the February 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.