According to The Wall Street Journal, the United States is experiencing a baby lull that looks set to last for years.  At the onset of the recession in 2007 the US fertilty rate dropped sharply from a pre-recession average of about two babies for every adult woman.  The lower rate translates to about 3.4 million fewer births between 2008 and 2015, according to Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.  There are now worrying signs that it may not be going to fully recover any time soon which does not bode well for the US economy.  

Yet, America’s fertility rates are still higher than most of Europe and parts of Asia, where the total fertility rate is now as low as 1.44 in Germany and 1.49 in Italy.  So why are people still not having babies despite economic recovery?  According to demographers, “a swirl of social and economic factors is damping births in the U.S.”  

One reason being discussed is the cost of women pulling back from their careers to have children; more women are now graduating from college than men in the US. Education is a good thing but the resulting emphasis on career can be tough.  There is no denying that a hectic pace of life and the, sometimes competitive, establishment of ones career makes having very many children unattractive to many women.  It is now also more common for highly educated women to wait to have children until later in life, meaning many are only able to have one or two, and some none at all.

It is likely this very situation that led Meg Mason to question whether she would have preferred to be a 1970’s mum in a humorous article published in an Australian newspaper last week.  Motherhood must now compete against career and the balance is hard to strike.  While changes were afoot, in the 1970’s life had not moved away from staying home with children being the norm just yet.  Mason writes:.

I’m starting to wonder if, because she didn’t have it all, my mother had it better. No one ever peered at the newborn in her pram and asked when she was going back to work, as though laundering 50 tiny singlets between feeds is a form of me-time that can only be justified for so long… 

Since “Ring Mum” happened to be point five on my list, I picked up the phone, needing suddenly to know whether she actually did feel oppressed, bored and restricted, as I’ve always — lazily — assumed.  Or was it … quite fun … to do the gardening in a bikini and a layer of SPF4 Hawaiian Tropic while your children played down the road? … What did she actually do all day, I wanted to know, and was she happy? Which is to say, happier than me?

“The main difference I see is that my life was lived entirely in-house, and yours is entirely out,” says my mother. “We were the last generation of career mothers, and it was all the domestic things we did that gave meaning to being at home. Once you take those away, you have to go outside the house to gain any sense of purpose.” And outsource all the things she spent her days doing: the dinners, the cleaning, the parties and sometimes, even, the parenting.

There can’t even be a question of whether I’d rather live and mother as she did, since the world that allowed it doesn’t exist anymore. I work because I have to and can and want to, and like all mothers, do the best I can at that, most of the time.  But is there anything she envies me for? Anything she wishes she’d had access to, something she thinks we’re doing better?

After a considerable pause: “Well, children seem to drink more water now, instead of cordial.” Right then. That’s all? “If I think of anything, I’ll make a note and text you.” 

Mason also touches on the sometimes absurdity of a situation which means that mothers are “on the cusp of permanent adrenal failure”:

we shout at our children to hurry up in the morning, then look at pictures of them on our phones at work. As columnist India Knight wrote in 2009, despite so many “advances”, ask a working mother if she’d like her daughter to have a life like hers when she’s older and, “For an increasing number of women, the answer now seems to be a resolute: ‘Absolutely not’.”

Will future generations of women find more flexible work solutions which achieve the all elusive balance of career and children?  Or does this mean the next generation will choose to go back to being ‘1970’s women’ who dismiss full-time careers altogether in favour of embracing homelife along with more part time occupations?  Although hopefully without resurrecting bell-bottom pants. Either way, governments the world over are now looking at ways to attract women to motherhood because our economies depend on birth rates recovering.  Which means our economies depend on mothers.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...