When we were first told to lock down, stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives, many joked that 2020 would be the year of the Christmas Day baby. A few weeks of being unable to go to the pub or out shopping would surely mean that couples stuck at home together would make their own entertainment. Nine months on from Boris Johnson’s 23rd March announcement, when we imagined the coronavirus pandemic would be far behind us, we would see its legacy: a COVID-19 baby boom.
Urban legend has it that spikes in birth rates follow power cuts, flooding and natural disasters as people huddle together for warmth and comfort in the face of boredom or adversity. Last year, however, it quickly became clear that lockdown was far from a three-week power outage and that, as the crisis unfolded, parents and expectant mothers perhaps had it tougher than anyone else because of working, from home or not, with their childcare suddenly pulled out from under them.
In fact, far from a COVID baby boom, a report by PwC in January this year predicted a 'baby bust' as a result of the economic shock of the pandemic and accompanying recession. While stats from Italy and the US suggest that other Western countries are seeing a decline in new babies, the Office for National Statistics is yet to publish the UK’s birth rate for 2020. But has the pandemic actually put British women off having kids? And if so, is this effect permanent?
For Nina*, at least, it has been. The 32-year-old had her IUD removed at the beginning of last year and, at the start of the pandemic, she and her husband were "actively trying to conceive". The couple, who live in the West Midlands, were excited to have a child, particularly as all their friends already have kids.
As the weeks drew on, though, their perspective began to shift. Far from feeling trapped and bored working from home together, Nina says they realised "how much we actually like each other". They spent their newfound free time exercising, cooking and going for walks together. Conversely, faced with the closure of schools and nurseries, their parent peers struggled to manage.
We saw how all of our friends were struggling to juggle work and the demands of targets, childcare and the usual household chores. It made us question how much more there was to being a parent than we had first thought.
"We saw how all of our friends were struggling to juggle work and the demands of targets, childcare and the usual household chores," she says. "It made us question how much more there was to being a parent than we had first thought."
Before long, the couple were rethinking every aspect of becoming parents. "We thought about the financial implications of me scaling back my work hours, the added household costs, childcare costs, the weekends that would be taken up with football or dance or swimming, the fact we would have another person to consider before we made plans, and what all of that would mean for our life," she says.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that witnessing parents struggle during the pandemic has been off-putting for many women. During the first month of lockdown, the Office for National Statistics found that in households with children, women were taking on an average of two-thirds more of the daily childcare duties than men. Parents could request to be furloughed due to childcare issues but their employers weren’t obligated to agree to this and 46% of mothers who were made redundant by July 2020 said that childcare issues had played a role, according to campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed.
Then there were the frightening practicalities of giving birth under lockdown. When the pandemic began, birth partners were only allowed to be present when the mother was in 'established labour', meaning she is four centimetres dilated. In August last year, most NHS trusts would still not allow partners to attend prenatal scans and as the months drew on, the rules women were subject to became something of a postcode lottery.
Valerie Fleming, professor of women’s health at Liverpool John Moores University, has observed some "ridiculous" applications of COVID restrictions during the last year. "One woman said her husband was going to be allowed in for the last 20 minutes of her labour," she recalls, explaining that this was later relaxed so that the woman's partner could be present. "If they can't get the support of the other parent during labour, it's pretty bad."
Support from health visitors has frequently been offered only via telephone or video call during the pandemic, which Professor Fleming says is useful for simple checks for things like nappy rash but less effective for problems that require a closer examination.
"When it's a mother and, say, she’s had stitches after childbirth, to do that over Zoom is so, so undignified," she says. "Strip off and hold your perineum up to a Zoom camera? No!"
For many of us, a seismic shift in the way we live our lives, whether that’s losing a job, being bereaved or just adjusting to living life at a two-metre distance, has made us think hard about our priorities and what’s important to us.
For Emma, the last 18 months have been a period of life-altering change. The 27-year-old, who lives in Birmingham, lost her father at the start of the pandemic and, in September, she started a new relationship. Alongside these events, she also says that the loss of freedom which accompanied COVID restrictions has made her reflect on what matters most to her in the long term.
"It put things into perspective a little bit for me that my calling wasn't necessarily motherhood," she says. "I enjoy things like travel and experiences a lot more."
"I’d always, in past relationships, been with people who very much wanted children and I sort of went along with it," she continues. "And then the lady that I met is very similar to me, where she prefers life itself, experiences, travel, a lot more than motherhood."
The pandemic put things into perspective a little bit for me that my calling wasn't necessarily motherhood. I enjoy things like travel and experiences a lot more.
Emma says that now she’s in a same-sex relationship, she feels less subject to the weight of expectation that falls on many women to have children. Her father’s passing also put her feelings about having kids into perspective. "I'd always had pressure from family: 'When are you going to have children?'" she explains. "And then I realised life is short – do what makes you happy."
Bernice Kuang, a demographer at the University of Southampton, tells me that research suggests there may be two kinds of women who have been turned off parenthood by the pandemic. These are postponers, who delay having kids, and abandoners, who leave their plans behind altogether – the latter being more likely to apply to older women.
"If you talk to someone who is 28 now and says, 'I never want to have kids', it would probably be a little premature to call them an abandoner because they would still potentially have time to change their minds," she says.
Many women in their 20s are resolute in their decision to remain childfree, however, and aren’t taking any chances. Sophie, 29, from south Wales, had been approved for sterilisation prior to the first lockdown and says that the pandemic has "solidified" her feelings even further.
"I've been seeing parents online complaining about having to have the children around and teaching them," she says. "I've been so glad I don't have to deal with those issues. I don't take joy in other people's misery but at the same time I do think, Oh my goodness, how lucky am I?"
If birth rates have fallen amid the pandemic, this will be a continuation of a decade-long trend, says Kuang. She is working on research with the Centre for Population Change exploring why fertility increased between 2000 and 2010-12, and has since declined. "If you look at the past 20 years in the UK, it's like this upside-down V shape," she says, explaining that birth rates have "plummeted" since the beginning of the 2010s.
Whether this trend will continue, and for how long, is tough to predict as the pandemic – and recession – is far from over. Just as some claim that the pain of childbirth is quickly forgotten, it’s possible that the 'roaring twenties' might blur the memory of seeing parents struggle to juggle work and childcare during lockdown. But for many women, the decision to stay childfree is something joyful, not a choice that they’re expecting to regret.
*Name has been changed to protect identity