The “baby boom” predicted at the beginning of the pandemic is now widely acknowledged to have been a baby bust. Though there was an assumption that people would take the opportunity to procreate while stuck at home, instead states have reported large declines in birth rates for December 2020, nine months after lockdowns began in March.
This shouldn’t come as such a shock. As long ago as June 2020, the Brookings Institution predicted that there would be up to half a million fewer babies born in 2021 than in 2019 (3.3 vs. 3.8 million) due to the economic recession resulting from the pandemic. (They recently announced they believe that prediction is still on track.) They based this expectation on fertility trends during past cataclysmic events like the 1918 Spanish Flu and the 2008 recession; after the latter, the birth rate decreased by 9%. This would make 2021’s birth rate an all-time historic low.
This isn’t exactly surprising to economists, who say that financial stability plays a huge role in the desire to have kids. Meanwhile, higher unemployment, like the historic job losses we have seen in the past year, particularly among women; high-mortality events such as the pandemic; and the stress resulting from both, are all associated with lower birth rates.
The “unromantic” part of fertility is that it’s always primarily been driven by economics, says Dr. Hannes Schwandt, an economics professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, who researches the connections between economics and fertility. What appears to be new during COVID, however, is that among wealthier and more financially stable people, fertility actually seems to have shot up. There is no firm data for this yet, and Schwandt said there isn’t likely to be for a while. But a survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in spring of 2020 shows that at least some people saw the pandemic as an optimal time to get pregnant. While one-third of surveyed women wanted to delay pregnancy or have fewer children because of the pandemic, with Black, Latina, and lower-income women more likely to say they want to do so, 17% said they wanted to have a child sooner or have more children.
“For some people, like those with the ability to work from home and who have reduced work travel, this may be an easier time to have a child,” study author and Guttmacher Institute Principal Research Scientist Laura Lindberg, PhD, told Refinery29. “Additionally, some families are increasing their savings — those with steady paychecks and less opportunities to spend their income on things like travel or dining out. This may also make those families feel more secure having children during the pandemic.”
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed quite a lot to support this phenomenon. I’m a white woman in my mid-30s who is financially stable — I am one of the people Lindberg has described as increasing their savings, though I wouldn’t classify myself as wealthy — and able to work from home, and I’m pregnant. I’ve also seen a deluge of pregnancy and baby posts among my friends on social media for months now, which makes sense based on all my demographic info. I had to ask Schwandt why that may be.
“It could well be that this is the first time in a recession where some groups have increased fertility,” Schwandt said. “This is something that is ahead of research, even though it's almost certainly true, and it's something very special about this recession and pandemic.” Unlike millions of others, this group hasn’t lost their jobs and still enjoy higher salaries. Many of them are able to work from home in their pajamas and take midday naps when they’re tired — no trudging through long commutes while pregnant. These workers are also more likely to have access to benefits such as parental leave through their companies. The wealthiest among them are able to pay for nannies, private tutors, and homeschooling, taking the childcare responsibilities off their plates during work hours — a constant burden on many working parents, particularly mothers, during this era. And some have enough financial support not to work at all if they so wish, without worrying about dwindling savings or losing out on wages. Schwandt said that though scientists haven’t analyzed data about this group yet, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if his colleagues took it up in the near future.
It could well be that this is the first time in a recession where some groups have increased fertility. This is something that is ahead of research, and it's something very special about this recession and pandemic.
Dr. Hannes Schwandt, economist
“Being pregnant during the pandemic, I felt, was the perfect time,” Jocelyn Nemett, 34, in Centre Wellington, Ontario, told Refinery29. She is almost 38 weeks along, has two small children, and works part-time as a nurse in a family physician’s office, where she has proper PPE and isn’t exposed to actively sick patients. Plus, “because pregnancy can be so exhausting at times, I haven’t felt as though I have been missing out on much since there just isn’t much going on,” she said. “If we had waited for the pandemic to be over to become pregnant with our third baby, the timeline I had always hoped for would be severely delayed.”
There are certainly upsides for pregnant people who are able to work part-time, like Nemett, or even from home. But in the long term, Schwandt said, this inequity could contribute to existing structural inequality and systemic racism, both of which the pandemic has already exacerbated. “Babies in a ‘normal’ recession become [on average] whiter, unfortunately, because economic disadvantage is strongly tied to race in the U.S.,” said Schwandt. “These distorting impacts are probably even more dramatic this time around.” Plus, unlike in a typical recession, we’re seeing a stronger imbalance of who is affected across industries because of the logistical differences between work-from-home jobs and jobs that require people to be physically on-site, like those in the service industry.
But the reproductive choices of many of those who do work from home have been affected by the economic downturn, too — in part because there is a stigma at some companies against remote workers, despite the fact that staying home is safer right now.
Jen*, 35, told Refinery29 she was laid off shortly after the pandemic started and she began working remotely. At that time, she and her husband were set on having a third child — they currently have two small children — but now, she said this prospect is looking more and more impossible. Jen has been unemployed for 10 months, feeling increasingly hopeless with each job interview that doesn’t go anywhere. Money is already tight in her family, so unless she gets another job soon, having a third child will take a huge financial toll. She’s had to cut a lot of corners. “For my kids’ birthdays now, we don’t do gifts — everybody just gets one little trinket from the front of Target, that's like $3 or whatever,” and long-wished-for home-renovation projects are on hold, she said. She describes often feeling frustrated by the uncertainty of the experience. “It doesn’t really feel like my choice that this delay is happening, it feels forced on me and that’s frustrating.”
For some people who got pregnant before the pandemic and have given birth during it, staying home has proved to be a big advantage.
Anita Patel, MD, 38, a pediatric critical care doctor and professor in the D.C. area, had her daughter Sita after IVF treatments in April 2020. While she experienced many difficulties — a last-minute emergency C-section, postpartum anxiety and depression — she says she feels lucky because she both gets to work from home and has a part-time nanny.
“One of the huge silver linings of the pandemic has been that when I’m not seeing patients in the hospital, I get to work from home,” Dr. Patel told Refinery29. “I do a lot of research, and I ended up writing a whole grant three months postpartum. My husband has been working from home the whole pandemic, too. We have both had steady jobs, and while we’ve had some loss of income, it hasn’t been as significant as what many others have experienced. We’ve also been privileged to have a part-time nanny to help out, and my parents [who live in the area] help out as well. So we have someone to help with childcare five days a week, so we can effectively work from home, but we also get to take our lunch break and play with Sita. I also truly don’t know if I would have been able to continue breastfeeding her if I had to be at work every day, because pumping is just a pain in the butt. The fact that I get to directly breastfeed her during the day has been just such an incredible, incredible gift.”
Hannah Morrison, 28, a lifestyle blogger from a suburb of Dallas who lives with her husband and two children, gave birth to her son Rory in April 2020 and says that, although she has always worked from home, the pandemic has meant she is able to spend more time at home while pregnant, and with the baby and her three-year-old son, Knox. “There have been so many silver linings, to be honest,” Morrison told Refinery29. “Being a work-from-home mom, I have always done the parent-from-home with a laptop nearby thing. However, I think the way I parent has been deeply impacted. I find myself having conversations with my three-year old I never thought I would have at such a young age, and it honestly has been really special.”
Economic privilege isn’t the only type that’s played an increasingly important role during the pandemic. Many people who want to have children but are dealing with fertility issues, have had to put fertility treatments on hold, delaying or canceling them due to clinics being closed or prohibitive costs. In this way, the crisis has exacerbated yet another inequality.
Christina Yannetsos, 37, an ER physician in Denver and the co-founder of Colorado Fertility Advocates, was diagnosed with a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea in her 20s which contributes to infertility. In the beginning of the pandemic, Colorado stopped performing elective procedures, including IVF, which put an indefinite hold on Yannetsos' and her husband’s goal of having a baby. At the same time, Yannetsos was facing an overcrowded emergency room, treating patients who were on ventilators and having to tell children that their parents had passed away. Layered on top of the punishing physical difficulty of fertility treatments, this was unbearably stressful.
“[It was] intubating patients, putting them on ventilators, then coming home, disrobing in my garage, and jumping in the shower immediately hoping that I’m not going to bring something home to my husband,” Yannetsos recalled. “I remember having conversations with kids being like, ‘Your mom is really sick and we're going to put her on a ventilator,’ and them asking me, ‘Is she going to die?’ And here I am, trying to become a mother and taking care of mothers who were being taken away from their kids. It was really tough.”
Finally, paying for the treatments has been a struggle, too: She still has major student loans to pay off from medical school and has never had a job that provides insurance to cover fertility treatments — so she has had to diligently save in her flex-spending account and occasionally max out credit cards.
Just as Yannetsos was about to attempt another round of IVF in November, the second wave of COVID hit and her emergency room filled up again. Soon after, Yannetsos tested positive for COVID the day before an egg transfer. “I got the result back and it was positive. I hysterically started crying. I mean, like absolutely ugly-cried because I was anticipating this so much, this hope that something good will happen. It was crushing,” she said. Yannetsos ended up recovering after about two weeks of moderate illness, and subsequently getting vaccinated. She was then able to undergo her most recent and third round of IVF, which was again unsuccessful. This spring, she plans to try again despite the setbacks.
The “pregnancy privilege” divide is only one way in which the pandemic has made the lives of parents and pregnant people more difficult and even more unequal. Pregnancy discrimination is widespread, maternal mortality rates — particularly among Black women — are some of the highest in the developed world, childcare costs are high, and the U.S. is still the richest country in the world with no mandatory paid parental leave. At the same time, women do a disproportionate amount of childcare and other unpaid domestic labor, which is a major reason so many women have voluntarily left their jobs during the pandemic. One in four women is considering either downshifting her career or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19, according to a survey by Lean In and McKinsey.
So while there has been a lot of alarmist talk of how low birth rates are terrible for society, the real crisis is that this pandemic has further eroded our social safety net and created an even bigger economic and class divide. Why should people have more children when, for ages, our government hasn’t prioritized policies that benefit parents and children? As Moira Donegan recently wrote in The Guardian, “Pro-natalism arguments such as these are never entirely devoid of sentimentality about family life, and they tend to make assumptions about women’s roles and responsibilities that are grounded in regressive, sexist and simple-minded ideas.”
Schwandt said that a lower birth rate is, indeed, not as disastrous a thing as some would suggest. “Everyone's screaming about, ‘Oh God, fertility is going down. That's so bad,’” he said. “No, that's not bad. People always want to make a bad story out of everything because that is what sells, that's what gets your headlines.”
And yet, looking at the current baby bust in a holistic way means losing sight of the individual toll the pandemic is taking on those who just want to build their family, something which Schwandt notes is unequivocally bad. Because while I feel both relieved and fortunate to be in a position to have a baby right now, I’m also acutely aware that everyone who wants to have children should feel secure in their decision to do so — without having to worry that it will bankrupt them.