Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Is parenting scarier than ever?
When 37-year-old Heather Marcoux was expecting her son several years ago, she and her husband assumed it’d be the first of multiple pregnancies. “We certainly thought we’d have more than one,” says Marcoux, who lives in Alberta, Canada. But today, the parents are very clear that their now-primary-school-aged son will never have a sibling. “We can offer our one child a pretty good standard of living,” she says. “But if we added any more kids, it would go down significantly.”
It’s in part a financial decision; even with Marcoux and her husband’s incomes combined, childcare is a struggle, and saving is impossible. But it also has to do with a lack of support and doubt about the future. “I feel like another child would be a burden we just could not handle,” says Marcoux. “Some days we just think it feels so impossible what we’re trying to do with one. How could we make [our dayto-day lives] work with more? The world is just different now.”
The global birth rate is falling. That’s not necessarily news; it’s been on the decline since 1950. But the decline in more recent years has been especially stark: in 2021, the global fertility rate is 2.3 births per woman; in 1990, it was 3.2. A new Pew Research Center survey found that a growing percentage of childless US adults ages 18-49 intend to remain that way. In every single European nation, fertility in 2021 was below the 2.1 births per woman generally considered the “rate of replacement” for a population. In a number of those countries, birth rates hit record lows.
It’s not hard to imagine why young people are hesitating to have large families. Financial stability is more difficult to achieve than ever. One in 10 non-retired Americans say their finances may never recover from the pandemic, and significant inflation could be looming in Europe. In many places, home ownership is all but a pipe dream. Political and civil unrest is rampant across the world, and climate is in crisis. It’s easy to adopt a dismal view of the future. “The central explanation is the rise of uncertainty,” Daniele Vignoli, professor of demography at the University of Florence, said. “The increasing speed, dynamics and volatility” of change on numerous fronts, “make it increasingly difficult for individuals to predict their future”.
Economic uncertainty extends past employment, to housing uncertainty. A recent study by researchers at the Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton, UK, showed the usual assumption that people would own a home before having children – one that was backed up by data until about 2012 – no longer holds true. Financial realities now mean young people have to choose between owning a home or having one or more children.
“This disconnection between owning a home and becoming a parent has significant implications for parenthood in general,” said lead researcher Professor Ann Berrington. “If homeownership is increasingly competing with the costs of having children, then it is likely that those who do manage to buy a home might well postpone or even forego having children.”
Marcoux says the pressures of paying a mortgage and maintaining a home are part of the reason she won’t have more children. It’s scary, she says, to think that something catastrophic could happen and throw the family into financial crisis. On top of that she worries that she isn’t providing enough for her son.
For would-be parents, these financial concerns can be compounded by worries over political and civil unrest, both local and global – fears that can be further exacerbated by the constant presence of media in our lives, which can amplify conflict and division.
While wars and political issues have been a reality for nearly every generation, everywhere, parents today arguably face a world that seems much scarier than that of their own parents or grandparents. Despite higher-than-ever life expectancy, improved technology and access to modern healthcare, omnipresent media means we’re more hyper-aware of all the world’s terrifying goings-on, from food shortages to school shootings.
Data from the most recent Global Peace Index shows civil unrest has more than doubled in the world over the past decade, with a significant spike in 2020 alone, when it increased globally by 10%. Forty years of data across nations that experienced civil conflict shows fertility rates fall by up to one-third during periods of instability. People have fewer children when they’re terrified by what their progeny might have to contend with.
Marcoux also feels divisiveness impacts people at the neighbourhood level, too. There’s a lack of community, she says, that makes parenting a lot harder – and lonelier – than it used to be. “When I was a kid in the early 1990s, all the moms on the block were stay-at-home-moms. Everybody was always around, you knew your neighbours and you had community support,” she says.
Marcoux says she doesn’t feel that support, and being isolated in her own community adds to the fears of modern parenting. “We don’t even know our neighbours. I think community has really eroded,” says Marcoux.