I am 34 and baby-less. This morning, I read an article on The Atlantic’s website, that eternal spring of gender and generation trend pieces, telling me I’m in good company. New findings from a think tank called the Urban Institute show that birth rates among millennial women in the U.S. are the lowest in history. The brains there speculate that the recession has slowed us down (babies are expensive), as has our reluctance to marry.
The numbers aren’t surprising, but, as I read, hot blood rushed to my face, and I started to chew my lip. I was rage-reading. The piece, by Olga Khazan (herself a childless millennial), is reported and informative, rather than editorializing, but it’s shot through with language that implicitly disregards us childless women as narcissists without a care for anything beyond our next Soul Cycle class.
For starters, she opens by saying it’s no wonder millennial women relate to Girls so well. The cartoonishly narcissistic characters have time to fight over indie songs, art openings and friends being late for dates—“the kinds of problems only childless people complain about.” Read: trivial problems. OK, sure. I have time to fret over my new boyfriend’s weird texting style and finding an effective hair texturizer. But I also worry about the really big things: Will I be barren by the time I’m in a position to have a child? If not, will my kid inherit a world on the brink of environmental apocalypse? How do I reduce the chances of said apocalypse? On the flip side, becoming a mother doesn’t magically turn you into a Zen master. Sure, babies radically re-prioritize your life, but I know plenty of new moms who agonize over minor things, like whether to feed their kids name-brand Cheerios vs. the generic, which has 0.5 grams less sugar per half cup (a true and ongoing argument had between my sister and her baby daddy).
Later, Khazan says that 20-something women are “enjoying living carefree and childless into their 30s.” My 20s were the most angsty decade of my life. I was tortured by choosing a career path and, once I did, wiggling my way in the door, which often meant working for free and racking up huge debt to do so. I was also figuring out who the hell I was and generally dealing with the disillusionment that comes with adulthood. I did get to sleep till noon on weekends, but usually because I was gripped with insomnia the night before. My sister, after a period of sleeplessness due to her one-year-old’s erratic schedule, recently said to me, “Jesus, Ray, now I know how your insomnia feels.” Life – baby ≠ carefree enjoyment.
And the kicker? After listing the national fallout that may occur from my generation’s slow reproductive rates—impaired economic growth, generational imbalance akin to Japan’s—Khazan cements her vision of Gen Y’s who-gives-a-f-ck-about-the-greater-good attitude with “Yeah, why worry? Millennial women aren’t.” I’m reminded of an excellent duo of essays in How to Be a Woman by the British feminist writer Caitlin Moran, in which she argues for and against having children: “When you have young children, you are useless to the forces of revolution and righteousness for years. Before I had my kids I may have mooched about a lot but I was politically informed, signing petitions, and recycling everything down to watch batteries… Six weeks into being poleaxed by a newborn colicky baby, however, and I would have happily shot the world’s last panda in the face if it made the baby cry for 60 seconds less. The cloth diapers were dumped for disposables; we lived on ready meals. Nothing got recycled. Union dues and widow’s mites were cancelled—we needed the money for the disposables and the ready meals.” Parents don’t have time for the trivialities but many also don’t have time for the greater good. And, for every self-obsessed Hannah Horvath, there’s a do-gooding Lena Dunham or Karlie Kloss using her childless time to make a better world for the next generation of women—whether they birth that generation or not.
Related: Caitlin Moran’s Career Advice
I don’t mean to pick on Khazan. I’m just highly sensitive to—and tired of—the conflation between having kids and being a productive, upright adult woman on the one hand, and not having kids and being a self-indulgent layabout on the other hand. It’s an especially annoying binary because it’s rarely applied to men. The study only measures birth rates among females, but surely that means fewer men are having babies, too, non? Yet they’re not being called out for possible population de-stabilization. The anxious think pieces about them focus on their declining graduation and employment numbers—education and work. That’s how their masculinity and contribution to the world are measured. Our contribution, it seems, still implicitly lies in our ability and willingness to have kids. As Moran says, “We need more women who are allowed to prove their worth as people, rather than being assessed merely for their potential to create new people.”