A version of this post was originally published on Jan. 14, 2022. It has been updated.
In January 2020, I was contemplating having my IUD removed. Part of me was terrified at that prospect, for a number of reasons: for one, getting it placed hurt more than childbirth, but also, I had two kids under 4 and was already losing sleep at night fretting over how to balance childcare with my freelance work. But part of me was thrilled. I loved being pregnant, I loved giving birth (don’t @ me, but it’s true) and I could only imagine how big my heart would grow with a third tiny human in our home.
But just two months later, before I had even worked my way up to scheduling the removal appointment, the world as we knew it ended.
When the pandemic hit, I, like millions of others, was suddenly trapped indoors with two toddlers, scrubbing down groceries, feeling grateful my husband and I both had jobs that easily allowed us to transition to lockdown life while also swapping childcare shifts like we were playing freeze tag. We spent the long days trying to work while simultaneously entertaining and home-schooling two young kids. Any precious downtime we had was spent doomscrolling on our phones and nodding along with all the think pieces about how hard things were for working parents.
One night, as we slumped onto the sofa after an especially long day once the kids were blissfully, finally asleep, we just looked at each other and acknowledged, tears in our eyes, there’s no way. We can’t manage all of this with an infant. Not now. Maybe not ever.
That was the moment that changed everything.
It was the uncertainty of practically every aspect of life back then that made it impossible to plan for the future. We didn’t know what the next morning would look like, much less if our jobs were stable or how a family of five would fare in this newly unrecognizable world. Going to the grocery store felt like taking your life in your hands. That was two years ago. We still barely know how to plan, and I’m already two years older.
The pandemic robbed me of my dream for another baby.
Of course, we weren’t alone or unique in this. Motherly's 2022 State of Motherhood survey revealed the largest percentage of millennial and Gen Z moms* ever who say they do not plan to have more children. When examining survey results from 2018 to 2020, on average, 57% of moms said they intended to have more kids. In 2022, just 42% of moms say they plan to have another child.
Recent research from The Brookings Institution backs this up. From October 2020 to February 2021, there were 60,000 predicted births that didn’t happen. Those missing births correspond to a lack of conceptions in January through April 2020. Apparently, a public health crisis isn’t good for fertility. Similar declines in birth rate were seen during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
This time around, the largest reductions in birth rates were most common among highly educated women, women in their late 30s and 40s, and in those who already had at least one child. This suggests that “pandemic-related factors beyond economic challenges were important drivers of the observed reduction in births,” write the study authors.
For me and thousands of others, the pandemic plagued us with unprecedented worry and fear about the future.
“Psychology is an important factor,” says Phillip Levine, a professor of economics at Wellesley College and co-author of the report, to The Washington Post. “You might not be a front-line worker, you might not have lost your job, yet you still are scared. You could be more worried about the health implications of being pregnant and being exposed to Covid, or the ability of the medical care system to handle the demand and tend to your needs.”
From what I read and heard from friends, being pregnant early on in the pandemic sounded like living hell. Fertility treatments were put on hold. Prenatal checkups were done over Zoom or in the passenger seat of a car, pants rolled down. Some mothers were forced to labor and deliver their babies alone in the hospital. Some mothers were separated from their infants immediately after birth if they tested positive.
And it wasn’t just parents who struggled—babies did, too. A 2022 study found that babies born during the pandemic—even to mothers who didn’t have Covid—performed slightly worse on developmental screenings than pre-pandemic babies. Pandemic stress affects the babies and children we already have, as also evidenced by the mental health crisis impacting school-aged kids and teens.
That night on the sofa, I knew, deep down, I needed to save my emotional and physical energy for the children I had already brought into this world. Exhausted every evening, a shell of my former self, I realized I couldn’t risk throwing off our already precarious balance.
I still mourn our family of five that could have been.
While my husband processed our decision much more quickly, I still have maternity clothes hanging in the back of my closet. A corner of our basement remains piled high with a mini mountain of containers holding tiny onesies and board books, topped off with an infant bath tub and the bassinet that cradled both of our older kids. We’re slowly handing things off to family and friends. I try not to look at it.
I still have that IUD. I worry increasingly often that my uterus has begun to envelop it and it will become permanently molded into my body, the cold copper filling my womb where a new baby could have been. That it will be incredibly painful or require surgery to remove because it’s been there for so long.
I’m still working to accept that the pandemic forever altered our path, that we do need to move ahead with the incredible love and endless joy we have for each other, for our family of four.
I know we will. I know we’re so fortunate. But I still have room in my heart for one more child.
Motherly designed and administered this survey through Motherly’s subscribers list, social media and partner channels, resulting in more than 17,000 responses creating a clean, unweighted base of 10,001 responses. This report focuses on the Gen X cohort of 1197 respondents, millennial cohort of 8,558 respondents, and a Gen Z cohort of 246 respondents. Edge Research weighted the data to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the US female millennial cohort based on US Census data.