The headlines seem to suggest reason for alarm: The birth rate in the United States is at its lowest point since the 1980s according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it isn't necessarily physically harder for women to have babies. Rather, what is more challenging is navigating motherhood itself as a result of ongoing workplace penalties, rising costs of living and other discriminatory social factors.
In fact, 85% of mothers said society doesn't do a good job of understanding and supporting them, according to Motherly's 2019 State of Motherhood Survey. So it's little wonder that many women are opting to delay childbirth, have fewer children or forego motherhood all together.
When she had her first child in 2016, Erin H. tells Motherly she was disappointed by how resistant her employer was to respecting her request to scale back from 50+ hour work weeks. "The work culture was very much about exerting yourself at all costs and if you leave at 5 p.m., you're not working hard enough," she says. "I knew I had to leave if I wanted better work life balance, especially with a baby."
She says she had the ability to step back and evaluate her career options because of her husband's income. But in the State of Motherhood Survey, 59% of working moms said their primary reason for staying in the workforce is their "financial need to contribute to household income."
When motherhood and careers feel incompatible, the only practical option for some women is to delay or re-evaluate their family plans. "To the extent that some women would want to be mothers if it was financially viable, but don't want to risk good careers or poverty, that's not a free choice," Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, an associate professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, tells Huffington Post. "Women are painted into a corner."
The irony is mothers are productive workers who add to the value of their workplaces—yet many are still discriminated against for having children. According to one study published in the American Journal of Sociology, "mothers were judged as significantly less competent and committed than women without children" and were "held to harsher performance and punctuality standards."
Another survey of more than 3,000 employers by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom confirmed these prejudices with one in three bosses saying pregnant women and new mothers are "generally less interested in career progression." As far as what's appropriate to ask during the interview process, 59% of the employers said women should have to disclose whether they are pregnant and 46% of the employers said they should reveal whether they have young children.
Just getting to the interview stage can be tough for a mother, as one study found mothers returning to the workforce after time as a stay-at-home parent were "about half as likely to get a callback as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents."
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, the study's author, Kate Weisshaar, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, explains that the bias against working parents both pushes them out of work and keeps them from returning.
Simply put, inflexible schedules, long hours and a lack of legislated parental leave are not likely to result in a rising birth rate.
But there are better ways, as demonstrated in other countries that both see higher rates of satisfied working mothers and fertility rates that are not "plummeting." Specifically, as noted in The New York Times, "developed countries that prioritize gender equality—including Sweden, Norway and France—have higher fertility rates than those that don't."
Germany, a country whose declining birth rate was a source of worry for decades, just recorded its highest number of births since the 1970s, thanks in part to family-friendly legislation like a parental leave policy that sees both parents to receive two-thirds of their prior earnings while on leave, and a legal right to a daycare spot on your child's first birthday.
So while recent headlines would have people believe the current crisis in the United States has to do with fertility, the real cause for alarm is one that many women were already, sadly, too familiar with: Current workplace culture does not do enough to support moms.
Let's keep urging policy-makers, politicians and executives to change that—and chances are we'll have a much bigger pool of potential workers some 20 years from now as a result.
[A version of this post was published on May 29, 2018. It has been updated.]