MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the part of the program where we usually check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and parenting advice. Today, though, we decided on a very different conversation about choosing not to be a parent.
According to the U.S. Census, the U.S. birth rate is now at its lowest level recorded. While a lot of the reporting around this has focused on the drop in the birth rate among immigrants, The Daily Beast caught our attention with a piece called "Where Have All the Babies Gone?" And the authors say that, quote, "many of those opting for childlessness have legitimate - if perhaps selfish - reasons for their decision," unquote, but the authors say the decline could be a disaster for the country's future, especially the economy.
We've invited one of the authors of that piece, Harry Siegel, to join us now. He's a senior editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Harry, thanks so much for joining us.
HARRY SIEGEL: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: We also reached out to you to hear what you had to say about this. Two members of the audience who responded are with us now. Diana Mayoral is an assistant TV editor who lives in New York and Laura Carroll has written two books about this subject, "Families of Two" and "The Baby Matrix," and she's with us from San Francisco.
Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for joining us.
DIANA MAYORAL: Thank you.
LAURA CARROLL: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Harry, tell us more about these, quote, "legitimate but perhaps selfish reasons" why the birth rate is declining as much as it is.
SIEGEL: Well, the American birth rate had been much higher than in other developed nations for a long time and right up until the market crash in 2008, it was 2.12, which is a little higher than the replacement level, so we had a sort of stable and growing population.
Right away, it fell off to 1.9, which is a very dramatic drop, starting in about 2008. And the result of this, combined with dramatically changing immigration patterns and fertility in Mexico, is suddenly, we're looking at the prospect of dealing with the problems that Germany and Japan and other developed nations have where, suddenly, you have such a dramatic and rapid shift in how many people are having children that you end up with an aging population and one that isn't growing at the same rate that can cause a stagnant society, real economic problems and something called the fertility trap, where those become bad enough that the remaining young people have strong incentives not to have children.
So, in the U.S., for instance, we're looking at the dependency ratio or the number of retirees to working people - is now projected to double, at least, by 2050.
MARTIN: Diana Mayoral - forgive me for mispronouncing your name - you've shown admiral restraint in not attacking Mr. Siegel for his comments because you have equally strong views about this. I note, in your response to us, you wrote that, in your view, rather than this being selfish, you feel that your decision to not have children is the opposite. You say, to me, choosing to have children is very egotistical and selfish. I am worthy of reproducing myself. I am so important, so - and I'm not going to use the word you use here - the planet.
Talk to me about that. I mean, is this - you obviously have strong feelings about this. Is this something that really pushed your buttons?
MAYORAL: Yes, it did. And thank you for having me. Like I said in my response, if there's - we have so many children here - I live in Brooklyn and, you know, every night, I see homeless teenagers and there's - I checked the statistics. There's 4,000 homeless teenagers on the street. Why would you choose to have more children if there's - if we aren't taking care of the ones that we have already? I mean...
MARTIN: OK. What about Harry Siegel's point, though, that, at the end of the day, I mean, just looking at it globally, the population needs to replicate itself? That's where our future growth comes from. That's where the ideas come from and, at the end of the day, the population which already exists is going to get older and they need somebody to take care of them, support them? Diana?
MAYORAL: Yes. I feel that we should nurture the ones that we have here, the ones that we have now and - yeah - that's what I feel.
MARTIN: OK. Laura Carroll, you've written two books about this. In fact, one of the things I noted as I remember reading one of your books about this years ago because you were one of the first writers to really talk about choosing not to have children as a choice for your life. Talk a little bit more about this. Is this a kind of a new debate in your way of thinking about this or is this being surfaced again because of these numbers, which are very dramatic?
CARROLL: I think the conversation has been going on for well over a decade and, in about the late '90s, I went looking for a book on couples who never had children as part of their marriage and I didn't find that book and so I decided to seek it out and write it myself and it turned out to be a very provocative topic and people were interested in the topic, wanted to learn more.
And, over the course of, you know, the last decade with the Internet and just sites and discussion forums and more journalists and writers writing about it than ever before, we're talking about it more than ever before. And with the fertility drop, I find it interesting that it goes back to people who are choosing not to have children when really, when we're still at, you know, around a birth rate of two, it suggests to me that, you know, still, over the past decade or so, the numbers of women between 40 and 44 not having any children really has stayed at about one in five, give or take. And so four out of five women still are having children. So I found it interesting to focus on those who are having no kids rather than those that, you know, are at the 1.94 or 2.0, you know, birth rate.
MARTIN: Laura Carroll, one of the things you wrote about, though, in your early reporting on this, is the sense of being indicted by your community, that people kind of pointing the finger at you, even within your own family, thinking you're doing something wrong, that there's something wrong with you or that you're acting, you're not holding up your end. Do you still feel that way all these years later?
CARROLL: You know, in my personal life I never felt that way. I was blessed to have parents who just raised me in a way to say, you know, however you want to live your adult life, do that. And - but many couples and child free I've talked to over the years, they are very judged by their families and friends. And yes, they're seen as, you know, that something is wrong with them. And that I think is driven by a certain, you know, myth or kind of thinking we've had for generations, that if you don't want kids that there is something wrong with you. And really, I do think that it's time to question that. And I've been talking about that for some time just to try to change people's minds that it really - the course to getting married and have kids is one course to a full life and with the emphasis being on one.
MARTIN: Harry Siegel, how do you, first of all, how do you respond to what you've heard here? And what has been the response to your piece?
SIEGEL: Well, I largely agree with everything Laura just said. I think if more women are being selfish - if that's the word - this is probably something to applaud - that women shouldn't be making their decisions about whether or not to start families on broad demographic trends. They should have access to the workplace, to contraception, and be able to decide.
The question is, if this happens rapidly enough, what are the broader implications? And I do think there's been a dramatic shift in the last five years, since 2008, that puts us much more in line with other developed countries.
MARTIN: Well, you didn't just talk about women in your piece. I'm not really sure why we're just talking about women. We just happen to have invited two women because they are the people who responded. But you also talked about men. And one of the things that you cited about kind of the social dynamics in places like Japan in particular, where the men are not terribly interested in having children either, and you say that's lucky because the women aren't either. Is this primarily driven by women in your reporting?
SIEGEL: No. It was, finally women are, who bear children, and because of the people who were willing to talk to us on the record in a fairly short time to gather information, we ended up speaking with more of them. But this is definitely global. And in Japan, I should add, it's not just that young men and women aren't interested in having children, at this point they're increasingly not interested in having sex or coupling up or having relationships, which is a really strange and dramatic development. And that's a society where you now have more adult diapers sold than baby diapers and are sort of at the leading edge of aging rapidly.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the decision not to have children. We've been thinking of this in part because of new U.S. Census numbers and The Daily Beast/Newsweek wrote about that. Harry Siegel wrote that piece. It's called "Where Have All the Babies Gone?" And also with us are two members of our audience who reached out to us to respond to the piece, author Laura Carroll, who has been writing about this issue for some time now, and assistant editor Diana Mayoral.
Diana, one of the other reasons you talked about not wanting to have children is the expectation that you will have to - not just you, but a lot of people will have to care for their elderly parents. You wrote to us, you know, both my parents are retired and I dread having to move to Mexico to take care of them in the tiny town they live in. I've seen too many times people give up their lives to care for their parents, a cruel thing to do to someone's child.
Do you feel that that's a - is that a common feeling among many of the people you know? Diana?
MAYORAL: About taking care of their - about taking care...
MARTIN: Yeah. Is that part of the calculation, is that you just can't, you feel like you can't do both? You know you're going to have to do one, but you can't do both.
MAYORAL: Oh I didn't - my decision to not have children is not - I never thought of that about putting, having to take care of my children as well as taking care of my parents at the same time. Wow. That's a burden I didn't even - that's something I didn't think, that's scary. I didn't even put those two together. But, yeah, I mean I'm going to, eventually I will have to go to Mexico and I'll do it without complaint and I'll do my duty. But I don't see why, is that a reason why people have children, is like I want someone to take care of me in my old age? Is that, you know, I don't see...
MARTIN: What's so terrible?
SIEGEL: That came up a lot.
MARTIN: Well, what's so terrible?
MARTIN: No, go ahead, Harry.
SIEGEL: That came up a lot in the stories we asked for initially from childless and then we were corrected to child-free.
SIEGEL: Women and men, most of the respondents about 80 percent were women. One of the reasons, the few reasons they saw to have kids was sort of on the opposite end of this, to make sure there was someone to take care of them in their dotage. And remarkably, in 2008 there was a big sort of under-noticed split in which married women split their votes equally, pretty much, between Romney and Obama, according to exit polls, and single women voted overwhelmingly for Obama, two to one - so about a 35 percentage point gap there. And...
MARTIN: You know, can I ask Diana about one thing? Diana, one of the things that I was struck by in your email to us - I appreciate the candor, but there seemed to be a lot of anger in it. And I was wondering, is the anger directed toward the fact that you think people are angry at you or are you - for not having kids - or do you feel angry at all the people who are?
MAYORAL: Well, I'm really glad that you did this piece because I'm afraid to even talk about this with my friends. Like this is the only time I've ever been able to express how I feel ever, because I'm afraid of what they're going to say about not - especially my friends that have children, is that I feel that when I say that I've chosen not to have children, it's kind of like, OK, so sad, she just hasn't met the right man, when in reality that's not what has happened. So yes, I have a lot of anger about it. Yeah.
MARTIN: Because why? Diana, why do you feel angry? You feel angry because you feel people are judging you or you feel that these people who have children get a lot of, what, social approval that they don't deserve? What? Tell me why you're angry?
MAYORAL: Well, it's not really anger, just more miffed, upset.
CARROLL: This is Laura, if I could just jump in.
MARTIN: OK, Laura. Yeah. Sure.
CARROLL: Because I have spoken just to hundreds of people who wrestle with a lot of feelings, including anger, and I think sometimes the root of that is they, they just feel misunderstood. And no matter what they say or how they try to explain their choice their friends and family, loved ones, don't seem to understand because they have a mindset that is so different. So the words I might hear more often are just I feel misunderstood and I feel frustrated by that. And so but I do think that there is more talk now between people who've made the choice and with their friends and family and there is more understanding. I resonate with your feelings there, but a lot of people, they're more willing than ever to broach people that they love and try to gain understanding. And what I find interesting is that more people seem - parents, people who have children, and parents of parents - say that they do, they think this choice is just fine.
Now, when it gets a little sticky is when their kids, their grown daughters and sons, come to them and say we don't want to have kids - well, it's a little bit of a new form of a nimbi affect I've called it because people are OK with it as long as it doesn't happen in their particular family. So to me, with surveys I've even done of people who have kids and not, the majority have said that, you know, we've come quite a ways in the last several, you know, up to 10-plus years, but we still have a ways to go, and that's an example of it.
MARTIN: Harry, though, correct me if I'm wrong though, is part of the concern not so much interpersonal but from a matter of policy, that many parents feel that they are doing kind of the heavy lifting of society in raising the next generation and that get very little, particularly in this country, get very little support from this country in terms of policy now. And it's part of the concern that there will be even less sympathy for helping people balance caregiving concerns with their other public lives if they were even fewer people in the country who have kids and who share that concern.
SIEGEL: I think that's exactly right. And I think that it helps explain why there was such a strong support for Obama among single women. There was a Web ed he put out I mention in the article called "The Wife of Julia" that sort of goes over this woman's life and these big milestones in it and the support that the government can offer her at each of these points under an Obama administration and where the Romney, where a prospective Romney administration would take it away. And it was very dramatic and it made conservatives heads want to explode. But we don't do a lot to support parents in terms of leave for both mothers and fathers and in terms of childcare and how our jobs for many of us are set up now. And that creates strong economic considerations.
To something Laura just said, I think it's important to note that the reason not everyone can have these conversations with their parents is that there is an active child-free community that is strong and resolved in that decision. And then there are a lot of people who are deciding as they go along, who have mixed feelings about it, and to some extent it depends on who they meet, what their life circumstances is, where the economy takes them, their education...
CARROLL: That's correct.
SIEGEL: ..and so on. And it's very hard to have that conversation if you're not sure if you're making a decision, or if you're making a series of smaller decisions that perhaps at the end add up to I've had a child or I've not.
MARTIN: Laura Carroll, I'm going to give you the...
CARROLL: I think if...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
CARROLL: Thank you. I was just going to join in there and say I agree with that. And I think for many people it is a decision that happens gradually over time. And in today's times we find more people delaying the decision. They keep, you know, weighing various factors and they sit on the fence. And the longer people sit on the fence, they reach a point where they sometimes go, well, everything is fine and maybe I don't want children that badly anyway. And then there's the cost, and when I'm honest with myself I'm not really willing to take on that financial responsibility, etcetera.
So for a lot of people who have been termed, say, postponers, you might have read, it ends up that they decide not to decide or they don't have them at all, or as we've seen, people, women have been having babies much later. There's been an uptick - just a little slight uptick - in women who are in their 40s who are having their first child. So to me that reflects a time where people are considering it and then they're pushing that, you know, to the end in their 40s to finally have their first child.
MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Laura, I was going to give you the final word anyway, so thank you for taking it.
CARROLL: Thank you.
MARTIN: Laura Carroll is author of "Families of Two" and "The Baby Matrix." She joined us San Francisco. Diana Mayoral is an assistant TV editor. She joined us from Augusta, Georgia. Harry Siegel is a senior editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. And he joined us from NPR New York.
Thank you all so much for joining us.
CARROLL: Thank you.
MAYORAL: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Thank you.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.