Back in college, while my friends mostly held down jobs in retail, worked at restaurants, or picked up random gigs through temp agencies, I worked as a nanny. And while a lot of those friends hated their jobs, I was kind of obsessed with mine.
I spent my days and evenings with two fiercely smart, creative little weirdo children who challenged me to explain the world without glossing over the hard stuff. I turned cardboard boxes into huge, snaking mazes and threw rocks into the East River. I developed my upper arm strength by lugging strollers and book bags half my bodyweight across the five boroughs. I learned to have empathy for the needs, frustrations and expectations of kids, even when they were annoying the shit out of me.
It was an education. It was also when I first realized that I wanted to have kids of my own one day.
But things started to change after I graduated. In just a few years—through a string of low-paying jobs in writing and non-profits that barely covered my rent and utilities—the prospect of having children had become less abstractly exciting and much more daunting. As time went on, it became hard for me to distinguish whether the appeal of parenthood was just falling away or if the prospect of trying to raise a kid in the most expensive city in the world had completely psyched me out.
I wanted to know if other people were experiencing the same kind of uncertainty, so I went ahead and asked. Turns out I’m not the only one.
As one woman told me: “It’s more than a trend. [It’s] a deep, negating fear.”
This type of existential uncertainty isn't all that uncommon. Norms around family and parenting are shifting at the same time that millions of 20- and 30-somethings are struggling to find their financial footing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, birth rates among women between the ages of 20 and 24 dropped by 2% between 2012 and 2013. The birth rate among 25- to 29-year-olds has dropped 1% every year since 2008. A recent Fusion survey also found that 15% of respondents with student debt said that it had caused them to put off having kids.
And concerns about the cost of supporting a family are strongly reflected in young voters’ priorities heading into 2016. A survey conducted by the Make It Work campaign found that 84% of the “rising American electorate”—young people, people of color, and single women—support policies to expand access to childcare, establish a paid family leave program, and raise the minimum wage. That’s 9 percentage points higher than the overall electorate.
There are a lot of trends converging here: changing ideas about the role of women at home and in the workforce, shifting norms about family and work in general, ripple effects from the Great Recession, the fact that some people simply don’t want to have kids.
But, for the people I talked to—all of whom live in or around big U.S. cities, are in the age group of 18 to 40, and want to expand their families by having kids—things like uncertain job prospects, student debt, and a lack of access to childcare and paid time off were a big part of their hesitancy.
“The financial thing is part of that uncertainty about having a kid,” Alex*, a soft-spoken musician who came to New York by way of Washington, D.C., told me. He is 35 and married, and said he and his wife have thought a lot about having kids. But neither was sure how it would work.
When I asked Alex about his yearly income, he said there were major fluctuations. As a freelancer, that came with the territory: “I’ve seen some pretty exciting peaks and some pretty scary lows."
An average year often meant $15,000. A good year could mean $30,000. The same went for Rebecca, his wife. Like Alex, she is also a freelance artist and musician whose income is hard to predict.
The last few years had not been good years, Alex said.
And as the couple continues to pull on the little savings they have to cover basic expenses, the question of having a kid keeps getting pushed back. “It often feels like if things were a little different, I would feel differently,” he sighed. “But it’s kind of hard to gauge because I don’t see how it would work with the way things are now.”
For Sarah, a 31-year-old mother of two with a thick Boston accent and a dry sense of humor, money was the first thing she thought about when she learned, at 21, that she was pregnant with her daughter. Concerns about making ends meet were also a major reason she waited several years before having her second child.
At the time of her first pregnancy, her then-boyfriend and now-husband was working odd jobs and owed his ex-girlfriend about $300. During Sarah's pregnancy, the couple stayed afloat by keeping a tight budget. That meant, among other things, living in an uninsulated horse barn in New Hampshire. (That particular dwelling exposed Sarah's husband to a rare, horse feces-born bacteria that eventually attracted the attention of the CDC.)
The couple didn't stay long in the horse barn, and, after years of saving up, bought their first home. They had their second child last year. “But if money wasn't an issue, I would have had another baby way sooner,” Sarah said.
They would like to keep growing their family, but the question of another kid is off the table for now—and not just for financial reasons. For two working parents, time can be just as tight as money.
“There are times when I want to take [my son] to music class or to the library, but if I get a cleaning job, I’ve got to go do it,” Sarah explained. “It’s always like, ‘I should go do that because I’m going to need the money.’”
On the days she can't arrange for childcare, Sarah brings her son to the houses she cleans or to her job as the co-founder of a small non-profit. In the beginning, he was small enough to wear in a carrier while she worked. But that’s more difficult to do with a wiggly one-year-old: “He's at the age now where it's impossible to get things done when he's around.”
The lack of a public support system for working parents in the U.S. also shapes how Alex, the New York musician, thinks about his would-be family. While paid family leave or subsidized childcare can be found in some pockets of corporate America and the handful of states that have introduced their own programs, that doesn’t help families like his.
“It would definitely change how I feel if I knew that our living situation was cool, our work situation was cool, and I knew that we had good insurance and childcare,” he said. “Then absolutely.”
Ariel and Cody, a couple in their early 20s living in Iowa, had the same concerns about planning for a family without access to paid leave: “I can use vacation days that I have earned, but [the rest] is unpaid leave,” Ariel told me. “So I can have the time off, but they aren’t going to pay me for it.”
Paul, 32, is engaged to his partner of three years and living in New York. "Only recently have we come to the conclusion that having kids is probably not an option for us, even though both of us are very interested in it," he told me. "Money is one of the reasons."
The financial constraints take many forms, he said. Paul has access to some paid leave at his non-profit job, but his fiancé, the primary earner in the relationship, just started a new business. "So there is no paid leave in that situation," he explained. "If he's not working, he's not being paid."
Going down to a single income in order to care for a child would require a lot of saving in advance, Paul said. Given the expense involved in becoming parents in the first place, it would be a challenge: "Add to that the cost of a surrogate or the cost of adoption—which can also be very expensive. These things on top of each other have made us realize that by the time we would be financially ready to have kids, that ship may have sailed."
Jake, a 30-something graduate student in New York and dad to a young daughter, told me that he and his wife have flirted with the idea of having a second child, but the prospect feels impossible at the moment. “I’m the one carrying student debt, and I just keep piling it on,” he said. “I carry about $50,000 today, and by the time I finish my degree, it'll probably be closer to $70,000.”
He called the debt manageable, but the idea of expanding their family while paying it off and establishing a career was unnerving.
“We would like to have another child because we think it would be good for our daughter, we think we would be able to approach parenting the second time around with more balance,” he said. “But we don't see ourselves in a position to do that today—or any foreseeable tomorrow.”
That lack of certainty about the future can create tension for young couples.
Alex was raised in a city and does not want to leave his adopted hometown. He wants his future kid to have the same kind of experiences he did growing up in a large, diverse place. But he questions whether he and Rebecca will need to leave in order provide for that child.
“My wife and I communicate well and are in similar boats, but it can cause friction sometimes,” Alex said. “It’s an undercurrent. Like, ‘OK, what are we going to do? When are we going to know what to do?’”
According to Sarah, money is pretty much the only thing she and her husband fight about.
“It’s not about us, it’s stress about resources,” she told me. “We are working class people, and the system punishes working class people for having kids.”
*Editor's note: Fusion granted the request of Alex and others to use pseudonyms so that they could speak freely about their personal lives without repercussions from family or employers.