At 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2018, my life changed when my baby boy entered this world. Lying on the operating table with my husband standing beside me, I gripped his hands tightly the moment Jesse was pulled from my body. A cesarean section was not how I planned to deliver this 8 lb baby, but after about 30 hours in labor, for his health, we allowed the doctor to deliver him surgically.
Jesse was two days overdue when my water finally broke. Everything was ready for him at home. I had planned our coordinating hospital outfits for those first photos that we would text to family and friends and post to social media. I wanted everyone to share in our family’s joy. At age 37, I was delivering my first child. This baby was the culmination of a journey of prayer, faith and love.
Like many millennial moms, I started having children much later than my mother. I was pregnant with my first child at the same age that my baby boomer mother delivered her third and last child.
Personal and national consequences
The macro impact of so many women in their 20s and 30s delaying children is showing up in our national statistics. According to new data from the Center for Disease Control, the U.S. birth rate fell to a 32-year low last year as fewer than 3.8 million babies were born. The only age range to see an increase in birth rates was among women aged 35-44.
Read more commentary:
New parents face the ‘social insecurity’ of our time, so let’s help
The Trump administration’s latest attack on health care hurts all Americans: Today’s talker
I was with Joe Biden when no one was looking, and he was always a champion for women
Low birth rates can have a disastrous effect on our nation’s future, economically and culturally. U.S. women are not keeping up with the fertility levels needed to maintain a stable population size and produce the workers who can support retirees. This will worsen the long-term health of Social Security. Demographers hope that as more millennial women (now aged 23 to 38) move into their 30s, the birth rate will rise. However, the simple biological fact is that time erodes opportunity and ability to have more than one child or to have children at all if you want them.
I waited to have children because I was not married and I was focused on my education and career. After college, I went right to graduate school.
In my mid-20s, I started a new life in Washington, D.C. Kids were far from my mind. For the next 10 years, I enjoyed traveling the country for work and diving into public policy food fights.
Meanwhile, my prime childbearing years were slipping by.
I am not alone among women in my cohort. Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” was the anthem for my generation.
With hindsight, we see how increasing numbers of young women pursuing college degrees and work is great for women’s empowerment and independence, but this does have trade-offs, both personally for each woman and at the aggregate level.
New policies for changing priorities
I believe that God had a perfectly timed plan to move me from one stage to another. When I met my husband in December 2014, I was ready mentally and emotionally to jump into marriage and motherhood. We were engaged New Year’s Eve of 2015 and married in May 2016.
Immediately, I assumed full-time mom duties as a stepmother to my adorable stepson, who was then four years old.
Suddenly, my priorities changed. I was no longer chasing the next promotion. When I came home to an empty apartment, I didn’t care about spending nine or 10 hours at the office each day. With a family, I couldn’t wait to leave at 4:30 p.m. and beat the traffic to pick up my stepson from day care or make dinner at home.
Now, I treasure working from home, which allows me to organize my time around home responsibilities. I schedule writing opinion pieces and television interviews around shuttling kids to school, daycare and soccer practices.
Like many women in the workforce, I want to maximize flexibility. Flexibility is so treasured that more than a third of workers would choose to work from home over taking a pay raise. Flexibility coupled with paid time off has made my return back to work possible. So, I am excited to see the national conversation about paid parental leave and greater workplace flexibility.
In Congress, there are two new family leave proposals based on an idea that new moms and dads should be able to access benefits they’ve earned through Social Security to fund time off for a baby. This idea was spearheaded by my organization, the Independent Women’s Forum. It is appealing because it is voluntary and gives individuals control over their own benefits rather than forcing someone else to pay for their time off with a new tax.
Another proposal is focused on expanding more work flexible arrangements such as telework, compressed schedules and job sharing, all of which can all help new moms transition back to work after having a baby.
Those first weeks after birth are critical for a mother’s healing, recovery and bonding with the baby. I could barely walk on my massively swollen feet and had a painful abdominal wound that limited me to lifting nothing heavier than my baby.
Thankfully, I had paid time off from my employer, but not every woman has paid parental leave or can afford to take unpaid time off from work. In a survey of young adults, 38% of people who said they had or expected to have fewer children cited having no paid family leave as a factor and 39% cited having not enough paid family leave.
All of this contributes to why women are postponing or forgoing childbearing and contributing to falling birthrates.
As women, we cannot bypass the trade-offs between career and childbirth. However, our society can come together on common-sense policies to make it easier for us to navigate both.
I don’t know if Jesse and his brother will welcome any more siblings in the future. At least my husband and I can prepare if another baby comes along because of workplace flexibility and paid leave. I can only hope that more women will be in that position as well if they so desire.
Patrice Onwuka is a senior policy analyst at Independent Women’s Forum. Follow her on Twitter @PatricePinkFile.