Birth Rate Declines For Women Over 40

Fewer American women older than 40 are having children, and among African-Americans the decline is three times that of white women. Host Michel Martin talks with Pew Research Center analyst D'Vera Cohn and two women who don't have children, one by choice and the other by circumstance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our Moms conversation. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their parenting advice. Today, though, we are going to talk with and about women who are forgoing having children. New research says fewer women in the U.S. are having children. Since the 1970s, the percentage of 40-something American women without children has doubled. Today, nearly 20 percent of women aged 40 and up are childless.

But perhaps even more interesting are the cultural distinctions. Childlessness among black women has increased at three times the rate of white women just since 1994. The figures come from a report released last week by the Pew Research Center, so we've called a co-author of the study, D'Vera Cohn. I'm also joined by Dele Lowman, who works for Fulton County in Georgia, and author and television writer Angela Nissel. And they're all with us now. Welcome. Thank you all for joining us.

Ms. D'VERA COHN (Senior Writer, Pew Research Center): Thank you.

Ms. DELE LOWMAN (Assistant, Fulton County Manager): Thank you.

Ms. ANGELA NISSEL (Author, Television Writer): Thank you.

MARTIN: Dee, can I call you Dee?

Ms. COHN: You may.

MARTIN: Okay. I just want to set the table with a couple of lines from the report. You say: The most educated women are still among the most likely never to have had a child. But in a notable exception to the overall trend, 24 percent of women aged 40 to 44 with a masters, doctoral or professional degree had not had children. Now, that's a decline.

But by race and ethnic group, white women are most likely not to have borne a child, but over the past decade, childless rates have risen more rapidly for black, Hispanic and Asian women. Now, there's a lot there to work with, so I just want to focus, if we can, first on the racial and ethnic aspect of it and then we'll talk a little bit more about the role that education may play in this. So, first of all, why do we think this is?

Ms. COHN: There are several reasons. One is there's an increasing acceptance and tolerance of childlessness. So women may feel free to pursue other options. There are other options open to them that weren't a decade or two ago in terms of careers. And of course, contraception is now much more reliable than it was for many of these women's mothers.

There also is a substantial group of women, though, who cannot have children and I don't want to leave them out. To some extent, their inability to have children may be due to another social factor, which is women are postponing child bearing until older ages. And in some cases if you wait too long, that closes the door. And you may come to accept not having a child at the same time as you're medically unable to do so. So where does that get you on the voluntarily/involuntary scale?

MARTIN: What do you make of the racial gap? I'm fascinated that white women are the most likely to not have had children but - as a group, but that the gap between black, Hispanic and Asian women is narrowing. In fact, the rate of childlessness among these ethnic groups, the rate among black women has risen so rapidly in this short period of time. What do you make of that?

Ms. COHN: There could be a number of reasons. One is that black and Hispanic women are increasing their levels of educational attainment more rapidly than white women are. That is, they're catching up to white women in the level of degrees they might have. A growing share have college degrees or advanced degrees. And since we know that the most educated women are the most likely to be childless, that could be playing a substantial role.

Another factor that you have to account for is that not having biological children is much more common among women who've never been married. And so what we call the never married rates are rising more rapidly for black women than for white women.

MARTIN: Well, that's a good time to bring in our other guests, 'cause we'd love to hear you amplify more about how you see this information 'cause you're living it. Dele, let's start with you. You're 35, if you don't mind my telling, and you don't have kids yet. How do you describe your situation? Do you feel that this is your choice? Or do you feel that there are other factors at work?

Ms. LOWMAN: I feel like it's a combination of choice and circumstance. I choose not to be a parent until I become a wife, so I've not found a suitable person that I'd like to have children with. So I don't know how you would describe that, whether that's choice or circumstance. But I don't consider myself to have forgone having children. I still would like to. But of course, at some point that might not be my choice anymore.

MARTIN: Your choice is you don't want to be a single mom if you can help it.

Ms. LOWMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: Angela, what about you, if you don't mind my telling your age, you're also 35 and don't have children. What is your take on that?

Ms. NISSEL: Well, I've been married and that made me really decide not to have children. That's a whole nother story. And for me, I just feel like my genes aren't that important, that I need to pass them on to society and create another me. And whenever I look, there's just so many black children up for adoption, I decided that if one day, if I'm 50, I can decide to adopt a child, and it might even look like me. And there's just so many black children that need homes, who am I to bring another one into the world?

MARTIN: But you definitely feel that it's your choice to not have child?

Ms. NISSEL: Yes. I feel like it's definitely my choice. And there are a lot of factors that go into this. I mean, there...

MARTIN: Yeah. I'd like to hear more about that, why you think that is.

Ms. NISSEL: Partially it's because I - well, when I moved out to L.A., I felt like the whole entire race of black children where my children and I needed to do something that affected all of them, and that was create more multicultural characters on TV. And when I start failing miserably at that, I think about having a child or adopting a child. And I also don't feel like childlessness is as acceptable, since my mother and every other black woman in my family tells me every day that they have degrees and they had children by the time they were my age. But it's a choice, just because I don't feel like I've done as much as I want to do in life. And my actions could affect the much more than the one child that I could have.

MARTIN: I'm glad you raise the whole question of family and family pressure, maybe even cultural pressures - if we want to call it that - to have children or to not have children, depending on circumstances. D, you wrote about this in the report. You suggested that part of the issue is here is that there isn't as much pressure on women to have children as there has been in previous years. How do we know that? How do we access that?

Ms. COHN: Well, for one thing, there's some survey data in which, over time, the general social survey has asked: Do you agree or disagree with the statement that people without children lead empty lives?

MARTIN: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COHN: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's the way they phrased it.

MARTIN: When you put it that way. But...

Ms. COHN: We have to work with what they gave us. And over time, a growing share of people say they disagree with that statement. By 2002, it was up to 59 percent saying that they disagree, and that was up from a couple of decades ago, 1988, when less than half disagreed.

MARTIN: And can I ask each of our other guests? Angela, why don't we start with you? Because you raised the whole question of the feedback, let's say, that you're getting from family members, and presumably those whose opinion matters to you. Are you getting the pressure? Are people saying - what are they saying?

Ms. NISSEL: Oh, my goodness. The whole thing: Who's going to take care of you when you get old? No one's going to take care of you. You know, a child, it changes your life. It brings such joy. You know, working won't be there. Your job can always fire you. Your child will always be there. And constant pressure. I mean, my mother says she can literally hear my ovaries just flying into the dust when she talks to me on the phone.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Ooh. Ooh.

Ms. NISSEL: I know. It's...

MARTIN: Mom.

Ms. NISSEL: And sometimes I do think about that. I mean, you hopefully raise -and I know a lot of people have taken the time to raise children, their children do care for them. And right now, I'm caring for my mother as she's sick and she's getting older. And think about it. Who is going to take care of me? It's a tough thing.

MARTIN: That is a tough thing. Dele, what about you? Is your family - how can we put it - given you feedback about this?

Ms. LOWMAN: Well, you know, case in point, I just turned 35 last week. And I got a text message from my brother that said: You don't have too many childbearing years left. Happy Birthday. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOWMAN: ...this is my younger brother, who happens to have a couple of children. And, you know, I hear it from my mom, just like Angela said, when are you going to have kids? When are you going to settle down? My constant response is you want me to just grab somebody off the street and have some kids? I mean, that's not difficult to do. But I definitely do feel the pressure. I feel it at work. I feel it from family. I feel it.

MARTIN: And Dele, you were saying that you think it's not so much a desire, in your part, it's not a desire to not to have children but it's a desire to be partnered when you do. Is this a - among your girlfriends, presumably those who aren't sweating you about having children - is this a topic of conversation? Is this something that you talk about?

Ms. LOWMAN: Huge.

MARTIN: And do you feel that your circumstance - not that I want to put you in the position of speaking for everyone, but do you think this is really more of a factor than the desire itself?

Ms. LOWMAN: Most of my friends want to have families. But what we primarily talk about - because we tend to be a little bit more traditional, I guess, in our values and wanting to have a husband first and then start a family with someone, as opposed to doing that by ourselves.

MARTIN: Does either of you feel that your educational attainment plays some role in whatever way? Do you think it makes you - forgive me, I don't mean to sound like your mom - but more choosey than you might be in the sense that you're looking for somebody who has attained the same level of education? Or do you think your education makes you feel you have more options?

Ms. NISSEL: I would say it's so many...

MARTIN: Is that Angela?

Ms. NISSEL: Yes, this is Angela.

MARTIN: Angela, go ahead.

Ms. NISSEL: My mother's argument is that she raised me as a single mom. And she says, you never know, even if you enter the most stable traditional marriage, what could happen. I have the education and the money to raise a child on my own if worse comes to worse. So I don't have any excuses, unlike a woman without education.

MARTIN: Dele?

Ms. LOWMAN: Mm-hmm. I think my opinion has evolved over the years. I thought that, you know, a little younger age, that this would give me more options. But I think now, having a master's degree - and I think it's a combination of education and career, because I work at an executive level and I think that that's narrowed my options significantly. I don't rule somebody - a partner out if they don't have the same level of education as me or the same level of income as me, but I think in some cases, they rule themselves out.

MARTIN: You know what I'm wondering, D, is that this is a phenomenon that's been discussed in the black community for some time, educational disparities between the genders and affecting the marriage rates. And I'm wondering whether, then, rather than looking at the fact that black women are catching up to white women and not having children at a certain stage of life. Or is it that white women are catching up to black women in the sense of the more educated they are, the less likely they are to have children. I'm just curious what your take is on that.

Ms. COHN: Well, actually, I was going to talk about another study that we had released earlier this year looking at 30 to 44-year-old U.S.-born adults. And what we found was that there is this increasing educational disparity. Women are more likely to have gone to college, have at least a B.A., than men. And that gap has been growing. I think women are now about 57 percent of all college graduates. And what we found is that a growing share of women are marrying men with less education. But that's all against the backdrop that overall, the share of people getting married is much smaller than it used to be. Marriage seems to be less central, less important in people's lives, even though most people say they want to be married. So we are finding that in the sense that black women were the first to have this experience of greater educational attainment than black men, that the other races are, in some ways, catching up.

MARTIN: There's one exception to this that you wrote about in the study. You say while childlessness has risen for all racial and ethnic groups and most education levels, childlessness has fallen over the past decade for women with advanced degrees. You say that in 1994, 31 percent of women aged 40 to 44 who had a master's, doctoral or a professional degree didn't have children. That number has fallen in 2002, 24 percent. What do you think that means?

Ms. COHN: Well, of course, this group, we have to state, is still more likely than other groups not to have their own biological children. But there could be a number of things going on. First, this is the group that has the most options. They are most likely to have good medical coverage, where they could afford to pay for fertility treatments if they decide to have children later or against any kind of a medical condition. They are more likely to be married, therefore have a partner who could take care of the income while they took time off to have a child, if that's what they chose to do. And women in higher level jobs, even though we all know they're likely to be busier, also may have more flexibility to take time off or go to their child's play in the afternoon than somebody who's working behind a cash register or on an assembly line.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about new research from the Pew Research Center that describes the decisions women are making today about having children. And we're talking about some interesting racial and ethnic differences that have emerged, and also some similarities.

So ladies, can I ask you - and again, I appreciate your being candid about these issues, because I also feel that this is a kind of thing that is kind of discussed anecdotally and with sort of impressions, but also without a lot of information. So this is new information. But it's also important to get a sense from people of what it feels like to be living this. And I wanted to ask each of you: How do you see yourself in the long term? You're 35 now. Mere children to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But do you - Dele, can I ask you first? How do you see yourself down the road?

Ms. LOWMAN: I see myself hopefully married, with some children. And like Angela, I have a real desire to adopt at some point. I'd like to maybe have a couple of my own and adopt, as well, and so have a blended family in that way. But I would hope to see that for myself in a few years.

MARTIN: But the context of a partner.

Ms. LOWMAN: Married.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Married.

Ms. LOWMAN: And with children. Yes.

MARTIN: Okay. And Angela, what about you?

Ms. NISSEL: I definitely see myself unmarried. I'm in a relationship now, and we are definitely going to stay unmarried because I've done the marriage thing before. And - but I see myself hopefully adopting children. From what I've seen, it seems more important for men to have a biological child.

Ms. LOWMAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NISSEL: I feel a strong pull towards adoption whenever I see children being advertised in the paper like puppies, like I need a home. I need a home. I just feel, again, that my genes aren't that important to pass on. But none of my friends I know have kids, so it's just - and we secretly talk to each other like, do you feel that pull? And for some reason - I don't know if it's because we're so into out careers and work - none of us seem to feel that urge to have children.

MARTIN: And you feel that this won't change? You're pretty sure that it's not going to change?

Ms. NISSEL: As of now - and you tend to surround yourself with people like you, and most of my friends are actually a bit older than me - I just don't see it.

MARTIN: And Dele, do you feel hopeful that your wish for yourself will come true?

Ms. LOWMAN: It depends on the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOWMAN: Maybe a little, you know, less today than last week. But, you know, hope springs eternal. I...

MARTIN: Absolutely. And D, final thought from you, if I may: What next do you think we should be thinking about?

Ms. COHN: I would love to know more about why women don't have children. Some of it is medical, and some of it is choice. We also know that women who adopt consider themselves very much as much mothers, and so do I, as someone who has her own biological child.

MARTIN: But I also - I just have to go - this whole question of choice is just fascinating to me. This is something we were talking about with Dele, is that you could say technically, it's her choice, because she biological could just get pregnant by whoever. But that's not how she sees herself. And I'm wondering, do we even have a language to describe her sense of things?

Ms. COHN: Yes. I think that's a very interesting concept, the idea that it's a choice within a structure. And the structure that she's dealing with is the marriage market. There's also, for many other women, the idea of conditions at work, and can they have a child and pursue a career at the same time and, you know, without feeling that guilty tug that we all know so many people feel. And there's some researchers who think that one reason the childbearing rate is relatively low in some traditional societies is that women simply don't feel they have the social support to both work and have a child.

MARTIN: What's the next kind of discussion you think we should have? What are some of the other research topics you'd like to dig into that extend on this work?

Ms. COHN: Well, I think the whole idea of mothering and what it means in today's society for different people in different circumstances. As I said, you can be not have your own biological child and still be a mother by adoption or by being a stepmother. You can be taking care of nieces and nephews in informal adoptive situations or just making sure you're looking out for them. And so I think the concept of the traditional married couple, stay-at-home wife, two children is still very much present in many people's minds. But there are a lot of other different circumstances in which people are living that we need to take greater account of.

MARTIN: D'Vera Cohn is researcher with the Pew Research Center. She is coauthor of the study that we've been talking about. If you want to read about it, we'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Angela Nissel is an author and television writer. She joined us from NPR West.

And Dele Lowman works for Fulton County in Georgia, and joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Ladies, I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. NISSEL: Oh, thank you.

Ms. COHN: Thank you.

Ms. LOWMAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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