Remember back in the early days and weeks of this pandemic, when the world was spinning a million miles a minute and we all lived in terror as each news story broke—was it safe to get the mail? Say hi to our neighbors? Get groceries? There was so much we didn’t know. But eventually we all settled into our new reality—that we better get used to some good old fashioned family time. That Netflix was about to be our new bestie (like for real this time). And that we should probably learn to bake—specifically breads, apparently. Because we were about to learn what, exactly, “stay-at-home orders” and “quarantine” really meant.
Eventually, however, we came up for that first breath of air and realized that we best get the humor mill going—for our own mental health—or we weren’t going to get through another long ass day of board games (if I never play UNO again, it will be too soon). And that’s when the jokes started coming in—specifically jokes about what we were all doing to pass the time. And whether those “activities” might… well, make a baby.
Because that’s what we all thought, right? I mean, all of a sudden you and your partner are home—all day, all night, on the weekends. All. The. Time. You’re stressed out. Is this the end of the world? How long is this all going to last? How will I know if I have it? Can I still smell? Should I take my temperature again? Does anyone have toilet paper or hand sanitizer?!
And in those moments of fear and extreme stress, you pass each other in the kitchen, getting a coffee refill. You catch each other’s gaze. You grab his butt. They grab yours. You both say, why not? and head upstairs for a little mid-day hanky-panky and for those few minutes, you can forget about the words “pandemic” and “Covid” and get lost in some good, hot, sweaty, Thursday afternoon sex.
I mean, that’s what we all thought was happening, anyway. Everyone’s stuck at home! They’re all going to fuck like rabbits! Covid-19 babies are going to be running rampant all over the world in a year or two! Pandemic baby boom—here we come!
Or…not. In reality, lots of marriages crumbled. Relationships were stretched far too thin with no ability to get a break from each other. No opportunity for personal space. Financial stresses tore couples apart rather than bring them together as jobs disappeared. As bank accounts dried up. The kids were home allllll the damn time, leaving little to no room for romance. Or even the desire to try. Dates nights were no more. Weekend getaways were no more. And the world seemed like it was ripping in two, rather than coming together to fight this pandemic on a unified front. Everyone was fighting and everything was ugly and the numbers of deaths just kept climbing and climbing and climbing.
None of that sounds like baby-making magic.
So yes, for many, the thought of bringing a baby into this shit-show was an absolute no. The stories of women having to give birth without their partners there began to make news. Laboring in a mask, the fear of Covid permeating through the halls of the hospital. Could babies get it? Could pregnant women pass it to the fetus in-utero? Was breastfeeding safe?
And then once they went home, there were no visitors. No memorable intros with grandparents—at least, not in person. No baby showers or meet-and-greets or park play dates or coffee meetups with other new moms.
Suddenly having a baby sounded scary and there was far too much that remained unknown. So, the pandemic baby-boom we all joked about, the massive influx of births we all expected, assuming everyone stuck at home was having all sorts of new, extra, middle-of-the-day pandemic sex… well, it didn’t happen.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
According to an article on Scientific American, the pandemic actually caused a “baby bust”, not a “baby boom.”
“Arnstein Aassve, a professor of social and political sciences at Bocconi University in Italy, and his colleagues looked at birth rates in 22 high-income countries, including the U.S., from 2016 through the beginning of 2021,” the article explains. “They found that seven of these countries had statistically significant declines in birth rates in the final months of 2020 and first months of 2021, compared with the same period in previous years.”
The countries with the steepest declines included Hungary, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, with rates between 6.6 and 8.5%. The U.S.’s birth rate declined 3.8% more than in recent years, according to this study.
Another article, however, published by Brookings Institution, reports that the U.S. decline is far higher—at 8.6%. This piece also explains that the largest groups contributing to the decline are women under 24 and women in their late 30s and over 40. The authors say that birth rates declined among young people as it was harder to foster new relationships during the pandemic (pandemic dating does NOT sound fun.) Plus, young women know they have more time to have kids and can wait until the world is more stable. And, birth rates declined among those from the older demographic, as this age group is likely to already have at least one child and may have been more likely to pull the brakes on having more.
“In the words of economists, births to younger and older women might be considered more ‘marginal,’ whereas women and couples in their late 20s and early 30s are most likely to be committed to having a child during this time,” the Brookings article says, which explains why the birth rate didn’t decline nearly as much for women in their late 20s and early 30s, and why women in those “traditional” prime baby-making years remained more committed to the charge—pandemic be damned.
So whether it’s 3.8% or 8.6% or somewhere in between, Covid put a real damper on the baby-making game, and the effects of that will be felt for generations.
These articles also address the fact that birth rates have been on the decline for a number of years, even prior to the pandemic. Gone are the days of families spitting out 5, 10 kids, and if a family does end up with a large brood like that, it’s so rare that they often get a reality TV show so the rest of the world can gawk at their bizarre family dynamic.
Raising kids is expensive AF and the pressures to do all the things—play all the sports, sign up for all the extra-curriculars, vacation to the coolest places, attend the best colleges—it adds up fast. And parents more and more are realizing they can’t offer their kids the life they want to if they have a bunch of them. Suddenly it’s more common to have 1 or 2, or even opt for no kids, in comparison to the Brady Bunch and Partridge Family units of old.
But the slow, steady decline we’ve seen in birth rates around the world took a nose-dive during this pandemic. And that matters.
Study author Arnstein Aassve attributes much of this drop on the fears and uncertainties that Covid-19 caused. “The uncertainty associated with a global pandemic and its impacts on families’ economic circumstances are the most likely reasons for these trends,” he hypothesizes. “People don’t really understand what the disease is—it is something new to them…. Many people are going to see that their job prospects will be worse, which matters for their income,” he says.
And, Aassve adds, “You may not forego childbearing totally, but at least you might postpone it until you see that times are a bit better.”
Also, I know personally that I put a lot of my doctor’s appointments on hold during this pandemic to minimize the amount of times I had to go into facilities where there could be sick people. I wonder, too, if some couples who may have been struggling to conceive put their visits and therefore subsequent timelines on hold, at least least until the world regained some semblance of normalcy. Or, if hopeful moms and dads suddenly found themselves wondering if they’d have a job the next month. Or what the workforce would look like. And if daycares would be safe once the baby was born. And all of those fears and uncertainties may have caused them to push the pause button for now.
If so, that would be more than understandable, as it seems like Covid-19 impacted every facet of our world—child rearing being no different.
Scientific American also notes that similar declines have occurred after other catastrophic times in our world’s history—like after the Spanish Flu and the 2008 financial crisis. But, it’s important to remember that often times—like during the Roaring 20s, and 1950s, for example—there is a major baby boom that follows times of unrest and instability. Could that happen in the coming years? Who knows. The reasons for the decline that preceded the pandemic are still there—kids are expensive, families can’t live in one income like they could in years past, and many women are prioritizing their careers over motherhood. Those factors don’t seem too likely to change anytime soon—pandemic or no pandemic.
But this is just another piece of society that Covid-19 has had an extreme impact on. No corner of the world—no age group, no socioeconomic group, no racial or ethnic group, and certainly no parent or would-be parent has escaped the wide-spread effects of Covid-19. And only time will tell how much it will impact our future as well.