Say you give birth to a baby in America today.
First you have to figure out how to feed it: Hopefully you can breastfeed, because the country’s infant formula shortage is getting worse, with families driving hundreds of miles or paying hundreds of dollars just to get their children the nutrition they need.
Then you have to take care of it — and good luck with that, since the US is the only wealthy country in the world without paid parental leave. Also, child care costs more than college in many states, if you can even find a provider — more than half of Americans live in child care deserts, where there are more than three kids for every spot in day care.
Once your kid turns 5, though, at least they can go to school … where they have to endure “active shooter drills” in case what happened in Uvalde or Sandy Hook or Parkland happens at their school, too.
And that’s not even accounting for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the daily threat of climate change, or the worsening maternal mortality crisis that means all too many Black and Indigenous Americans die preventable deaths trying to have a baby.
If all of this has you terrified, you’re not alone. While having children in America has never been easy, particularly for many marginalized groups, it’s starting to feel impossible. More prospective parents, and those on the fence, are wondering how exactly one is supposed to birth and raise children in a country that seems to hate kids and parents alike.
“A lot of people are afraid of what it means to be alive at this time, what it means to actually bring children into the world,” said Latham Thomas, founder of the maternal health and education platform MamaGlow.
The moment, Thomas and other reproductive justice advocates say, calls out for two responses. One is a recognition that not having kids is a completely valid path, and one deserving of support; that recognition will become even more pivotal, advocates say, if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and makes the choice of a child-free life that much more difficult.
The other is to tackle the deep-seated problems that make American society so hostile to children and parents. This work is possible, but difficult — and no one person or family can do it on their own. “Raising children and caring for people is a social responsibility,” said Angela Garbes, author of the book Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change. “We need each other.”
It’s already been a terrifying year for parents — and would-be parents
In the first half of 2022, parents and prospective parents have been exposed to a truly stunning confluence of terrifying news.
In February, an Abbott infant formula factory had to shut down, plunging the country into its worst-ever formula shortage, one that’s still raging four months later. More than half of babies drink at least some formula by three months of age, and formula is a necessity for millions of families. “This is basic stuff: to be able to feed and care for your family,” Garbes said. Now parents are being forced “to drive great lengths to try to track these things down, which is the last thing that people with limited financial resources, [or] who are working multiple jobs, have the time to do. It’s all so cruel.”
As parents struggled to cope with a shortage of their children’s food — one that has landed several kids in the hospital — they were also faced with the news that a shooter had killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The mass killing was both horrifying and devastatingly precedented — it was the 27th school shooting in 2022 alone.
These crimes, and congressional inaction on gun control, feel like an especially bitter betrayal to many parents because public school is “one of the beautiful things that we have in this country — that you can send your child to school for free,” as Garbes put it. “Now people are confronting that our children aren’t even safe there.”
All this is happening amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, when many public health restrictions have been lifted although children under 5 still cannot be vaccinated for Covid-19. That leaves the parents of the youngest children facing down constant quarantines and fears of illness, all while feeling left behind by a world that often seems to have “moved on” from Covid. “I want to scream,” Jaime Green wrote at Slate. “The pandemic is not fucking over, because children under 5 cannot get fucking vaccinated.” That was in January.
Meanwhile, all the problems for parents that existed before the pandemic still exist today, and in many cases, they’ve gotten worse. Finding child care, for example, is more difficult than ever, with costs for families rising an average of 41 percent between 2018 and 2020, due to the higher cost of safely caring for kids during a pandemic. Costs have grown even more since then, with the price of child care outpacing inflation. Thousands of child care centers have shut down permanently in the pandemic, making child care deserts an even bigger problem than before.
The US also continues to lag far behind its peer countries when it comes to birth outcomes — in 2018, the US ranked worst for maternal mortality in a group of 10 similarly wealthy countries. The risk is especially high for Black birthing people, who are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts.
The pandemic made matters worse, especially initially, with doulas and other support people — whose presence has been shown to improve birth outcomes — often unable to enter delivery rooms because of Covid protocols. Media attention to maternal mortality has made Americans, especially in Black communities, more aware of the problem and more fearful of how it could impact them. “Thinking that this could happen to you will prevent some people from maybe even considering having children,” Thomas said.
Then there are fears of racialized violence and police brutality that start when children are born and really never stop. Thomas, who has an 18-year-old son, says that during the Covid-19 lockdown, “my nervous system was the most relaxed it’s ever been, knowing that he was home.” She heard the same from many other Black mothers. “It’s really every life stage,” she said. “We deserve to watch our kids grow in a safe space.”
When it comes to thinking about having kids in America, “all the baseline fears and stressors are still there,” said Diana Morelen, a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University who studies parents’ and young children’s mental health. Since the pandemic began, “we’ve only added to the level of stress and fear and, really, adversity facing folks in their childbearing years.”
The news has some people deciding to have fewer kids
That added stress has led some Americans to put off having kids, or forgo it entirely. The US birthrate dropped by about 4 percent between 2019 and 2020, one of the biggest decreases in decades, CNN reported. While births rebounded somewhat in 2021, they remained below 2019 levels.
Those choosing not to reproduce include a significant number who are influenced by climate change — one Morgan Stanley analysis found that the choice “to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.”
Then there are parents who are deciding not to have more kids, even if they previously wanted a larger family. One mom, forced to quit her job in 2020 to care for her toddler daughter, told Emily Gould at the New York Times that the pandemic and its fallout convinced her and her husband to stop at one child: “The new realization of just how little society values kids and parents — especially mothers — in any way beyond lip service was a major deterrent.”
Some Black parents are choosing to stop at one or two children for fear of medical racism and its potentially deadly consequences in the delivery room, including some who experienced discrimination or complications the first time around. Thomas, the MamaGlow founder, has heard comments from clients like, “I had a really challenging experience before and I’m not willing to try it again,” she said.
However, not everyone has the freedom to choose when and whether to become a parent. For years, abortion restrictions in the South and Midwest have made terminating a pregnancy difficult and expensive, especially for Black, Indigenous, and other Americans of color, and for low-income Americans, who are less likely to have the disposable income necessary to travel for an abortion. In the next few months, getting an abortion in many of these states is likely to become illegal, as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established Americans’ right to the procedure.
Since overturning Roe could also imperil some forms of birth control, countless Americans could soon find the decision of whether to have a child effectively taken from them, at a time when having a child feels scarier than ever before. Given the formula shortage — to take just one example — “we now can’t feed these children that people are being forced to have,” Garbes, the Essential Labor author, said.
The interlocking crises facing American families today are taking a toll on the health and well-being of people who already have kids. Mothers of color, in particular, were at elevated risk of mental health challenges in the pregnancy and postpartum period before the pandemic began, Morelen, the psychologist, said. “Now we’re seeing those rates just go up exponentially.”
Rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use are rising among fathers and other co-parents, too, Morelen said, as families are faced with the reality that “the breadth and the depth of real traumatic events happening to kids, to people of color, to communities, has only been going up.”
Helping kids and families in 2022 means embracing community
It’s a sobering picture, but giving up isn’t an option, not least because millions of Americans are already engaged in the day-to-day work of guiding children through this uncertain time. There are policy solutions, many of them already taken for granted elsewhere in the world, that would help kids and parents lead better lives: Garbes points to paid leave, universal health care, and a higher minimum wage as a baseline, for example. Some policies introduced during the pandemic, notably the child tax credit, have demonstrably improved the lives of kids. “We’ve come closer in the last two years,” Garbes said.
Unfortunately, Congress allowed that credit to expire, and another pandemic-era program that helped schools deliver meals to kids is set to do the same. While other wealthy countries like Australia and Norway spend 2 or 3 percent of their GDP on programs that support families, as Vox’s Dylan Scott reported, the US spends a paltry 0.6 percent. As Garbes bluntly put it, “this country hates children.”
Even within that grim framework, however, positive changes can happen. Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, for example, recently announced a plan to address maternal mortality by building birth centers at public hospitals in the borough, as well as creating a maternal health task force centering doulas and midwives, Thomas noted. Such local initiatives, she said, are a way of “moving toward a future that we are creating for ourselves, not waiting for the country to catch up.”
Individual families, too, can come together to lighten one another’s burdens. “Marginalized communities and communities of color have always survived by making community and taking care of each other,” Garbes said. That has continued to happen throughout the pandemic, with mutual aid groups helping neighbors share food and other necessities, and families getting together to care for children when schools and day cares were closed. Garbes’s family became close with neighbors who also have two young daughters, and the families built a relationship that went beyond shared child care into potluck meals, clothing swaps, and visits when one parent was recovering from surgery.
Such relationships aren’t a substitute for the structural changes necessary to make America safer and more welcoming for children and parents, but building a more communal view of family life can take the edge off some of its existential fear. Those efforts can start small — for some, it might be spending 10 minutes chatting with another parent at school pickup so you can host a play date, Garbes said. “It’s a slow process,” she explained, but “you reap benefits that you’re just not even able to maybe imagine at this moment.”
A more communal value system would also recognize that there are many ways to give and receive care outside of parenthood. “I’ve been hearing from people who are just thinking about ways that they want to be caring members of a community,” Garbes said. “Our society could be a lot better if our care energy wasn’t trapped in the home, in the nuclear family.”
In addition, supporting people who want to be child-free is as important as supporting parents, Thomas said. “We need to take care of people if they choose not to have babies. We need to make sure that people have a safe path forward with their health care.”
Ultimately, building a more communal society — for parents and non-parents alike — is about “realizing that our vulnerability and interdependence is not a weakness,” Garbes said. “It’s actually precisely what will allow us to survive.”
It’s also, experts emphasize, okay to be scared, whether you’re a parent, a prospective parent, or neither. “Becoming a parent has forced me to tolerate uncertainty in a way that I never knew I had to or that I could,” Morelen said. “And I think even for those who aren’t parents, the pandemic has forced folks to face and, perhaps not tolerate, but live in the context of uncertainty.”
The good news is that it’s possible to care for kids even in a time of great uncertainty. Researchers who study children emphasize that they are extremely resilient, and that kids and families have bounced back from famines, floods, and other disasters long before this.
“The most important thing a child needs is a safe, stable, and nurturing relationship with somebody who is bigger, kinder, wiser, and stronger,” Morelen said. “And to be strong doesn’t mean that parents aren’t allowed to feel afraid.”