Gen Tokophobia

Girls Just Wanna Have Anything but Babies

Social anxieties are all the rage, and a new one is brewing among the kids these days who don’t want to have kids. It does seem to be measurably true: Freya India writes at The Spectator,

New statistics reveal that half of women in England and Wales are now childless by their 30th birthday. In 1971, just 18 per cent of 30-year-olds had no children – now that figure has risen to a record 50 per cent.

India draws attention to the TikTok hashtag #childfree (also available wherever hashtags are sold), where young women document the stylish profligacies their nulliparity allows. The girls have a point: if turning your cash into booze, clothes, and photo ops is what you want out of life, then babies are not for you.

Patrick Brown examines the phenomenon more quantifiably through a study recently published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Melissa Kearney, Phillip Levine, and Luke Pardue. The financial burden of having children is the popular explanation for diminishing birth rates, Brown says, but the work of Kearney, Levine, and Pardue shows this explanation is incomplete. Young people are not just avoiding the bare monetary costs of having kids, but the opportunity cost. That is to say, when you have kids, you’re not only required to reallocate your beer money to the babysitter:

[T]he opportunity cost of parenting—income, education, experiences, or career opportunities—forgone by having a child seem to be rising in an era of increasing affluence.

This insight cannot be underscored heavily enough. American incomes are at record highs, and standards of living are better than they were in decades past. Assuming would-be parents are opting out of having kids exclusively because of financial pressures misunderstands the dynamic at play. …

[P]references around childbearing, career, and opportunity costs have indelibly changed compared to prior generations. It’s worth noting that a 2018 poll of individuals who have chosen not have children found the most frequently-cited reason for their decision was a desire for more leisure time.

The costs of parenting are complex and cannot be reduced to simple dollars. The demands upon time, energy, and social interaction all have to be multiplied by each other. When young women rank “motherhood” below all four of the goods listed above (income, education, experiences, career), they show that they understand this, even if they don’t articulate it very well. But since none of these things are new, it seems like some other factors must also be at work to explain a measurably reduced desire for babies. Here are three possible explanations:

One is that motherhood causes physical pain and permanently reconfigures the body in ways that are not usually considered improvements. This doesn’t happen as much by way of direct deposits from one’s employer or shaking lemonade vodkas.

Another is that motherhood has the most uncertain prerequisites, the main one being a male partner who is on board for the lifelong duties of fatherhood. Why waste time or invest emotional energy hoping for the impossible? To protect your dignity and prevent disappointment, go ahead and let everyone know that you’re not interested anyway.

A third is the matter of social status. Having a lot of money, an impressive degree, Instagram-based documentation of oneself in glamorous settings, or a cool job makes a person important and enviable. The best a baby can do for one’s social status is shunt a few very lucky women into the top tier of momfluencers. But even the “successful” here have arrived at a position analogous to president of the Home-Ec club at Humanity High School.

Psychology calls the fear of childbearing tokophobia. It’s not an unreasonable anxiety. The costs of pregnancy and childbirth are well known and real, and acknowledging them does not make a woman a coward. The question is, why are women increasingly unwilling to face down this fear? Social media is an unprecedented engine for spreading ideas among the general population, and with so many immediate downsides to motherhood, no one should be surprised that tokophobia would be a great candidate for social contagion. But a fourth reason for avoiding matrescence is the reality that children themselves are not seen as a good. This all amounts to motherhood being a net cost.

The anthem of philosopher Cyndi Lauper seems particularly apt here: Girls just wanna have fun. What girls see today by the most available and superficial metrics is that having a baby isn’t fun. But this is like saying a dry Chianti isn’t as good as Kool-Aid, or leggings and t-shirts are better than a tailored wardrobe.

In the frenzied confusion of contemporary trends, it’s a good idea to listen to the wisdom of the ages. Motherhood is an investment. But young women who stash their cash in a coffee can aren’t interested in hearing from old people about boring stuff like interest rates and CDs and IRAs and securities. Maybe a movie would convince them to reconsider, or maybe they’ll just have to learn the hard way.

Further Reading

is coauthor of LadyLike (Concordia 2015). She has written for a variety of websites, magazines, and books. Her day job is housewife, church lady, and school mom. 

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