Forgoing marriage and parenthood has a bigger payoff for American women than men, according to new research.
Ashley Marrero isn’t married and doesn’t have kids. And she has a message for women just like her: You can still have it all.
The 43-year-old feels a deep sense of satisfaction from her job as a sales representative for a maker of medical devices, which brings her into contact with patients. And she relishes all of the lifestyle and financial freedoms that come with being a single, child-free woman in a well-paying job. That includes an apartment in New York City, a new beach house on the Jersey Shore, and frequent travel for pleasure as well as work.
“I love my life and feel very fulfilled,” says Marrero, who froze her eggs in 2018 to keep her options open. “I love children, and I love all my friends’ children. But I don’t know if I would love my life with children.”
Marrero belongs to a growing cohort of women who are putting off motherhood or forgoing it entirely. As a result, many are advancing further in their careers than prior generations and entering a new frontier of wealth. Single women without kids had an average of $65,000 in wealth in 2019, compared with $57,000 for single, child-free men, according to new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. For single mothers, the figure was only $7,000.
Parenthood was losing its appeal even before Covid-19, and the hardship brought on by the pandemic appears to have accelerated the trend. A Pew Research Center study last year found that 44% of Americans age 18-49 who don’t have kids say it’s not too likely or not at all likely they will procreate someday—an increase of 7 percentage points from 2018.
US birthrates have been falling for the past 30 years as people get married later in life and put off having children. In 1990 there were about 71 births per year for every 1,000 women age 15 to 44. By 2019 that had dropped closer to 58 births, according to a Census Bureau analysis. At the same time, the share of women age 25 to 34 who don’t have kids reached a record in 2018, the most recent available in data going back to 1976.
Many experts point to the rising cost of raising a family as an important factor in Americans’ decisions to have fewer or no offspring. The expenses in bringing up a child born in 2015 through age 17 will run an estimated $310,605, according to the Brookings Institution, which adapted a government calculation to adjust for inflation trends, adding about $26,000. The projection doesn’t include the cost of a college education.
There are other costs to consider. Several studies have demonstrated that working women are subject to a “motherhood penalty” either during pregnancy or after they give birth. In research prior to the pandemic, Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a think tank, pegged the size of the penalty at 15% of annual income for each child under the age of 5, with Black and Latina mothers shouldering a higher burden than their White peers. “There’s the consequence for your earnings of having kids,” says Kashen. “The whole purpose of the women’s movement is to maximize choices for women so that every choice is a viable one. Income should not be a thing that dictates that, which it totally is right now.”
Marrero, who was married for four years before getting divorced in 2008, enjoys an enviable degree of financial independence. The West Village resident owns her own apartment, which she bought in 2019 for about $900,000 and then renovated. And in June she closed on a summer home on New Jersey’s Long Beach Island with her sister, Kristyna, who’s a few years older and also single with no kids. Ashley figures she’s taken 10 trips in the last 12 months, often with friends from a group of about 25 people who are largely unmarried and don’t have children.
“I found this group so interesting and compelling and fascinating,” says Anna Dickson, 41, who recently traveled to Napa Valley with Marrero and some of their friends. “All these people are so smart, talented, put together, and they don’t have kids—they’re very independent,” says Dickson, a product manager at Google who is divorced and now lives with her boyfriend of five years in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. “And I was like, ‘I want that, I want to do all of that.’”
“People feel less of an obligation to the family they were born into in all sorts of ways, and to embrace this notion of chosen family,” says Nicole Sussner Rodgers, founder and executive director of Family Story, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to raising awareness about alternatives to traditional family structures.
The life Marrero and Dickson have chosen does have its drawbacks. People who are single and child-free pay more in taxes. And housing is a lot harder to afford on one income than two, especially with home prices and rents at record highs and mortgage rates on the rise. Another worry for those without children is who will care for them in their old age.
For Dickson, the pluses of parenthood don’t outweigh the minuses. “I like to travel, pick up and go whenever I want to,” says Dickson, whose jaunts with her extended family of friends in the past year have included Alaska and Anguilla. “I’d rather regret not having kids than regret having them.”
As for Marrero, she’s still paying to store her eggs in case she changes her mind. But she’s certain that even if she doesn’t, she won’t feel like she’s missed out. “If you don’t have children, it may or may not be a choice,” she says. “But that should have nothing to do with your happiness. You can be so happy going this route, too.”
(Source: Bloomberg by Molly Smith, August 31-2022)