Further, while birthrates are dropping, the total percentage of women who are mothers has risen, in part thanks to older women, college-educated women and unmarried women being more likely to have a baby than they had been. Childbearing remains overwhelmingly the norm: 86 percent of American women ages 40 to 44 are mothers. Motherhood isn’t on the decline so much as motherhood is delayed, and families with one or two children are ascendant.
Thanks to feminist cultural shifts, and better access to contraceptives, more women now approach childbearing the same way we approach other major life decisions: as a choice weighed against other desires, assessed in context. Without compulsory childbearing, this assessment continues throughout women’s childbearing years. The 24-year-old who says she wants children someday but is focusing on her career can easily turn into the 30-year-old who says she wants children but with the right partner. Later, she can easily become the 45-year-old who has a meaningful career, a community of people she feels connected to and a life rich in pleasure and novelty that she doesn’t want to surrender. Likewise, a mother sold in theory on three children might discover her family is complete with two, or one. Is that a woman who had fewer children than she intended? Or is she someone whose intentions were largely abstract in the first place, and they shifted as she did?