More Pregnant Mothers Are Choosing Not to Parent Additional Children

Women who are having abortions and placing their children for adoption aren’t who we think they are. They’re mothers.

In a recent Slate article, The Mother Majority, Lauren Sandler recounted her pregnancy scare and how she spent several agonizing days contemplating abortion. Sandler is married and has one child, but did not want to parent further. She considered her family of three “complete.” After her fears turned out to be groundless, she began to wonder how many other women were in the same situation. It turns out a lot. 

Her article explores the high numbers of women with children who have sought abortions. On the other side of the equation, the number of women who already have children who placed subsequent children for adoption is high as well. So what’s happening?

Mothers Declining to Parent More Children
As a mother, Sandler thought she was alone in contemplating abortion, but when she started to ask around, she discovered the opposite was true. She found that The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2008, 61 percent of women who terminated a pregnancy in the U.S. already had at least one child. The National Abortion Federation told Sandler that every year since 2008, 72 percent of women seeking to terminate a pregnancy were already mothers.

Sandler’s story mirrors similar adoption statistics. Betsy Zdonek, a caseworker at Adoption Associates with 30 years of experience in the adoption field confirmed that “the average birthmother we work with is 23 and has two children.” Although there are no official studies that focus on the demographic of mothers giving their children up for adoption, Zdonek said that more than half of their birthmothers already had children. A call to the National Council for Adoption echoed Zdonek’s experience. Megan Lindsey confirmed that there were no national studies or numbers compiled specifically about mothers (citing privacy issues), but said that nationwide, agencies were seeing a majority of birthmothers in their twenties and older with previous children. These conversations were purely anecdotal, but both women (on a local and national level) acknowledged this trend.

Why Don’t Women Want More Children?
One of Sandler’s reasons, and the main reason many mothers cite is the desire to protect the child(ren) they already have. Whether that means financially or emotionally, there are numerous obstacles for families, and mothers in particular. The economy is not the sole culprit, but it has had an undeniable impact on families in our country and others.

In early 2011, The Daily Mail reported that almost two-thirds of parents in the UK say they are too poor to have a second child, and statistics show that the average size of a British family is shrinking. Fox News and Gallup also report that American families are growing smaller and that cost is a major factor. Fox claims that as of 2010, it costs $226,920 to raise one child to the age of eighteen.

Many will say that our materialistic society is to blame because too many parents feel the need to buy their children gadgets and over-priced designer clothing, but mothers like Nicole Knepper (in an interview on Fox News) contend that many families are teetering on the brink of disaster just trying to make ends meet and pay for everyday costs of housing, food, transportation and education. Knepper’s family struggles to make ends meet on a single salary (she has been looking for work for a year) with a special needs child who requires monthly medication paid for out of the Knepper’s pocket. For her family, and many others, the addition of one more child could certainly be catastrophic.

Financial Uncertainty + Outsourcing Jobs + Poor Government Policies = An Unsupportive Nation
On the surface, our society pays lip service to championing mothers and supporting families, but underneath the pink Hallmark hearts and sentiment, America is extremely ineffective in supporting both mothers or families. Numerous studies, the current business environment and our nation’s own policies discourage having children.

Although a small percentage of progressive, high-profile companies make it onto various “Best Places to Work” and mother’s magazines’ employers lists, the reality is that the vast majority of companies in this country (many of them struggling small businesses), are offering fewer and fewer full-time jobs with benefits and are instead offering part-time or contract jobs to avoid the high cost of health care, employment taxes and retirement benefits.

Compensation is falling while the cost of living continues to rise. Even for those who have employer-supplied health care, out of pocket costs are increasing. For contractors who have no benefits, maternity leave and the cost of giving birth is prohibitive, especially since many would certainly be replaced if they went on maternity leave, as there is no legal obligation for the employer to hold their job. During this recession more men than women lost their jobs. As a result, many women are the sole financial support for many families and cannot take either an unpaid maternity leave, risk losing their jobs, or simply add another person to an already struggling family situation.

Despite our slow economic recovery, U.S. companies are recording financial gains, as they wring every bit of productivity out of American workers, resulting in longer days and more hours for no more, and sometimes less, pay. Many are forced to work even longer hours than many day cares are open or attempt to adjust their work schedules accordingly which could jeopardize their job security. While Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts, we also receive far less time off and have no mandatory sick leave or vacation time.

The Economist’s 2011 Women’s Economic Opportunity report spotlighted that out of 113 countries studied, only the United States and Australia do not offer paid maternity benefits (although Australia began offering these benefits in January of this year). The report also stated that globally, women make 75% less than men. Many countries (including the U.S.) pass adequate equality laws, but simply do not enforce them. In the US, women’s compensation is gaining some ground, but working mothers make less, and the more children you have, the more it hurts your career. Currently women make up half the U.S. workforce, yet there are still many more roadblocks than benefits to working and having children.

Who Knows Best How Tough it is to be a Parent?
Even outside these external factors, mothers declining to parent more children is not hard to understand. Who knows better how hard it is to be a parent than someone who has already done it? Zdonek agrees, saying that birthmothers with children are the ones who make adoption plans, while the percentage of teen mothers who do so are much smaller.

Even though many parents will say that parenting is rewarding and brings them happiness, study after study refutes this, claiming that having children doesn’t make parents happy and they are much more stressed than people without children. The New York Times’ Lisa Belkin examines a study claiming that having children causes more misery than joy, and New York magazine’s Jennifer Senior goes further, citing several studies that show how children are detrimental to marriage, and the more of them there are, the worse it is in All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.

“As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns.”

Although many would say single parenthood is more accepted than in the past, studies show that it is still frowned upon. Socially and financially, it is the hardest parenting role out there. The 2011 U.S. Census data shows that 31.6 percent of single parent households headed by women fell below the poverty line as opposed to 6.2 percent of married couples and 15.8 percent of single fathers. A 2011 Economist report estimated that in 2008 child care costs equaled 30 percent of a dual income family’s net income (obviously it would be more than that for a single income home). The report concluded that governments should focus on offering affordable child care and other services to single parents to encourage them to work (rather than collect unemployment or welfare benefits).

And, as our planet’s population passes the 7 billion mark, society is beginning to frown on bigger families for environmental reasons.

Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don’t, and Just Damned No Matter What
Many believe that if you make your bed and have sex in it, you should bear the child that might come with it. But who does bear the consequences? According to Epigee Women’s Health, even perfect birth control users can “expect more than one unplanned pregnancy in her lifetime.” USA Today reports that at least 4 in 10 pregnancies in every state are unplanned, including pregnancies within long-term relationships and marriages. (This report does not address what percentage of unplanned pregnancies are attributed to women who already have children.)

What If It’s Not a Necessity, But a Choice?
Faced with financial constraints, the rising cost of living, an uncertain work environment, family unfriendly government and business policies and parental stress, mothers are making difficult decisions out of necessity, but also out of choice. Sandler discussed the distinction between a mother choosing an abortion or adoption out of desperation, and choosing not to parent out of preference. Gloria Feldt, former Planned Parenthood Federation of America president told Sandler, “The less in control of a woman’s life she is, the more the public supports her right to make that choice. The more [people perceive] she is in control of her life, saying this is the life I choose, the less people support it.”

Sandler’s story drew heavy criticism over her assertion that she would choose abortion (if it had come to that) rather than parent another child. In 2009, USA Today profiled another mother, Renee, who was solely supporting three teenage children when she found herself pregnant again. She chose to have her child and place her for adoption. Her story also drew widespread criticism with people wondering why a mother would not want to parent additional children.

Angela*, a single mother who asked that her name not be used, has one daughter from a previous relationship that she is parenting alone. It was a struggle, but Angela was able to provide for herself and her daughter without any public assistance. When her birth control failed and she found herself pregnant again, she determined that she did not want to have another child. “I had parented my daughter and I knew what I was in for. I did not want to do that again.” Additionally, she did not want to be bound to a man she no longer had a relationship with.

Angela had an abortion and knows it was the right choice for her and her daughter.

“This is one issue that I feel very passionate about, that women have the choice and the accessibility to have an abortion.”

Angela acknowledges that some of her friends don’t understand her decision, but she has no regrets. She has built a thriving business, has a close bond with her daughter and is providing for her family without government assistance – a success story that would not have happened had she brought another child into the world.

Image: Kevin MurphyKeoni Cabral, Karin Dalziel, James Cridland

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.