US women consider parenting alone after coronavirus

There is a whiff of carpe diem in the air, as Americans slowly return to normal life while vowing never to forget the lessons taught by the coronavirus pandemic: seize the day and savour the moment, it could all be gone tomorrow.

For many, these pandemic learnings have affected attitudes to procreation. So far there’s been no sign of the baby boom predicted soon after the US went into lockdown in March last year. In fact, figures released this month show tentative signs that coronavirus may have accelerated a pre-existing trend towards fewer births.

Provisional data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Centre for Health Statistics show US fertility last year was at a record low, at 55.8 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, down 4 per cent from 2019. But since only December births could have included those babies conceived after the start of lockdown, demographers say it’s too soon to say what impact the virus has had.

There is evidence to show that the pandemic has encouraged some women to go ahead with pregnancy. According to a survey released last month by Modern Fertility, the fertility start-up, the pandemic provoked 15 per cent of those asked to speed up their baby plans. For some, the presence of a father was optional. Over a quarter of those surveyed said they would become a single parent by choice: 27 per cent agreed with the statement, “I don’t feel like I need a partner to become a parent”.

Kelly, a 38-year-old California executive, decided to go ahead with having a child on her own. “The pandemic forced me to spend a lot of time with myself and my thoughts,” she says, declining to give her surname because she manages a large team that does not know she is pregnant. “At first I thought, let’s make sure I have a few eggs frozen and create a few embryos . . . while I’m sitting at home in sweatpants.”

But since spending time with family after lockdown — and checking with her financial adviser — she thought: “Why am I holding back on the joy I could be experiencing by starting my family sooner?” She is now 13 weeks pregnant.

Kelly wasn’t raised by a single mother, or put off wedlock by trauma in her parents’ marriage. “I grew up in a very traditional two parent household, my mom stopped working outside the house when she got pregnant with me . . . and my parents are still married,” she says. But at university she met people who were “well adjusted” despite growing up with just one parent, or parents who’d remarried multiple times. “It really opened my eyes to the fact that you could have different types of family units that are also happy and very successful.”

The number of single-by-choice mothers, though small, is rising. “The birth rate for older unmarried women has gone up over the past decade,” says Elizabeth Wildsmith, a family demographer at Child Trends, a US research organisation. According to the CDC, the birth rate for unmarried US women aged 35-39 rose 21.6 per cent, from 29.6 to 36 per 1,000, between 2010 and 2019; it rose 38.8 per cent, from 8 to 11.1 per 1,000, for mothers aged 40-44 over the same period.

Wildsmith points out that not all these women are raising children on their own, as the figures include those cohabiting outside marriage. She adds that income is a big factor for many. Kelly, for example, was clear that she is having a baby on her own partly because she can afford to.

Temeka Zore, a reproductive endocrinologist at San Francisco-based fertility centre Spring Fertility, says her clinic registered three times as many single parents by choice in the first quarter of this year compared with the first quarter of 2019.

Elizabeth Phillips, 28, a maintenance mechanic for the US Postal Service in Minnesota, was a single mother by choice before the pandemic. She tells me the virus prompted her to think of procreation too: “The time spent with my family over the past year has felt especially supportive and special, so I’m even more grounded in my plans to have another kid on my own,” she says. “I have only grown more comfortable with my decision to pursue this path to parenthood.”

The writer is an FT contributing columnist