“Everything would be marked by fear,” she said, “and that trickles down. Babies sense these things.”
The terror associated with getting pregnant and having a baby is existential — What if I contract COVID while pregnant? Lose my job? Or my baby catches the virus?
But the worries are also so basic it’s heartbreaking. “Will my baby understand a world without masks?” women ask doula Dashanna Hanlon, founder of Caring for Mamas.“I want my baby to know that people smile.”
There are a few ways to grasp the likely enormity of the looming baby bust. You can look at the statistics.
The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, is predicting the United States could see up to a half a million fewer births in the coming year.
That’s a significant drop, considering that, in 2019, the estimated number of births for the United States was 3,745,540, down 1 percent from 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the lowest number of births since 1985.
Even before the pandemic, economists and others warned that a falling birthrate would have significant financial implications for society, with, among other things, an older population drawing on Social Security and Medicare programs. Fewer children also reduce the pool of family caregivers for aging parents.
Brookings researchers said they based their estimate on lessons drawn from economic studies of fertility behavior, along with data from the recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918 Spanish flu.
“We expect that many of these births will not just be delayed — but will never happen,” researchers wrote. “That will be yet another cost of this terrible episode.”
A survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization, found that one-third of women planned to get pregnant later or wanted fewer children because of the pandemic.
The drop is even more pronounced among groups that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and by systemic racism and inequality. Black and Hispanic women are even more likely than white women to say they want to have children later or want fewer children, according to the institute. Additionally, lower-income women were more likely than higher-income women to report this change in outlook.
In Boston, Ashley Garrett, single, 30, and until recently yearning for a baby, has stopped investigating in vitro fertilization treatments. “Instead of being sad I do not have children, I am actually happy,” she said.
“It has been enough to worry about myself, my elderly parents, family, friends, and my job,” said Garrett, an auditor. “I do not think I could deal with the stress taking care of a child during this and making sure they are OK too.”
For some, pessimism about the future is so intense that not only are they not having babies, they are feeling regret for children — and grandchildren — born long ago.
“I cannot help but see what they are facing and, even though I know better, I feel responsible,” said Brandi Davis of Peabody, whose daughters were born in the early 1990s and are parents themselves.
If this were a normal summer (normal being a concept getting ever harder to recall), Kelly Cunha and her husband, of Medford, would be trying to conceive. She’s a social worker with the Winchester public school system, and summer is the best time to get pregnant, she said, so you can have the baby in the spring and enjoy an extended maternity leave in the summer.
Their first child turns 3 this week, and they don’t want too much of an age gap, but the world is so “divided and scary,” she said. And, on top of that, uncertainty around jobs and the effects of COVID on pregnancy and infants is so terrifying that the couple is afraid to have a baby now. But they’re also sort of afraid not to.
One day Cunha thinks maybe they should just go for it — ”if it happens, it happens” — and the next day she’s convinced of the exact opposite position — ”we can’t play Russian roulette.”
But even in pandemic times, it should be noted, some things stay the same. The couple’s families can’t stop asking when they’re going to give their daughter a little brother or sister.
“If we even let it out that we were thinking about it,” she said, “it would become a thing with my mom.”
But even as fear stalks new and expectant parents, some say this might actually be a good time to introduce a life into the world. Erica Bishop, an executive assistant from Arlington, says her 1-year-old son is such a “ray of sunshine” she’s optimistic a new baby would be, too
“This sounds so cheesy and idealistic,” she said, “but my hope is that they might be part of making the world better.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.