Photo: iStock/Mladen Zivkovic
When the pandemic arrived last March, Puneeta Sandhu McBryan had just given birth to her first child, a boy. As she locked down and contemplated the future, the popular narrative was that a lot of couples stuck at home would use their free time to make sourdough loaves—and babies. Sandhu McBryan, who lives in Edmonton, admits that she too fantasized about growing her family—at first. “All those jokes started about a baby boom and how everyone’s stuck at home,” she says. “I thought it was kind of funny.”
But as the pandemic wore on, for many, thoughts of using the time to have a second kid faded. How could they not? It quickly became clear that for most women, working from home was increasing their already unequal burden of unpaid work, like childcare and cleaning. Financial challenges that predated the pandemic were being amplified and, worse, people were losing jobs. As early as June 2020, experts with the Brookings Institute suggested the pandemic baby-boom narrative was fantasy, at least in the United States. The spike in unemployment caused by the pandemic, they said, would instead result in up to half a million fewer births in the U.S. in 2021 than previously expected. The pandemic was suddenly a baby bust.
Would Canada’s 2021 birth-rate fall at a comparable pace, then, by roughly 50,000 births? Experts first said no, pointing to our superior public services and economic resiliency. Yet roughly a year later, Canada’s unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, two points higher than the U.S., while a third wave with variants has renewed economic anxiety about the future, especially given that our vaccination counts lag far behind the U.S. Add to this that more than 20,000 Canadian women have already disappeared from the workforce, plus a new round of real-estate price bubbles, and conditions hardly seem fertile. So, while hard data on total births in 2021 won’t arrive late next year, the spectre of a pandemic baby bust in Canada feels very real.
What does it mean for families? While many say the persistent pandemic has magnified the financial and social factors that already limited the number of kids they could have versus the number they wanted, some say it has also changed their attitudes.
Indeed, some say our new reality has made them grow more comfortable accepting, even embracing, something they’d never imagined before: An only child.
A 2016 Cardus study put plain the mathematics behind family size in Canada. The study found that many parents say they want more kids than they have (though many are also satisfied with their family size). It also found that the ideal number of children to Canadians ranged from a low of 2.6 in British Columbia to a high of just more than three on the Prairies. Unspoken in the study were only children, and this underlines the truth: that few families set out to have an only child. The main limitation to family size, according to the survey? Cost.
So last March, while some joked of a baby boom, many others could see this was wishful thinking. For more than a decade the cost of housing, the rising average age that mothers are now having their first children (due to education, career and other factors), and the cost of child-care in Canada have all been leading to a slow-burn baby bust.
All the pandemic did was turn up the flame.
“In the Canadian context, I would definitely not be surprised a pandemic-induced recession would cause a baby bust, not a baby boom,” says Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Generation Squeeze, which researches how younger generations are working more to have less than generations before.
Kershaw says several metrics support the premise that economic factors had already constrained births in Canada before the pandemic made them even stronger. The total fertility rate in 2019, pre-pandemic, was just 1.47 births per woman (with 2.1 being required to replace the population, which Canada last hit in 1971). But also consider, Kershaw says, the average age of women at their first childbirth. The oldest moms in Canada are in B.C—the province known for its astronomical housing costs and comparatively low wages. “That is in no way coincidental,” he says. “That reflects that, in the space of less stable economic circumstances and foundations, people in their prime childbearing years are delaying the opportunity to have their children.”
While it’s clear few families plan to have only children in Canada, in the midst of the pandemic, some parents are choosing to stop at one and count their blessings. That’s what Edmonton's Keely Cronin has done. Before the pandemic, any time she and her partner discussed kids, the plan was to have more than one kid. And in January 2020, when she had her son at age 31, that remained the case. Cronin has a sibling and she wanted to recreate her family of origin.
But more than a year into the new world has shifted her thinking. “I’m considering not having a second one, and I think that definitely has been influenced by the pandemic,” Cronin says. “I don't want to have another pandemic baby, if I have another at all. The continued lockdowns, variants and all the uncertainty make it difficult to make a big decision like this, even with the arrival of vaccines. The pandemic drastically impacted my maternity leave and my return to work—I didn't get to have a lot of the experiences many parents get on parental leave.”
As she looks ahead in time now, she sees only more uncertainty. It’s not clear if the pandemic will be completely over in another nine months, Cronin says. “My son’s just about 14 months old and I thought this might be the time that I start feeling [ready] to have a second child—and I do not feel even remotely like having a second child at this time. Right now I feel very happy with just one.”
Sandhu McBryan feels similarly. As the pandemic wore on, her husband was laid off four times from three different construction jobs, her fantasy of sitting by the public pool with her newborn was replaced with sheltering in place at home, and her return to working in December 2020 created uncertainty.
Though she’s always seen two kids as “the perfect number,” this ideal has met the current reality and led to a change of thinking. “When we already feel like we’ve endured more change than anyone should have to in a lifetime, it just feels like we just can’t wrap our heads around having a baby again,” Sandhu McBryan says.
When new parents say their family will be a "one and done," the near immediate response from many is that theirs is a natural sentiment, but that it will change. The near immediate response to the pandemic amplifying all of this is that the pandemic, too, will end.
Sandhu McBryan says she’s heard this but isn’t certain it applies to her. “He’s 16 months old now,” she says. “I thought right around now, maybe people [who] were right. This is kind of the time where people start thinking and planning for number two. I was thinking maybe that biological urge would kick in again. But it definitely hasn’t. If anything, we’ve both reaffirmed that this really feels like it’s it for us.
Cronin also isn’t sure. “Everyone has this attitude that just because I don’t want one now, it doesn’t mean I’ll never want another one,” she says. “It’s not necessarily true. I might not change my mind. I might continue to be very happy with one child in my little three person family.”
Indeed, for both Sandhu McBryan and Cronin, seeing the number of women fall out of the workforce during the pandemic and the disproportionate amount of unpaid care women had to take on also shifted their thinking.
“I really believe that this mantra from our mothers’ generation, that you can have it all, the working mom trope, is kind of bullshit,” Sandhu McBryan adds. “I just think if as a woman if I want to have a career where I feel successful and productive, and I’m contributing to the outside world in the way that I want to, and to also be every bit the good and devoted mother I’d like to be, I can’t. I know I can’t do both of those things equally well at all times. Would I have felt this way, regardless, at this stage of motherhood, pre-pandemic?” she says. “I don’t really know.”
The highlighting of inequality that the pandemic has produced could lead to new realities when it comes to fertility, says Laura Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, who is one Canadian researcher who’s now predicting a pandemic-induced baby bust. “We know that women who think the division of unpaid labour is unfair are less likely to have another child,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more one-child families in the coming years.”
While statistics for Canada’s birth rate from nine months after the pandemic arrived remain preliminary, in the U.S. the baby-bust thesis is being proven correct. The hard data from November and December of 2020, or about nine months after it all began, shows a decline in births, says Laura Lindberg, the lead author of a study on the pandemic’s effect on fertility, by the Guttmacher Institute, in Washington, D.C. “We’re seeing, as data is emerging, real declines in birth rates,” Lindberg says. She, for one, never believed there would be a baby boom.
The study found that one-third of all survey respondents said they wanted to delay having children because of the pandemic or they wanted to have fewer children than they had otherwise wanted. These numbers increased for women of colour or women who were economically disadvantaged.
Still, while the baby-bust phenomenon is real, Lindberg says ideals likely haven’t changed in the U.S. to see a new acceptance of single-child families. “We certainly haven’t seen a change towards people saying they prefer being the parent of an only child,” she says. “In fact, desired fertility has remained relatively high. So I don’t think we’re at the point where those norms are going to shift.”
What this means is that people often choose to not have a kid at all if they feel economically constrained, rather than have an only child. In many cases, if they don’t see a way to have the family they want, they opt out.
For those who decided to start their families before the pandemic, only to have it arrive as they had a newborn, the choice is now whether they still want a second or are happy to compromise on one. It’s not an easy decision, says Mazi Javidiani. The Toronto father can’t contemplate how he and his wife could afford to have a second child after the pandemic, despite both having middle-class jobs and advanced education.
The two had their first baby in December 2019, and saw the pandemic arrive four months later, while Javidiani’s wife was on parental leave. The couple also put their names on a wait-list for childcare for their son right when he was born, but got a response in early 2021. “We got the call back last week—it took that long,” Javidiani says. “They were like, ‘The fee is $2,500 a month and we require two months of down payment. Do you want to sign up?”
He laughs. “We were like ‘Um, no.’”
The $2,500-monthly fee is the same amount the couple pay to rent their two-bedroom apartment in Toronto, which they fear could be spiked at any moment given the neighbour above them now pays $400 more. Though they feel firmly in the middle class with their wages, Javidiani says, they don’t with their other factors, like housing insecurity. “We often associate our income or paycheque to our class, but it kind of made it obvious that the security that comes with intergenerational wealth can really change that,” he says. Many others he knows in Toronto have bought houses in the past two years, but only with the help of parental wealth, which isn’t an option for him.
This puts the future in perspective—and Javidiani admits to frustration with the reality. “We weren’t sure whether we would have one or two kids but now it’s becoming pretty clear that we’re not going to have a second,” he says. “It’s not the idea of not having another kid that’s upsetting—it’s the fact that I’m limited by external factors to make that decision.”
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