The day that her four older siblings finally left home was the day Amy Wexler realized she didn’t want to be a mother.
She’d spent much of her childhood fighting with them over the bathroom, bedrooms, time, and money. When they left home, Ms. Wexler, who was still a teen at the time, enjoyed the luxuries her parents couldn’t always afford with a full house.
“I saw how it was with all of us and that had a big effect on me,” said Ms. Wexler of Toledo. “I just never thought it was my cup of tea. Just like I couldn’t do a surgical job, it’s just not a good fit.”
The U.S. birth rate dipped to an all-time low last year as more women like Ms. Wexler decided against motherhood. In 2012, there were 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, compared to 69 births in 2007 and 118 in 1960, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It marked the fifth year in a row for the birth rate decline and the lowest rate on record since the government started tracking fertility rates in 1909.
While the decision to have a child is a private one, in America — where the culture often equates womanhood with motherhood — any woman not in the mommy trenches faces the possibility of being judged negatively for her choice.
Ms. Wexler, who was married for 17 years, didn’t see her decision as selfish and never worried about leading an empty life. She worked, traveled the globe, lived overseas for more than 20 years, and spent time with her nieces, nephews, and godchildren.
“There came a time, when I did wonder. In a way, I felt like as a woman, it was my job [to have children],” said Ms. Wexler, 49. “I don’t worry about that anymore. There are kids everywhere. When I want to be involved, I volunteer and it’s fun, because it’s something I don’t have to do, I want to.”
The American birth rate has been declining since the post-World War II baby boom, but the drop accelerated during the recent recession when high unemployment derailed many young people’s plans to start families.
Wendy Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research on the campus of Bowling Green State University, said fertility rates decline after every economic downturn. Because data are hard to track, she said it’s hard to tell if fewer women are having children or waiting later in life to have them.
“It’s hard to track, because you have to wait until women are through their childbearing age,” Mrs. Manning said. “Some of those people in their 20s may be waiting until their 30s to have children, and people may be having fewer children.”
Pamela Richmond knew she wanted children in her life, but never wanted to be a mother. Ms. Richmond, 53, of Toledo, feels she’s raised many kids after owning and operating Heritage Childcare centers in Toledo and Maumee for 21 years.
“I enjoy the kids and the families, so I knew [day care] was what I wanted to do, but having a baby was never a thing I said ‘Oh I’ve got to do it’,” said Ms. Richmond, who is divorced. “I’m with kids every day. I’m there for those milestones and to see them grow up, so no, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”
Overall fertility rates have fallen, but trends vary by race, age, and ethnicity. While the fertility rate decreased among teenagers and women in their 20s, it increased slightly among those older than 30. Rates held steady for white women, fell among blacks and Hispanics, and rose among Asians and Pacific Islanders last year. About 3.95 million babies were born in 2012.
For decades, women have fought hard to “have it all,” both a career and a family that includes children without one suffering because of the other. But for Debbie Johnson, 47, of Waterville, having it all meant not having children. Dr. Johnson, a veterinarian and director of operations for the Toledo Humane Society, said she’s passionate about her work and is more than fulfilled by it.
“I love what I do. I don’t want to stay home and raise a child,” said Dr. Johnson, who married at age 34. “When you get married younger, it’s kind of expected. We talked about it, but it’s not how I want to spend my time — doing homework and going to PTA meetings.
“When I’m old and gray, will I regret? I won’t know until I get there.”
Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.