Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report on trends on American women and childrearing. The findings of this report were twofold: the first is that childlessness for American women is up. In the 1970's one-in-ten women ended her childbearing years without having borne a child; currently it is up to nearly one-in-five. This rise in childlessness is true for all racial and ethnic groups and most education levels.
It's anyone's guess as to why society might be trending in this direction. Some might surmise that there is less social pressure to have children for women today - it is seen as a choice rather than a duty. Additionally, contraceptive methods have improved and job opportunities expand for women who choose not to have children. At the same time, there has also been a general trend towards delayed marriage and childbearing, such that some women who want to bear children would be unable to do so once they get past their fertile years.
Interestingly, the one exception to the trend is women with advanced degrees. In this group, there has actually been a major trend towards more of these women having children. At first glance, this statistic is baffling. On the surface, one might think this group would be the least likely to be having more children, as they would be focused on their careers rather than making a family. However, there could be a number of reasons why this might be so.
First, it used to be understood in some professions that to succeed meant to choose not to be a mother. Motherhood was looked upon as meaning that someone did not take their career seriously enough and these women were sidelined. Perhaps the societal perception of a woman who "does it all" (career and family) is more acceptable and thus these women don't feel they need to sacrifice their career to have children (or vice versa). Additionally, in some of these jobs there may be more accommodations (such as schedule flexibility) for women to make time for their children so they don't have to choose.
Also, men have become more involved as parents in the home. This would make it possible for women married to men to pursue careers that are more time consuming and require men to "pick up the slack" at the home front. Then there are also the groups of highly educated women who become mothers without men - more lesbian couples are becoming mothers and more single women are becoming mothers. Both of these groups might have felt unable to have children in the past, and both groups would include women with more advanced degrees as well. Finally, as women delay having children, it is possible that women with more advanced degrees can afford fertility treatments that would make it still possible to have children in spite of advancing age.
In addition to all of these reasons related to societal perception and trends, the difference for women with advanced degrees may be internal as well. High achieving women may be more driven to "accomplish it all" - not just the career but the family as well. Or perhaps, in a different vein, more educated women today are striving for a deeper fulfillment - feeling that no career will fill all of their desires and that they want a fuller experience of their lives - one that may include children.
Michelle Obama chose the path of advanced degree (and successful career) and family. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)