Divorce

More Babies or More Divorces After COVID-19?

How disasters do, or don’t, affect fertility and divorce.

Posted Apr 03, 2020

Brook-Cagle/Unsplash
Source: Brook-Cagle/Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic is so different from anything we have ever experienced, yet it will be compared to natural disasters and outbreaks we have had in the past. The differences between our experiences with the coronavirus are its vastness, its unpredictability, and its duration. It’s as if we are stranded on an island with essentially no idea when we can get off.

We are accustomed to external involvement with others, amusements from sporting events and concerts to dinners with friends. Our usual human contact and diversions have been taken away and we are confined with severe limitations, emotional and financial pressures and distress over the health of those close to us and ourselves.

Eventually, this pandemic will be compared to past terrorist attacks and natural disasters that were, comparatively, in some ways on a smaller scale and could be measured in terms of a more or less predictable timeline. Will more babies be born as a result of COVID-19? Will more couples separate when we get back to “normal”? At some point, statisticians will attempt to draw parallels. 

A Baby Boom?

Historically and in many instances arguably, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and blackouts have affected the birth rate. The consensus thinking is that following such events there will be a baby boom. But is it true? 

  • The New York City 1965 Blackout. A power outage caused New York City to go dark for 10 hours. Nine months later, The New York Times and other media had hyped a surge in births. However, in 1970, J. Richard Udry compared statistics from the five previous years to discover no increase in births resulting from the blackout.
  • Hurricanes. As they relate to fertility, hurricanes seem to be closely linked to the severity of the warnings. The less severe the warnings, the more babies appear to be conceived. A study of storm advisories in the Atlantic and Gulf regions, “The Fertility Effect of Catastrophe: U.S. Hurricane Births,” tracked births nine months after significant storms. Contrary to media reports about baby booms after disaster, researchers reporting in the Journal of Population Economics suggest that much of the media coverage on this topic is “overblown” or “mixed” and the effects could be temporary. As you see, there’s not much agreement on an increase in babies nine months after a disaster.

Drs. Catherine Cohan, Assistant Research Professor at The Pennsylvania State University, and fellow researcher, Steve W. Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles looked at data following Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Their analysis, “Life Course Transitions and Natural Disaster: Marriage, Birth, and Divorce Following Hurricane Hugo,” in the Journal of Family Psychology, “indicated that the year following the hurricane, marriage, birth, and divorce rates increased in the 24 counties declared disaster areas.” They note, “the results suggested that a life-threatening event motivated people to take significant action in their close relationships that altered their life course.” 

More Divorces?

I’m inclined to believe we will see an uptick in divorces resulting from the stress of being confined with our spouses with whom we are not accustomed to spending so much one-on-one time. The lack of freedom and day-to-day struggles, coupled with the emotional and financial fallout, will probably take their toll on marriages. In a recent CNBC report, lawyers concurred:

“For some, life in lockdown due to the coronavirus may feel similar to holidays like Christmas—but that’s not necessarily a good thing, as prolonged periods together can prove make or break for a relationship,” U.K. divorce lawyer Baroness Fiona Shackleton of Belgravia told the U.K.’s parliament. She added, “that lawyers in the sector had predicted a likely rise in divorce rates following ‘self-imposed confinement.’” 

Divorce after the September 11 World Trade Center attack tells a different story and one that may or may not turn out to be applicable in the aftermath of COVID-19. Catherine Cohan, Ph.D., and her colleagues examined divorce filings in New York City as well as in neighboring communities. The results of that study, “Divorce following the September 11 terrorist attacks” published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, may be contrary to what you think: “Marital preservation appears to be an immediate response to mortal threat, but relaxes once the threat is less acute. Under conditions of extreme stress, uncertainty, and threat, people maintain the status quo and refrain from making a major life change.”  

Unlike natural disasters like hurricane Hugo when divorces increased, after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, divorces decreased in counties in and around the site. Similarly, Cohan found after the World Trade Center bombing, another man-made disaster, divorce rates decreased in New York City and in the suburbs studied.

Nonetheless, Cohan’s worries about COVID-19 are similar to mine. She told me, “I have some significant concerns that the stress of extended confinement and economic hardship associated with the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a spike in domestic violence and divorces within the next year.”

Your thoughts?

COVID-19 cannot be neatly categorized as a blackout, terrorist attack, or natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake. Despite similarities in the way it ruptures our lives, it is an entity in itself with eventual repercussions and aftershocks within the family. One has to wonder not if, but how COVID-19 will ultimately change marriage contracts and birth rates.

For years now, women have been having fewer babies. The drop in the birth rate has been steady. During the Great Recession in 2008, the birth rate dropped dramatically and has remained low, hitting a record low in 2018, or a 15 percent drop since 2007 as reflected in data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Given that women are waiting longer to start their families and the families they start are smaller, it seems unlikely that this pandemic will increase the birth rate. We won’t have answers for a very long time, but patterns, opinions, and indicators before the pandemic suggest the birth rate will remain low and the divorce rate could rise.

Is COVID-19 affecting how you think about having a baby or staying in the relationship with your partner? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. You can respond anonymously if you prefer.

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Copyright @2020 by Susan Newman.

References

Cohan, Catherine L., Steve W. Cole and Robert Schoen. (2009). “Divorce following the September 11 terrorist attacks.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 26(4):512-530 December 2. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407509351043

Cohan, Catherine L., Steve W. Cole. (2002). “Life Course Transitions and Natural Disaster: Marriage, Birth, and Divorce Following Hurricane Hugo.” Journal of Family Psychology: Vol. 16, No. 1, 14–25. DOI: 10.1037//0893-3200.16.1.14

Evans, Richard W., Yingyao, Hu & Zhong Zhao. (2008). “The fertility effect of catastrophe: U.S. hurricane births.Journal of Population Economics: September. DOI 10.1007/s00148-008-0219-2. 

Udry, J. Richard.  (1970). “The Effect of the Great Blackout of 1965 on Births in New York City.” Demography. Vol. 7, No. 3 (August), pp. 325-327. Population Association of America.