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Decision Making about Becoming a Parent


Two Views of Identity

What do you consider to be your most important accomplishment? When we ask 45 to 50 year old Americans this question, most of them say that helping their children grow up is the most significant contribution that they have made and also the source of greatest satisfaction. In describing the aspects of their role, parents tell about continued efforts to motivate child persistence with difficult tasks and to see learning as a lifelong necessity. Parents are expected to demonstrate how to treat others with kindness, respect, and compassion. They are supposed to model a productive work ethic. Parents consider themselves responsible to correct misconduct of children, teach conflict management, preserve family harmony, and provide lessons about friendship, healthy lifestyle, and religious belief. Many of them orient children to sexuality, communicate appreciation for ethnic differences, support career exploration, show how to manage stress, and unite their plans with the purposes of teachers at school in order to foster student success. The challenges parents face serve as criteria for the pride that they express when daughters and sons show they are becoming mature and independent (Strom & Strom, 2009).

Young adult women express a different perspective. They acknowledge the love and guidance of their parents and appreciate the sacrifice and support received while growing up. Nevertheless, many of them do not consider the parent role appealing and have instead decided to take a different path in defining their own identity, purpose, and expectations. Some reasons that motivate young women to depart from the role that has traditionally been assigned their gender will be considered later. The prevalence of this nontraditional outlook is reflected by an examination of current fertility rates.


Low Fertility Rates

Demography is the scientific study of human populations, including their size, growth, density, and distribution, and statistics about birth, marriage, disease, and death. Global fertility rates are the demographic focus of this presentation. The fertility rate for a nation is the expected number of children per woman in her childbearing years, from age 15 to 45 years old (Kent & Haub, 2005). Forecasts show that the world population, which was 6 billion in 2000, will increase to 9 billion by 2050. This rise of 50% will take place almost entirely in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In contrast, all of the nations of Europe will decline in population (United Nations, 2007). Consider some fertility rates and their implications for selected countries.

Germany. The fertility rate of Germany is 1.4 children per women of childbearing age. A rate of 2.1 is necessary in order to replenish a population. By the year 2050, one-third of Germans will be at least 65 years old. Elderly people will outnumber the children by a ratio of 2 to 1. There will be 5 million fewer German children in 2050 than in 2000 (United Nations, 2007). The Germans consider their low fertility rate as an imminent disaster. Edmund Steiber, a politician from Munich, proposed to the Bundestag (Germany's Congressional body) that the government allowance given to citizen parents be tripled during the first three years of a child's life. Parents are given the equivalent of 150 U.S. dollars per month for each of their first two children and a larger amount if they have a third child. The Turkish, Greek, Yugoslav, and Italian guest worker subpopulations in Germany have much larger families but are denied government allowances for children (Orlow, 2007).

Italy. The scenario for Italy is worse than Germany because the birth rate has been below replacement level for 25 years. The Italian fertility rate is 1.3 (United Nations, 2007). Consequently, it is estimated that, by 2050, only 2% of Italians will be under 5 years of age while over 40% will be at least 65 years old. This low fertility rate in the most Catholic of countries seems a strange contradiction. One explanation comes from surveys showing that 52% of Italian women between ages 16 and 24 have decided they will not become mothers. The desire to have a career is their most common reason (Clark, 2008). Demographers indicate that Italy is heavily dependent upon immigrants to bear the load of a deeply indebted pension system. The nation must also compete with other countries in the European Union as well as India, China, Japan, and the United States. The troubling question for Italians is: How can an aging society compete in the global economy with a shrinking number of younger people to be the workforce?

Many affluent nations are looking for ways to address their sharply reduced work force, exploding numbers of retirees, and pension plans that must be dramatically scaled back. The Italian government offers monetary incentives to keep people working past the minimum retirement age of 57. Currently 25% of Italians age 60 or older are employed. By 2050, if trends continue, 42% of Italy's population will be at least 60 years of age. Pope John Paul II expressed a sense of alarm in his 2002 presentation to the Parliament. He warned, "The birthrate crisis in Italy is a grave threat that bears on the future of the nation" (Mattil, 2006).

The Italian government compensates mothers with full salary for six months of maternity leave. Some northern cities augment the benefits following that period. Extra benefits include $350 a month for mothers who choose to stay home for an additional 9 months. Nevertheless, low fertility rates persist. People study longer, find employment later, and may decide to marry at an older age but not necessarily have children (Mattil, 2006).

Spain. Once upon a time Spain was a powerful influence in world exploration and colonization. Two generations ago, under General Franco, large families were given gifts and medals from the state. Today, the Spanish fertility rate is 1.3 and will decline by 25 % over the next half century as the number of Spaniards over age 65 increases by 120%. Within a single generation Spain has been transformed from an average family size of 8 to a majority of childless couples (United Nations, 2007). Older adults complain that personal comfort seems the only thing young people believe in while the customary virtue of sacrificing for others is disappearing (Ross & Vegas, 2008).

In 1950 the population of Spain was 3 times larger than Muslim Morocco located across the straights of Gibralter. In contrast, predictions for 2050 show that Morocco will have a population 50% larger than Spain. Spain already offers such incentives as lower utility bills for large families, financial arrangements so young couples can buy a home, more preschools so mothers do not have to stay home, extended school hours so students are looked after late in the afternoon, and increased vacation time for working parents (Ross & Vegas, 2008).

Russia. The fertility rate for Russia is 1.4 children per woman of childbearing age (United Nations, 2007). Predictions are that, by 2050, the number of children will decline by one-third while the cohort of older adults grows 70%. Two-thirds of pregnancies in Russia are terminated by abortion. On average, Russian women abort three children. This means that the national death rate is 70% higher than the birthrate (Connelly, 2008). The state of affairs led Vladimir Zamovsky, Deputy Spokesman for the Duma (Russia's Parliament) to propose polygamy that would allow each man five wives, institute a ten-year ban on abortion, and prohibit women from traveling abroad. Zamovsky's proposal lacked sufficient votes to pass (Lucas, 2008).

Sweden. The fertility rate in Sweden is 1.7 (United Nations, 2007). Most of the working population receives five weeks annual paid vacation. Mothers, regardless of marital status, have grants from the government based on their number of children. Retirees have generous pensions. Even the church is provided financial support from the state. There are few prisons in Sweden because the high rate of affluence translates into low rates of crime (Thakur, Keen, Horvath, & Cerra, 2003).

In cooperation with the Fulbright Commission, we conducted a study in Sweden to determine implications of demographic change. Older adults are 20% of the Swedish population, a proportion that the United States will not reach until 2020. Our intention was to find out what the Swedes thought might happen if cheaper goods from nations with low labor costs threaten the scale of affluence. What would Swedes do to ensure that older adults, the largest subpopulation, do not support benefits for themselves like pensions, medical care, and prescription drugs while ignoring the needs of younger families that have children and require access to schools and surrogate care? (Strom & Strom, 2007).

We observed that, in the United States, older people are the fastest growing age group, vote in greater proportions than young people, and have far more influence on Congress through their American Association of Retired Persons with a membership of nearly 50 million members. The Swedes indicated that they had reflected on the prospect of such a scenario and agreed that, if such a day arrives, mothers will be given a proxy vote for each of their children. Our alternative recommendation was to expand exposure to education so each generation knows about the needs of other age groups and there is concern about the welfare of everyone. If the education of all age groups is ignored, one potentially dangerous consequence could be that the working age population decides to restrict the privilege of voting to citizens under 60 years of age as a way to prevent elder selfishness, a choice that could seem practical but would eliminate democracy (Strom & Strom, 2008).

Similar low fertility rates below replacement levels describe conditions in other European countries such as France 2.0, Ireland 1.8, Norway 1.8, Denmark 1.7, Finland 1.7, Netherlands 1.6, Belgium 1.6, Portugal 1.5, Switzerland 1.4, Bulgaria 1.4, Austria 1.4, Hungary 1.3, and Poland 1.3 (United Nations, 2007).

Japan. Of the 22 countries with the lowest fertility rates, only a few are outside Europe. These include the United States 2.1, China 1.7, Japan 1.2, South Korea 1.2, Taiwan 1.1, and Singapore 1.1. Demographic projections show that, by 2050, there will only be half as many children in Japan as there were in 1950. During the same time the number of older adults will increase to 8 times as many as there were in 1950. Japan's population of 128 million is predicted to decline to 103 million by 2050 (United Nations, 2007). The Japanese worry about the lack of younger workers and have tried to compensate through exporting automobile jobs to the United States where workers are more plentiful. There is also greater willingness by Americans to buy Toyota and other foreign cars if produced in the United States by its own workforce (Steyn, 2006; Wattenberg, 2004).

Among Japanese women with children ages birth to 14 years, only 9 percent report deriving satisfaction from raising them, compared with 40 to 70 percent in other developed nations (Longman, 2004). Government encouragement has failed to persuade women to have children and continue the sacrifice of full-time mothers obliged to closely supervise the education of children. This customary, stressful, and restrictive role is unacceptable to many young Japanese women who report they have given up on the idea of marriage or having a family (Rosenbluth, 2006). Unless women are given the chance to redefine their own role so that it includes employment along with gender equality at work and shared responsibilities at home with husbands, the Japanese population will significantly decline by 2050 (Dasqupta, 2007). A related explanation is that Japan is the oldest nation with an average age of 42 (median age in the United States is 36 years). In part this distinction reflects the fact that, in 1948, Japan was the first country to legalize abortion so its population growth ended before the post-war baby boom in the United States that includes 76 million people born between 1946-1964 (Connelly, 2008).

In a novel called The Children of Men, James (1994) speculates about what life might be like in the future as a result of sustained low birth rates. Special dolls would be produced for women whose maternal instinct has been unfilled. They could pretend they are mothers and take their artificial children for walks along the street or place them on swings in the park. Such an illusion is not confined to science fiction writers. Toymakers in Japan are aware of an imminent crisis because the child market is shrinking. In 2005, the TOMY Company produced Yumel, a baby boy doll who speaks 1,200 phrases intended to make him an appealing companion for elderly women. Yumel is joined by his friend, Ifbot, a doll with a vocabulary of a five year old to support conversation motivated by the adult desire to interact with a child. In an environment where fewer adults are responsible for child guidance, people may not have to give up playing with toys that can be the children they never had (Rojas, 2005).

China. Over the past generation, the People's Republic of China has been engaged in profound changes that have influenced standard of living, status of women, and family size (fertility rate 1.7) (United Nations, 2007). These shifts have been accompanied by speculation about how the departure from tradition is modifying the way children are raised and what is expected of them in a one-child society with nontraditional parent and gender expectations. The Chinese public is concerned that boys and girls growing up in small families will be spoiled and egocentric (Strom & Strom, 2009; Strom, Strom & Xie, 1995). The social, educational, health, and emotional consequences for children in East Asian countries (China, Japan, and South Korea) that have a declining birthrate were explored at an International Symposium convened by the Child Research Net (2007). Interdisciplinary initiatives addressing these concerns are valuable in providing awareness and direction for agencies and institutions that ensure societal harmony and stability.


Privileged and Underprivileged Nations

If low fertility rates in the European Union continue, the collective population under the age of 15 will be reduced 40% by 2050 while the segment of older adult increases by 50%. The median age will be 50, highest in history. It is noted that these figures are not speculation about what might happen; instead, they are a mathematical depiction of what is occurring now. There are warnings from demographers that first world nations must reverse current trends or be overwhelmed by a third world population that is already 5 times larger and predicted to become 10 times greater by the year 2050 (Connelly, 2008). In economically poor countries, half or more of the population is under 25 years old, representing a potentially enormous workforce. A sobering perspective about the changing global population emerges from awareness of fertility rates among countries in which women are not the decision makers about birth control. This is the case for African women from Mali 7.3, Niger 7.3, Uganda 6.8, Somalia 6.6, Burundi 6.4, Congo 6.3, Burkina Faso 6.3, Angola 6.2, Ethiopia 6.2, and Sierra Leone 6.0 (Booth & Crowther, 2005).

There seems no end in sight to the birth decline among privileged nations and all signs suggest that a rising number of women in these favored environments are deciding against becoming mothers. There is a statistical certainty regarding some aspects of demography. For example, Italy cannot have a greater number of young adults that are of childbearing age in 2020 than it has teenagers and children now. No existing population cohort can be added, except by immigration. In contrast, the United States fertility rate is 2.1, the minimum that is needed to replenish its 2009 national population of 305 million (United Nations, 2007). This condition attributes to immigrants and larger family size among Hispanics (of Spanish language origins such as Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central and South America) who are expected to increase from 12% of the national population to 25% in 2050 (United States Bureau of the Census, 2008).


Reasons of Young Adult Women

Choosing to become a parent is a personal decision that should include awareness of the satisfactions, difficulties, and responsibilities of this important role. Several hundred young adult American women attending our college classes have discussed their views about why so many of their age group prefer a future without children or wish to delay decision making about becoming a parent. They consistently identify these reasons that require deliberation by all societal institutions, including families, schools, media, government, community agencies, religious and medical organizations.

  1. Working toward a career that requires getting an extensive education.
  2. Seeking personal satisfaction first before considering the parent role.
  3. Financial strains that necessitate husband and wife both having a job.
  4. Fear of having an unstable intimate relationship leading to a divorce.
  5. Finding the right partner with whom to share the parenting obligation.
  6. Encouragement by peers to choose any domestic role that they prefer.
  7. Promotion at work is more possible for women without any children.
  8. Motherhood offers less status than jobs, except for poor and minorities.
  9. Defer marriage and parenting decision to a later age than in the past.
  10. Religion is a less powerful influence to force gender role conformity.
  11. Availability of adequate and affordable childcare for working parents.


We do not know whether young adult women in other nations would provide the same reasons for their choice about parenting. No one is able to recommend a single plan that would apply to all nations as they try to reverse current fertility rates. In our opinion, efforts by middle age and older adults to persuade young people to become parents will not succeed. Any strategy to motivate more women to decide to become mothers must emerge from within the young adult cohort. This is because, in nations undergoing rapid transformation, people resemble their times more than they resemble their parents. The unprecedented access to global media and social networking in cyber space means that young adults from Tokyo, Moscow, London, and New York have more in common with others their age throughout the world than they do with older generations in their own country. Twenty years from now, in 2029 when today's young adults reach middle age, we would like to ask them the same question that was presented at the beginning of this discussion--What do you consider to be your most important accomplishment?



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