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I know firsthand that having kids while young is penalized at work. If we're worried about declining birth rates, workplaces need to start supporting young motherhood.

A woman on the phone stands in the middle of the sidewalk with her two kids facing towards her
The author with her two children.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

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  • The US birth rate is declining partly because women are delaying childbirth.
  • Discriminatory work culture plays a big part in deterring women from having kids earlier in life.
  • Now is the time to address the part our workplaces play in families' reproductive options.
  • Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a writer living in New York City.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

I will never forget that moment: It was just a few weeks after I gave birth to my second child — I was 26 years old and on unpaid maternity leave (I had not worked the full year required to take advantage of my company's policy). I was staring at a hospital bill for childbirth, and ping! I received an email notification that my monthly student-loan payment was due. I looked around and thought: Welcome to American millennial motherhood.

For the past few years, I've been reading the latest studies on the declining American birth rate with an amused smile. 

Of course my generation of American women is choosing to push off childbearing and having fewer children once they start. It's because of not only the obvious price tags of healthcare and childcare but also the less-easily quantified cost: the price of working in a culture that has little tolerance for mothers, a culture that gives women little time to have children.

We can't talk about the declining American birth rate without talking about how workplace culture — sometimes, in ostensibly progressive spaces — often deters women from choosing to have children during their most fertile stage in life, which often results in women having fewer children than they may want.

In far too many workplaces, pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing in the early chapters of one's career is a liability — and few young women are ready to take that risk, knowing they'll have little support for it. In contrast, studies show that women who have children later are more equipped to "catch up" on earnings after taking time to have children and less likely to find themselves on the dreaded (and possibly mythical) "mommy track."

In a recent New York Times report on why American women are delaying motherhood, several women said they were waiting to "establish their careers." For years, feminism has pushed the idea that freedom can be found in work, but somehow, women accept this dogma without asking: Who says careers need to be "established" before having children? Why are our offices so designed to keep mothers out?

The workplace isn't built for young mothers

I knew this challenge intimately because I was the anomaly who attempted to both have kids and work. 

Throughout my 20s, it was made clear to me that having children while pursuing a career in New York City was a career risk. I disregarded it. As an Orthodox Jew, I believed family was primary.

Alas, I quickly learned that in the media industry, young mothers are hard to find. While my 20-something peers went out for drinks after work, I would dash home to relieve my babysitter. And while I constantly missed my children's pediatric checkups during their first years out of fear of stepping out of the office, I watched older colleagues who had reached a senior-enough position calmly step out for pediatric appointments without concern they were being perceived as uncommitted.

Open women's advice books — "Lean In" or "Drop the Ball," for example — and the advice is targeted to someone else, someone older and more senior with at least a decade of work under her belt. These books are written for women who have put years into climbing corporate ladders; they are for those who can afford to cover necessary childcare costs. 

Many of my peers who became mothers in their 20s have had similar experiences. We exchange damning stories in a sort of whisper network. One friend, a journalist, was promptly fired from her job when she raised concerns about being discriminated against after returning from maternity leave. Another friend, at a white-shoe law firm, got pregnant at 26 with her first child and told me how she was treated like an alien — "the only other pregnant lawyer in the firm was 49," she said. Another friend entered a job pregnant and was required back at her desk two weeks after birth, the lack of recovery costing her health later on.

Many of the inequities working mothers face were particularly exposed during the pandemic, when mothers were judged against unattached peers who could work all hours. After all, why hire a parent when you can get someone who will work weekends and all their waking hours for the same price?

American women want more children than they are having 

The declining birth rate shouldn't be a concern owned by pro-natalist hawks who want to keep women in the proverbial kitchen. It's also not a crisis in "family values." In fact, if we would listen closely to actual American women, we would see that this is, in fact, contrary to their desires: According to 2018 data from the General Social Survey, while the birth rate is falling, millennial women's desired fertility is rising. While American millennial women in the survey reported wanting 2.7 children on average, they will likely have 1.8 — that gap is the highest it's been in 40 years.

That may be because women simply don't have the time to bear children. They are pressured to push off childbearing for half of their adult lives' fertility windows to "establish careers" or save up money. This is, perhaps, a story of shattered family dreams for countless Americans, and it is this data that we should be paying attention to most closely.

While rising costs of living and childcare expenses require long-term policy changes at a high level, what we can change now is how we treat mothers in the workplace, particularly those who are lower in the office hierarchy and therefore have fewer resources at their disposal. To support young mothers, workplaces ought to offer flexible hours, remote-work options and paid maternity leave (even for those who enter a job while pregnant), as well as provide sensitivity training to management. 

Remember, in every hostile workplace, there is a woman making painful reproductive choices because of that hostility. 

Every traumatizing experience of a maternity leave denied, every nasty email questioning one's "availability," every threat of being fired, is another voice whispering into a young woman's ear: "There's no way I can have a child now, here. It'll have to wait."

And remember, for every woman enduring this, there is a group of young female interns watching from the watercooler, wide-eyed, taking note of what awaits them.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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