The family leave act would languish another three years, as conservatives and right-wing pro-family groups argued that it would only encourage more women to abandon their God-given roles as mothers and seek the monetary rewards of the workplace. Opponents characterized the bill as an attempt by women to have their pursuit of pin money subsidized by the taxpayer. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) dubbed the act “another example of yuppie empowerment.”

In 1993, 10 years after the bill was originally introduced, Bill Clinton made it the first piece of legislation he signed as president. Since then, 20 million Americans have taken advantage of the law, and the economy, far from being dragged down, experienced the largest boom in U.S. history. Yet the family leave act was the first and last successful attempt in the past decade to drag this country into the modern era where the majority of women are in the paid workforce.

Nearly every national initiative since then has been met with similar resistance, as conservatives have both refused to pay for measures that might ease the strain of working families and insisted that any efforts that “encouraged” women with children to work were detrimental to the traditional family. As Richard Lowry explained last month in the conservative National Review, “Working moms are at the center of a variety of cultural ills.”

But if conservatives had hoped that withholding public support for working mothers would bring back June Cleaver, they were badly mistaken. Instead, a growing number of American women have found another way around the problem: They’ve stopped having children.

Between 1976 and 1998, the number of women between the ages of 40 and 44 who were childless doubled. Now, 20 percent of baby boomer women are childless and likely to remain so, and demographers predict that as much as a quarter of American women born between 1956 and 1972 will never have children. The numbers go up with education and income levels; fully one-third of women in their late 30’s with graduate degrees have no children. Meanwhile, the number of women with only one child has doubled since 1976, to 18 percent, and the Brady Bunch has gone on the endangered species list. In 1976, a whopping 36 percent of all women had a brood of four or more kids. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 10 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

For all the prosperity of the last eight years, a significant percentage of women of all races and ethnic backgrounds are behaving as if the country were in the midst of a famine. In fact, the birth rates among native-born women are lower today than they were during the Great Depression. Many things can reduce the birth rate, including lower child mortality, greater educational opportunities for women, escalating costs of raising children, urbanization, and lower levels of religiousness. These factors help explain much of the birth rate decline that took place in the early part of the 20th century, when lots of people were getting off the farm and no longer needed 10 kids to help out, and Progressive-Era reforms outlawed child labor.

But none of this answers why, today, 40 percent of American women are sharply curtailing or abandoning motherhood altogether. Various other explanations have been trotted out in a string of recent books on the subject: the desire for “freedom,” baby -boomer self-absorption, new lifestyle choices, and infertility. In typically American fashion, the trend has even been dubbed a “movement,” which now has its own “child-free” lobbying groups that are demanding such things as kid-free zones in restaurants and workplace accommodations such as paid leave usually reserved for parents.

But the idea that mass childlessness is the product of a “lifestyle choice” or a political movement defies common sense. We are, after all, highly evolved primates. Reproductive instincts are hard wired in our brains, and historically, only events of serious magnitude—wars, depressions, famine, and seismic shifts in the economic system, such as the industrial revolution—have caused large numbers of women to forgo having children. When resources are scarce, and when they don’t have much help, women will postpone motherhood. And despite the romantic myth of the self-sacrificing mother, if given the option, most women will choose to advance their own position before bearing more children. That’s because in the long run, a woman’s improved status benefits her children. It’s a pattern replicated all over the natural world, and has been for thousands of years.

Our failure to recognize this pattern—and the systemic changes manifested as individual decisions—has serious implications for the future. Many people will argue that a lower birth rate is a good thing for an overpopulated planet—and they will be right, up to a point. It’s the forces driving widespread childlessness that should concern us. America’s disappearing children are the canaries in our coal mines, a warning that our social and economic system is seriously out of whack.

Today’s childless revolution, as writer Madelyn Cain has dubbed it in her recent book on the subject, isn’t really much of a revolution. Birth rates have swung wildly over the past century, and the dips always prompt some political turmoil, if not cultural upheaval and increased attention to women’s reproductive decisions. In the early 1900s, birth rates plummeted from four kids per woman in 1900 to 2.2 during the Great Depression, a trend that spawned the American eugenics movement, as it coincided with massive waves of immigration. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that Americans were committing “race suicide,” because women were refusing to do their duty to have children. The famous British economist Alfred Marshall blamed declining birth rates partly on the “selfish desire among women to resemble men,” and helpfully suggested that a “national protest against the restriction of births from selfish motives” might help.

The percentage of childless women today is about as high as it was during the 1920s, and the percentage of women stopping with just one kid is actually much, much higher now (as are our immigration levels). Thankfully, talk of eugenics has not resurfaced in a decade or more, since conservative Ben Wattenberg wrote The Birth Dearth in 1987. In his book, Wattenberg had raised concerns about the declining birth rates among white middle-class folks and the rapidly increasing ones among poor Hispanic immigrants. He was promptly branded a racist.

Today, we talk about the childless in the casual way we once discussed swingers, as just another group exercising one of the many lifestyle options available in this country. If the discussion of birth rates lacks drama, that’s largely because the U.S. is not facing huge population declines like most of Europe and East Asia, where birth rates have fallen precipitously.

Immigration has helped maintain the overall U.S. birth rate, as have high rates of poverty. America’s poor have scandalously high rates of infant and child mortality unseen anywhere else in the developed world. (Foreign-born Hispanic women are averaging slightly more than three kids apiece, which has stabilized the national birth rate at an average of about two births per woman.) These factors serve to mask underlying population trends that aren’t so different from those abroad.

Fortunately, researchers have come a long way since Alfred Marshall and have identified some common factors among the countries with the lowest birth rates, which are evident in the U.S. as well—and they have little to do with selfish women or emerging lifestyle choices. It turns out that the developed countries with the lowest fertility rates happen to be those with social and economic structures still organized around the patriarchal “male breadwinner model,” which is designed to force women out of the workforce once they have children.

The leading thinkers on this subject, from French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais to American MacArthur genius and feminist economist Nancy Folbre, have made a provocative case that when women have wide opportunities in the workplace that are severely curtailed by having children, the birth rate will fall to very low levels.

It’s not such a radical idea when you think about it. Looking back to Teddy Roosevelt’s day, women’s rights had moved to the top of the reform agenda, and lots of upper-class women leading the charge understood that it would have been nearly impossible to combine work with raising children under the male-dominated system of the time. Like women today, lots of them chose work over children. The difference now is that many more women have that option.

If you’re skeptical that institutionalized sexism can depress the birth rate, just look at Japan, which has been suffering for years from what American University law professor Joan Williams, director of its gender, family and work program, calls the “rent-strike solution” to sex discrimination. Japan has one of the developed world’s most chauvinistic societies. It didn’t pass its first equal-opportunity law until 1985, and even then, it only “requested” that employers “make efforts” not to discriminate. Japan did not officially outlaw sex discrimination until 1999.

Japanese women quickly disappear from the workplace after having children. It’s not hard to see why. Along with a dearth of child-care facilities and a corporate culture that demands horrendously long hours, Japanese men have shown little interest in helping out around the house. Japanese government studies show that Japanese men contribute a scant 17 minutes a day caring for their children, compared with their wives’ two hours and 39 minutes.

While rigidly traditional family roles have endured for married women, the market has opened up to offer single women much broader opportunities. Consequently, Japanese women have created an entire new class known as “parasite singles,” who have scandalized Japanese society by working, shopping a lot, living at home, and eschewing marriage. Seventeen percent of Japanese women in their early thirties are still unmarried—mostly, they say, because they can’t find men who are willing to share the domestic load.

Avoidance of marriage is the primary factor depressing Japan’s birth rate, according to Japanese demographer Miho Iwasawa, who presented a paper on the subject at an international population conference in Tokyo this past March. Japan’s fertility rate has fallen to 1.3 births per woman, and in Tokyo, the most child-unfriendly place in the country, the fertility rate has dropped to just 1.1. (And you can’t blame the drop on contraception; the Pill wasn’t legalized in Japan until just last year.)

These low fertility rates are causing widespread fear that the country will be unable to support its vast elderly population without drastic measures either to increase immigration or to raise the birth rate. But so far, Japanese leaders have taken only small steps towards making childrearing more sustainable. (A few years ago, after discovering that education and birth rates in women were inversely related, one Japanese legislator suggested that the country simply stop sending women to college.)

Much of Europe and East Asia are in the same boat as Japan. Germany, Spain and Hong Kong have even lower total fertility rates, with a mere 1.2 babies per woman. Italy comes in close with 1.3. All these countries have arrangements that make it much harder for mothers to work than in Nordic countries and France, countries where fertility rates have not fallen to precariously low levels.

Ironically, the Australian demographer Peter McDonald has found that countries that claim to treasure family values most are the ones still pursuing the policies that lead millions of women to abandon motherhood altogether. These policies include tax systems that penalize the earnings of a second worker in a married couple—better known in the United States as the marriage penalty—lack of part-time work, child care, paid parental leave, the persistence of short school days that don’t mirror the work day, and the use of tax credits rather than provision of actual services to ease the strain of parenthood.

“High levels of equity for women as individuals in combination with continuing low levels of equity for women as wives or mothers means that many women will achieve lower fertility than they aspired to when they were younger,” writes McDonald.

Where does the U.S. stack up in this picture? Largely stuck in the 1950s. While American feminists have made tremendous strides towards achieving equality in the workplace and in higher education, they’ve made little progress changing underlying social and economic institutions. Everything from the tax code to the school day is still based on the male-breadwinner model, despite a workforce that hasn’t looked like Ward Cleaver’s in 20 years. And American politics is still heavily influenced by a political movement that idealizes the male-headed nuclear family. (Remember the Promise Keepers?)

Perhaps someone should write a reality-TV sequel to “Leave it to Beaver.” In it, we would learn that June had actually gone to Vassar and now works as a graphic artist. In our show, June struggles valiantly to hold down a full-time job, partly because it’s deeply satisfying but also because she knows that staying in the workforce is essential to her—and the kids’—long-term financial well-being. This being reality TV, she doesn’t get much assistance at home from Ward. (Recent studies show that even in the rare case where a woman is the primary breadwinner, she still does 13 hours a week more domestic work than her husband does.) So June skimps on sleep, rising at 4:30 every morning to squeeze in some work, make a casserole for dinner, fold laundry, and then rush the kids off to preschool before going to work.

As our series progresses, June’s situation actually gets worse once her kids hit elementary school (she has the misfortune of living in Texas, which until recently didn’t even provide universal kindergarten—something still unavailable for 37 percent of American kids). She no longer has to pay for day care, but her days become completely unmanageable because the elementary school sets her kids loose at 3:15 every day, leaving them more than three hours to roam around, throw water balloons at cars, and prank-call the neighbors.

Of course, the Beve wants to play the clarinet and Wally has swim team, but those activities take place at opposite ends of town (tight school budgets eliminated music and sports years ago). The Cleavers live in the suburbs, so there’s not so much as a sidewalk, much less a bus that would safely get the kids to swim practice and back home. Naturally, Ward, with his bigger salary, doesn’t volunteer to spend his afternoons behind the wheel like some low-rent hacker. Hiring a driver is out of the question; too bourgeois, and June worries that something would go wrong. Plus, the cost would finish off whatever money was left in her paycheck after being taxed at Ward’s higher rate by the marriage penalty.

June asks her boss if she might be able to work part time, but he says no, thinking he had been generous in giving her maternity leave when he didn’t have to. So June decides the kids would be better off—and Ward thinks it will be cheaper—if she simply quits her job and gives up her dreams of advancing up the corporate ladder. Wally and the Beve now have the best-educated chauffeur in town, and with June at home, Ward starts asking her to do extra chores like taking his clothes to the cleaners and buying birthday presents for his mom. What’s June going to do, say no? (Research dating back to the 1960s shows that women without their own income have very little bargaining power inside the home, which is why researchers believe that in families with children, men still don’t do much on the domestic front.)

Later in this sequel, Ward decides his stay-at-home wife has gotten dull and depressed—not to mention fat from all those hours behind the wheel—and he runs off with his personal trainer. With a ridiculously low child-support award and no alimony, June moves the kids into a two-bedroom apartment and starts job-hunting. She’s been out of the workforce for a decade, and not only are her skills out of date, but she’s lost most of her professional contacts. She starts her career all over again—at 50.

June and the kids scrape by until the finale, which features an elderly June getting a notice from the Social Security administration that basically tells her she would have been better off if she had just killed Ward in his sleep than sign the divorce papers. That’s because when he left her, he also took her retirement plan. In exchange for raising Ward’s kids, she gets almost nothing from Social Security, since she spent 15 years without contributing payroll taxes. (Social Security is only security for women lucky enough to have a good job for 40 years running or to be widowed by a man with one.) In the finale, when June complains about the injustice of it all, she’ll be confronted by a childless friend who says without a shred of sympathy, “Well, that’s what you get for choosing to have kids. What’d you expect?”

There’s a good chance that a few seasons of Reality Beaver might depress the birth rate even further, and prompt boycotts of the show by the Christian Right, but it would illustrate pretty clearly the way our economic and social systems operate against women. As AU’s Joan Williams says, women basically have two manageable choices: to give up kids or to give up the job. Since neither option is especially attractive, most women have muddled along on the “third path,” trying to manage both.

But the third path is littered with casualties, which is why American college-educated women have one of the world’s worst labor force participation rates. Only Turkey, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands have lower proportions of female college graduates working for pay, according to writer Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood. Forty percent of American college-educated women are not in the workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As our nouveau June Cleaver illustrates, it’s no wonder so many women decide the easiest course is simply to keep their day jobs and get a cat. Yet they don’t get off scott free either. Aside from any regret they may have over forgoing kids, childless professional women are frequently accused of selfishly ignoring their biological imperative in exchange for a new Lexus. But most people don’t understand that the cost of having children is even higher for professional women than those with less lucrative careers.

Say you’re a woman with a Ph.D., on the tenure track at a major university. If you have a child, and leave the workforce for five years until your kid goes to kindergarten, your career is basically shot. Tenure is an impossible dream. You will have done the equivalent of burning through your long-term investments on two weeks in Vegas. The hundreds of thousands of dollars that went into your education and career advancement will have been completely wasted. So here are your alternatives: Delay kids until you have tenure, when you’ve got more power to negotiate a better arrangement for yourself, or forget about the kids. And if tenure doesn’t come until you’re 42, good luck at the infertility clinic. (Incidentally, these are not tradeoffs that men are required to make. Crittenden cites a recent survey of MBA’s that found that only 20 percent of the women had children compared to 70 percent of the men.)

The ambitious woman trading family for power isn’t the portrait of the fastest- growing group of the country’s childless, though. According to the Census Bureau, the largest increase in childlessness occurred among women without college degrees. While the percentage of childless women with college degrees rose from 25 percent in 1980 to 28.6 percent in 1998, the percentage of childless women with a high school diploma and some college jumped from 9.2 to 17.7 percent.

These women look a lot like my sister. She is 29, married for almost three years, and would very much like to have a baby but can’t afford to. When she says she can’t afford children, it’s not because she wants to trade up for a nicer car first or that she’s trying to make partner at Arnold & Porter. Her problem is more fundamental. Like most Americans, she does not have a college degree; and her long-time job as a travel agent doesn’t pay very well. Nor does it offer even unpaid maternity leave.

Her situation is not unusual, as the Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t cover 43 percent of American workers, those who work in firms with fewer than 50 employees. Even if she did have unpaid leave, my sister couldn’t afford to take it. Her husband, who never finished college, has a good job as an aerospace machinist, but the housing prices where they live have eaten up a huge chunk of their joint income. Moving away is not an option, because my brother-in-law has benefits at his job of 14 years that are increasingly in short supply for those without a college degree. Plus, moving in search of cheaper housing would cause them to lose the priceless benefit of living near my parents.

If her company would allow her to take unpaid maternity leave, my sister might be able to turn it into a MasterCard moment, but then, she also can’t afford child care, which can run as much as $250 a week—more than 70 percent of her weekly pay after taxes. So for now, there will be no children. My sister and her husband are saving, and hoping that in two or three years, they might be able to afford the children they desperately want. Of course, the delay carries its own risk. The older my sister gets, the less chance she has of actually getting pregnant or of having more than one child. Her birth rate could be lowered whether she wants it to or not.

The politics that help create this kind of forced childlessness—and the many unhappy casualties of the “third path”—are a huge negative force in this country. It surfaces in the polarized dialogue between stay-at-home moms and working mothers, and in the growing intolerance of children in public. And it’s not a very efficient system. By requiring women to make impossible tradeoffs between work and children, our country shuts some of the most talented and (expensively) educated people out of the workforce, while simultaneously making it nearly impossible for them to dedicate some of their talents to raising the next generation.

If the ten-year saga of the family leave act is any indication, though, change isn’t likely to come anytime soon. Bill Clinton took a stab at it shortly before leaving office, when he signed an order allowing states to use unemployment benefits to provide paid parental leave. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce promptly sued to block the implementation, leaving the U.S. to remain with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea as one of only a handful of countries that don’t require paid maternity leave.

And don’t expect the baby boomers to be leading the charge for universal preschool. They’re too busy trying to figure out how to fix Social Security. Paying for the baby boomers’ retirement, in fact, is likely to lower middle-class birth rates even further, as it will have to come out of the paychecks of younger workers and through cuts in what little services there are to help young families make ends meet. The cycle gets more vicious, as the growing childless population is becoming a formidable lobbying interest against the family-friendly policies they view as discriminatory.

Those like my sister, stuck in the middle, could try the Marlin Fitzwater approach, and instead of finding different jobs, they could find a different country. Sweden would be a good choice. In the early 1980s, the country was facing a labor shortage and declining fertility rates. Rather than try coercive measures to increase birth rates (like banning abortion or restricting women’s educational options) or massive immigration, Sweden chose to make the workplace more accommodating for parents. Swedish women are now guaranteed a year of paid leave after having a baby, the right to work six-hour days with full benefits until their child is in grade school, and subsidized child care.

Sweden’s birth rate went from 1.7 in 1980 to 1.9 by 1996, even as the rest of Europe’s was declining. Women and children were the clear winners. In Sweden, college-educated women now have almost the same workforce participation rates as men and close parity in earnings, even as more women (and men!) stay home during their children’s early years than in the U.S. But relocating to Sweden seems a little unworkable. So here’s another solution to help speed change a bit: Let’s make the baby boycott official.

If politicians want babies to kiss on the campaign trail, they’re going to have to ante up, starting with part-time jobs with full benefits, tax equity, paid maternity leave, Social Security benefits for stay-at-home parents, and subsidized child-care centers—with well-paid teachers. Even more important, they’ll have to finally admit that the minivan does not qualify as a child-care center, and make the school day match the work day—complete with PE, music, sports, and other enriching activities on site. (Think of the traffic jams that could be eliminated!) Men must sign binding contracts to start doing laundry, mastering the vacuum cleaner, and driving the carpool a few times a week. Then—and only then—should women agree to fire up the oven. After a few years without new life to inspire, project their expectations upon, and inherit their empires, men just might come around. And if they don’t, childfree women will have plenty of time to take over the world and do the job for them.

Stephanie Mencimer is an editor of The Washington Monthly.

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Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones and a Washington Monthly contributing editor.