There has been much fretting in recent years about falling fertility in the United States, most recently because of an economics paper suggesting that the need to buy a minivan or SUV instead of a sedan as a family vehicle could be deterrent to having more than two children.

While this is surely a consideration for some families, minivans probably aren’t the determining factor. Cars are just another part of the increased burden of having babies. Over time, the additional child care is far more expensive than a car upgrade. American parents spend more money and time on their children than ever — and that was true before the pandemic made raising children even more demanding.

Given the rising costs of parenthood, large families have, in a way, become a luxury, said Leslie Root, a demographer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It is a status thing because it shows you have the money to have, apparently, a big car, a four-bedroom house,” she said. “Having three kids becomes kind of like a rarefied choice.”

Until the early 1970s, three-quarters of Americans said that having three children was ideal, according to Gallup. Since 1990, the share of families with three children has stayed pretty constant, at about one-fifth.

The biggest change has come among highly educated women: Those with postgraduate degrees are significantly more likely to have three children than in the past.

“There’s this stereotype that women are focusing on their careers and putting childbearing off and deciding they don’t really want kids,” Root said. “But as women’s education has increased, actually those fertility desires don’t go away.”

What’s happening with fertility can be clouded by different measurement approaches that sometimes appear to come to diametrically opposed conclusions. For instance, the percentage of American women who are mothers has climbed steadily over the past 15 years. Yet in total, American women are having fewer babies each year.

A big reason is that they’re having babies later in life. More women are waiting until their 30s or 40s to give birth. In fact, the only age group for which annual fertility is increasing is women 40 to 44.

Some young women will decide never to have children, of course. In surveys, they have cited concerns about not having enough money or time, and they say they feel childbearing is more of a choice than it was for previous generations. This generation faces more student debt and rising housing and child care costs.

The pandemic factor

The pandemic and resulting economic crisis also are likely to affect fertility. It’s too early to say whether fewer babies will be born this year or early next (and there is no comprehensive data on whether pregnancies have declined). Yet, 40% of women said in a Guttmacher survey that because of the pandemic, they had changed their plans about whether or when to have children.

Some parents are deciding not to have more children because of the lack of child care during the pandemic or fear that their jobs could be in jeopardy. Others delayed fertility treatments or felt it was unsafe to get pregnant during the pandemic.

One-third said they were more careful about using regular contraception because of the pandemic, according to the survey of 2,009 cisgender women. Women who were Black or Hispanic or had low incomes were most likely to have changed their fertility plans; the coronavirus and job losses have disproportionately affected these groups.

The other challenges of 2020 — including political conflict, social unrest and climate crises — add to prospective parents’ uncertainty.

“People look at all these things going wrong and just feel very uncertain,” said Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a sociologist studying fertility at Bowling Green State University. “It’s just this perfect storm of a little too much right now, so lots of people think it’s not the right time to have a baby.”

Researchers who worry about the declining number of babies born each year say it could weaken the American economy and government safety net and leave older people without enough support. They also say it’s problematic if women end up having fewer children than they want to.

Black and Hispanic women are more likely to have larger families, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, as are women with a high school diploma or less.

The education gap in family size, though, has been shrinking. That’s because women with postgraduate degrees are more likely to have children than similarly educated women were 20 years ago, and more likely to have more than one, Pew found.