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Utah women are having fewer children than ever before

Kaitlyn Pieper
Utah Women and Leadership Project
Utah Women and Leadership Project found Utah’s total fertility rate has declined 42.2% in the last 50 years

Looking at family pictures with my sister, my grandma, Dona Reeder, remembers early motherhood.

“We were really poor,” she said. “But we were happy.”

My grandma had her first child at 21, the average age for first birth in Utah in the 1970s.

“Everybody was having babies … and lots of them,” she said. “They almost expected the girl to be married and the woman to be a mother.”

For my sister Kate Scott, this sentiment rang true.

“Growing up in Utah, I was always told, not necessarily told, but kind of been around environments where we have kids younger,” she explained.

That trend is changing. A new study from the Utah Women and Leadership Project found Utah’s total fertility rate has declined 42.2% in the last 50 years. Just as significant is the average number of children in Utah at 1.9. Executive Director of the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion, and the studies co-author, Kaitlyn Pieper, believes this data is important to know.

“Utah's total fertility rate is underneath the official replacement level of 2.1,” she said. “The data is telling a story and one of the stories that it's telling us is that Utah women are choosing to have fewer children.”

The study looked at cultural events that impacted fertility rates, marital status rates and other demographics such as education and religion.

“To me more than anything,” Pieper said, “I think it paints a picture of the Utah woman through the decades.”

One of the cultural events highlighted in the study was in the ‘70s, when no-fault divorce laws were passed, making it easier for women to file for divorce. The state also saw an increase of women on college campuses, women like my grandma.

“My dad, he was a professor, so we were expected to go to college and graduate,” she said. “It wasn't if we were going, it was where we were going. So even if I got married before I graduated, I would still get my degree, which I did.”

The Family Medical Leave Act passed in the 90s, which guaranteed employees unpaid time off for family and medical reasons.

“Previously, women would have maybe lost employment or been discriminated against or chosen to leave, if they decided to have a child,” Pieper explained. “With the passage of FMLA, it was no longer an either or decision.”

In the 2000s there was the Great Recession, and Pieper says economic downturns often lead to a decline in births.

“Fertility rates peaked in 2008, and have been on the decline since,” she noted.

Women in the workforce and women with a bachelor’s degree have been on the rise throughout the last five decades, with a sharp increase in the 2010s. Tie in additional financial concerns during this period, and fertility rates decrease even more.

“Research suggests that in expensive housing markets, parents might delay first births by as much as three or four years,” Pieper said.

Pieper says she hopes this study highlights the importance of supporting women to make fertility choices that are right for them, as well as getting them the support they need to make those decisions in the first place.

“I think that it would be worthwhile for policymakers to take note of the total fertility rate trends, and in some ways cultural context, and have that inform discussions about population replacement rates and ways to support childbearing in Utah,” she said.

And, as a fourth generation Utahn, these resources are personal to Pieper.

“It's really interesting to me, in the data, to see reflected my grandma, my mother, my sisters even,” she said. “And to see how, throughout the years, women really respond to their cultural contexts into their social, broader social and religious and whatever contexts, as they make decisions around fertility and marriage and parenthood.”

My grandma has seen this shift in women responding to cultural contexts throughout her life as well.

“I think times have changed,” she said. “I think it's really important for girls to get an education or have a skill or have a goal in mind.”

As she makes her way through her first year in the aviation program at Utah State University, Kate is taking this attitude to heart.

“Personally, I am not gonna have children for a very long time,” she swore with a laugh. “Just because I feel like I want to start my own life before I bring other people into it.”

A long time lover of NPR and radio reporting, Clayre Scott joined UPR in August of 2021 as the producer of the weekly podcast UnDisciplined. She began reporting in 2022 and now enjoys telling stories through sound and getting weekly texts from her family after hearing her on the radio. Along with her work at UPR, Clayre is attending Utah State University to get her degree in Broadcast Journalism, with time on the side to study Political Science and Art History.