Women, Children, & Sustainability: My Undergraduate Research Project on Family Planning
Monica is an undergraduate student studying Environmental Science, Technology, & Policy with a concentration in Applied Ecology at California State University, Monterey Bay.
My first undergraduate research project began when I was a volunteer for Regeneración Pajaro Valley Climate Action. I was given the opportunity to work with Regeneracion, a socially and climate driven organization that I truly respected and admired.
In the spring of 2021, I had the honor of sharing my work at the Climate of Hope 2021: Women, Girls, & Climate Justice forum. Prior to this event, I had no intentions of developing a research project, but I am glad I did. Part of my role as a volunteer was to provide insight into how women are affected by the changing climate. The objective of the forum was a huge motivator in my decision to explore whether other women shared my concern about starting a family in the midst of a climate crisis. After careful consideration and receiving acceptance into California State University, Monterey Bay’s (CSUMB) Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center (UROC) Koret Scholar program, my lead investigator, Victoria Derr, Ph.D., Dept. of Applied Environmental Science, and I conducted a survey to investigate this area of concern. My aim was to figure out how women’s thoughts of or participation in raising children is impacted by climate change and socioeconomic factors. Thus, my question of interest became:
“How is the level of concern for climate change and global sustainability associated with women's beliefs and feelings about their participation in raising children?”
There were articles I read that suggested people experience a feeling called “ecological grief” which is caused by climate events that provoke intense emotions after a loss of a species or natural hazard event. There were also articles addressing the impacts on women who already were pregnant or have given birth, but none talked about women’s feelings prior to making that decision. A fairly recent article talks about a new study that found many young people feel a rise in anxiety about climate change. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-58549373
During the time that I was creating the survey, I worried that I would include questions that were too personal or questions that would not gather thorough responses. I typed out 32 questions in total, some touching on topics such as climate change and socioeconomic concerns that would impact women’s thinking regarding childbirth and care. The types of questions given in the survey were Likert-scaled, short-response, long-response, multiple-choice, and select-all-that-apply questions. We asked the participants a few open-ended questions at the start of the survey:
What are your current thoughts on giving birth to a child?
What are your current thoughts on becoming a parent by adoption, foster parenting or partnership?
What are your hopes and fears about what the world will look like over the next 50 years?
Please describe your parenting plan over the next 5-10 years (i.e. birth, adoption, foster care, blended family).
If you are not planning on becoming a parent by birth, adoption, foster parenting or partnership in the next 5-10 years, please explain why.
Participants were also asked to rate the extent their concern about environmental and socioeconomic issues influenced their desire (if any) to become a parent. The scale was from 1-7; 1=no influence on thinking about parenting and 7=very significant influence. The rating questions involved the concerns about climate change, pesticides, overpopulation, food security, pollution, racial injustice, economic crisis, financial security, and access to medical care. Other questions asked about the general background information of the participants such as whether they were already a parent or had taken on that role, their gender, their age group, their race, ethnicity, or country of origin, and their zip code.
Methods & Findings
My initial intention behind the survey was to target residents from the Pajaro Valley, but the survey was distributed electronically and ultimately reached people across California. 26% of the respondents were within the boundaries of the Pajaro Valley, however it wasn’t enough for me to centralize the results of the study to just this place. The survey was written and offered in both English and Spanish to maximize the number of responses we received. We ended up using the demographics of the 50 women who responded to the survey, as well as all the required questions and some of the optional ones too. These are a few thoughts and concerns women expressed at the beginning of the survey:
Q: What are your current thoughts on giving birth to a child?
A: “I'm not ready to have children yet but I would like to in the future. But I am still hesitant because I am wary of bringing a child into this world. This world is hard to live in, politically, financially, and environmentally.” (18-23 Hispanic, Latino/a, Chicano/a)
A: “...es una responsabilidad muy grande y las condiciones sociales, económicas y climáticas no son las más favorables.” (45+ Hispano, Latino/a, Chicano/a, Mexicana, Mexico-Americana)
Q: What are your hopes and fears about what the world will look like over the next 50 years?
A: “...I worry because at the rate that we are going with in terms of pollution and waste, I would imagine that the world would look and become much scarier than it already is.” (24-29 Mexican/Mexican-American)
A: “...Por un lado el planeta natural se está acabando. Nos lo estamos acabando. Y eso me hace sentir triste y con coraje. Por otro lado, muchas personas y grupos están trabajando por la justicia social y ambiental.” (36-44 Hispano, Latino/a, Chicano/a)
A key part of the study resulted from asking the women about the number of children they intend to have in the next 5-10 years. We broke it down into 3 categories: 1 child, 2 children, and 3 or more children. Since climate change was a top concern throughout, we decided to examine the relationship between level of concern for climate change, as compared to the number of intended children. Some responses appear to directly relate their concern about climate change with whether or how they have children. For example, one woman who rated climate change concern a 7 and does not intend to have children expressed the following:
“My fears are that people will damage our natural world to the point that we no longer have a natural environment (…) I don't know if by then the world will be a better place or I will be in a relationship ready to have children.” (24-29 years; Mexican/Mexican-American)
The biggest focus was not so much on the intensity of the concern, rather how those concerns affected the way women thought about having children. The scope of this research was to explore women’s thoughts on giving birth or starting a family via other means, so we focused on the results from women of ages 18-35 for the remainder of the study.
Chart showing the percentages for each age category for the participants in the survey.
We found statistically significant evidence under a linear regression model that the level of climate change concern tends to decrease as the intended number of children increases. In other words, those who intend to have 0 or even 1 child, tend to have higher concerns on average for climate change. Those who intend to have a greater number of children (2 or more), tend to have less concerns overall for climate change. Statistical analysis revealed that the average ratings for climate concern based on the number of intended children in the 18-35 age group were: 6.9 = 0 children, 6.6 = 1 child, 6.1 = 2 children, 4.0 = 3+ children.
To conclude, these were the key takeaways:
High levels of concern for climate change affect participants in the following ways: having no or fewer children, expressing concern about the idea of having children, expressing concern about the potential future of children’s well-being, considering adoption or fostering.
2. These high levels of concern also may be chronically contributing to women’s well-being, their thinking, intentions, and ability to plan their future.
My closing thoughts
After obtaining the results of the study, I prepared to speak at the Climate of Hope conference by developing my presentation slides. Once I gave my presentation at the forum, I received a lot of good feedback and many expressed their similar thoughts and concerns like the ones given by the respondents. I knew this information needed to be communicated in a larger manner, so aside from writing this reflection, I have also created a manuscript to submit to the Nature Climate Change Journal. My goal is to complete the cover letter soon then submit the materials to receive feedback or approval for publication. I felt the importance of doing this since this issue resonated with more women than expected which means there may be an overall rising concern showing climate concern and its effect on women's thoughts regarding maternal decisions.
I still worry about the future of our planet and I wonder if bringing a child into this world is the right thing for me.
Spending most of my time at home during the period I was conducting this research project allowed me to think about what having a child would mean for me. I knew I needed to reflect on how that would contribute to the ever-growing human population. I still worry about the future of our planet and I wonder if bringing a child into this world is the right thing for me. I knew that others like me may have felt the same way. I believe that the pandemic may have enhanced the feelings that women expressed when participating in the survey. Because of this, some future directions this research could go in include surveying women under 18, extending the survey to other regions not reached initially, obtaining a much larger sample, modifying some of the survey questions, and surveying women in a different time period (post-pandemic). I hope the subject of this project becomes a more relevant topic for more people. I believe this research has set the foundation for future generations to consider thinking about for their future, and I believe that this is a valid discussion that shouldn’t be ignored.
I would like to thank and acknowledge several people that have helped me along the way and those who listened to my presentations and felt the need to share their experiences with me. I couldn’t have done any of this without the support I’ve received from Nancy Faulstich, Natalie Olivas, Dr. Victoria Derr, and Dr. Steven Kim.
If you would like more detailed information about the survey and access to the slides I’ve created, here is the link: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1PWw-TY_6qbgDqTAgFDul9arsyTWEvTcQsWqJaqrXK_0/edit?usp=sharing