Why do some women choose to have large families?

As the American birth rate declines, academic Catherine Ruth Pakaluk decided to look at the 5% of American women who are outliers, and who have five or more children. With a colleague, she interviewed 55 of those women, and shares their reasons and experiences in her new book “Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth.”

These women share openly about how having a large family has affected their careers, their identities, and their marriages. Listen to the full interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast,” or read a partial transcript below, edited for clarity and length.

Katrina Trinko: Joining me today is Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, author of the new book “Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth.” Catherine is also an economics professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Catherine, thanks for joining us.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk: You’re welcome. I’m delighted to be here.

Trinko: So, to do the research for “Hannah’s Children,” you and another researcher found 55 women who chose to have five or more kids and you interviewed them. Now, according to your research, about 5% of American women in their 40s have five or more children. So this is a fairly small population. What was alike about these women and in what ways did they differ when you spoke to them?

Pakaluk: Great question. What way they were alike, that was actually part of the question, heading out. I wasn’t sure if they would all be alike in some ways or if they would be very different. One of the things I was after is this question of, if we think about who out there defies the trends, right? So we have this backdrop of falling birth rates. You know, there’s these people all over the place. And like you said, this is 5%. It’s not a terribly huge number. The question is: Do they have anything in common that would be useful for us to know about? Or are they all kind of idiosyncratic? So I truly didn’t know the answer to that.

What was in common I would want to say was a certain commitment to the intrinsic value of children and that for most of the women I talked to, that commitment, that kind of principled conviction, that children are worth having, in spite of the fact that children require us to rearrange our lives in certain ways and require us to make sacrifices. They’re worth having for their own sake, not for ourselves to become parents, that’s an element of it.

You think … I have my job, my career, my travels, my hobbies, and my parenthood, but that actually above and beyond checking the box of being a parent, you might do this again, like a second or a third or a fourth time, because the child itself is worth having for her own sake or for his own sake, and that was something that was present in common across all the women I spoke to.

And so we can unpack that more. What does that look like? Where does it come from? But I would want to zero in on that as the common factor.

Trinko: OK. And so most of these women, when they got married or when they had their first child, were they imagining, “Oh, I want a bunch of kids. I want a baseball team”? Or did some of them evolve over time? Did they maybe start out wanting just a couple of kids and then it changed?

Pakaluk: Yeah, I’m so glad you asked that question. You’re the first interviewer to ask that question. And the reason it’s such a great question is because it’s pretty much the first question I asked my subjects in our interviews.

I said, “When you got married, did you know you wanted to have kids?” You know, five, six, seven children. …

Nobody got married with a fixed number of children in mind. There were two types. There were types who got married and because of the way they grew up, or because it’s something they had seen in their previous lives … they knew they would like to have a large family if God would send them children.

So there were the types who already, when they were married, they were open to having a family. And that had lots of different expressions. And then there were the types I call the converters, the people who said I went into this wanting one child, maybe two children. But then something changed, and that was a very interesting thing.

Trinko: So many of the women you interview they seem to be stay at home moms or they maybe work part time. I know there was one exception where there was a woman whose husband was a stay at home dad, but largely it seemed like the women were having the career impact.

How do these women, many of whom were well educated feel about, not necessarily being able to as aggressively pursue their professional aspirations as maybe women with fewer children or women without kids? How do they feel about that?

Pakaluk: I would say there are a bunch of different expressions of that. What I don’t want to do is sit here and gloss over it. So some women prior to being married had developed pretty strong career aspirations … There was a junior partner in a law firm who really wanted to keep doing law. And she thought that was really deeply part of who she was.

You mentioned the one mom who[se husband was a] stay at home dad, and she was a pediatrician, and she just felt that practicing medicine was a really big part of her vocation to heal. So for the ones who had those stronger career aspirations, I would say they had all different ways of putting it.

Some just said, well, I do love my work, but it’s not the most important thing in my life. But it’s important enough that I’m doing both things. Right? So there’s a professor who said she loved her work. She taught college, but she said, “Well, would I be a better scholar if I didn’t have all these children?”

She said, for sure, I would. She said, I don’t have a published book, for instance. And she said, but you know, when I think about what matters, people matter to me. And so I have a home rich with persons. That was a very clear articulation of a kind of trade-off, right? These two things are in conflict, maybe—writing more books or being a better scholar and being a mom to five.

And I’m happy with my choice. She said other women felt that it was just part of what they sacrificed. I think Leah said, well, some of these things are on the back burner, but they’re not on the back burner forever. You’re going to rotate them back later.

Finally, I think the former lawyer … In the shift to becoming a mother, there’s the possibility and I don’t think it happened to everybody, but there’s the possibility of actually becoming or finding an affinity with a new identity, right? So she said, well, I felt that I was this lawyer. … Not with the first kid, but with the third or the fourth or the fifth kid, I started to think no, this mom person is actually who I am. It’s not like the real self was back there, the lawyer.

And so who is that new self? Well, the new self is this, new creation. You don’t leave behind the lawyer that you were, but you become this mother person.

And for different women that I talked to, that was a harder or an easier shift to make.

Trinko: Could you speak a little bit more about the identity issue you brought up? Because I’m a millennial women, I know [women] my age are struggling with this and because especially in the early years, being a mom is so all encompassing.

I don’t have children, but seeing my friends and familyhow do these women, even aside from career … do they feel they lose their identity to their kids? You mentioned having a new identity. How does that tension sort itself out?

Pakaluk: So I would be irresponsible if I sat here and said there was one way that sorts itself out, right? So clearly some of the women I spoke to didn’t experience this tension in a really deep way. But lots of them did … I would definitely want to say that if I’m thinking about all the interviews the women I spoke to seem to indicate that it takes a while.

It’s that there’s something that happens with our first couple of children. And I would certainly say this was true for myself, but I don’t want to generalize that, that there’s a hanging on, like it’s possible to have a couple of kids … it’s like you put your life on pause.

That’s my life. You put that on pause and you have a couple, and then you [think], “Oh, phew, like I’m done with that.” You know, hard thing. I ran the marathon … it’s like an aberration in your life.

But if you do it long enough, that’s when this kind of gradual shift takes place. And it seems to be that for the women I talked to somewhere between three and four [children], maybe for some closer to five.

I tried to express in the book, the way that women struggle with this. It’s not something that’s easy or gets resolved easily. But it’s definitely not a kind of picture of the old self is lost. I want to stress that was pretty resounding. Women talked about this shift to becoming a new person in lots of different ways. There’s a lot of emphasis on becoming a bigger person or your character, expanding your heart, expanding your interests, expanding.

Anything that involves personal growth requires difficulty at the beginning, or even for quite a long time. I just think about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours hypothesis—you have to do something for 10,000 hours and then you’ve become really good at it. And I think that’s a theme here …is that very few of the women in our culture apply that same logic to motherhood. We don’t think of motherhood as a skill or as something that you can become deeply.

We think of it as a binary that you enter into. Now I’m a mom, right? Now I’m a mom. But in fact, what most of the narratives gave me a window into looking at was the idea that it’s much more accurate to think of mothering as something … we could say it’s a kind of habit, or there’s the possibility of seeing the act of mothering as a habit in the way that we think of other habits where you could get better at it or skill. So there’s a skill of caring for others, nurturing them.

And you know you’re a better mom with your fifth than you are with your first. That’s why I think this is why oldest children are so messed up. I’m an oldest, so I can say this. We’re just so demanding and we’re so confused.

I think part of this shift [is that] it’s not merely that something is lost, it gets transformed, it gets reborn. But at the same time, It’s not just about the old self getting transformed. It’s about becoming this person who’s expert in something. And what are you expert in? You’re expert in sort of nurturing, nurturing small human beings and bringing them to their maturity.

That’s pretty neat. We tend not to think about that as being a skill, right? And I don’t want to take us too far off track, but I’ve just been reading all of these news stories about the kind of these state-sponsored daycare situations like the one in Canada that we’ve been looking at.

And this general thought that the care of children is just something that you can put them in care—We don’t talk a lot about the quality of care precisely because we don’t think about it this way. We think of children need to be watched by someone. We don’t think about the skill that’s involved.

So I don’t want to get off into that track, but … this is something that really emerged, that you could become really good at this. This is a thing you could get good at. And in a world where the typical family has just one child, we have a world of pretty inexperienced mothers.

Trinko: Interesting point. So another thing that I hear a lot from people is they’re worried about the expense of raising a kid. And I feel like we keep hearing on the news, these statistics, and I was Googling it this morning and I found, a Washington Post article that said, according to the Brookings Institute, citing the Agriculture Department, that the average cost to raise a kid, not including college, was going to be $310,000.

You’re speaking to these women who have five or more children. Are they wealthy? Are they living a very poor life? How are they managing financially to have this many children?

Pakaluk: All types. Certainly a lot of them volunteered up front that they shop at thrift stores, they only drive second-hand cars, that they do lots of things that are kind of thrifty.

So I would certainly say that there was a common discussion about thriftiness and about I think Leah said something like, look, people don’t realize you don’t buy all this stuff for every kid, you know. Hopefully you get gifted or you’re helped to get those first things—the strollers, the car seats, all those things, but you can reuse them.

So that’s just on the point of the cost themselves. Certainly just thinking about the sample at large, they were not all wealthy. I interviewed people at every level of the income distribution from the very wealthy to the middle class, to women who had been on and off support or assistance of some kind.

So certainly they weren’t people for whom childbearing was especially easy or costless but they did practice thrift.

Trinko: How does having a lot of children affect the marriages for these women? Do they have stronger marriages? Do they have weaker marriages? Again, going to the financial side, I can see people being like, well, do you ever get date night when you have that many kids or can’t even afford to?

Pakaluk: You can find on Vox and all these places, you can find these ridiculous stories about how basically having kids will ruin your marriage.

I asked my subjects about that. So, of course, I can’t generalize. There’s all kinds of cases. I come from a large family and it’s a broken marriage. But in a sense I want to say that the stories bring a structure of possibility.

If it’s possible that there’s one marriage with nine children in it and they’re still in love, then it’s possible for that to be part of human experience. I would say we got the spectrum. I didn’t interview anybody whose marriage was currently on the rocks, but we did find the spectrum from the couples who said, we are still starry eyed and we look at each other in the same way [as when] we first got married to the women who really talked about marriage being super hard.

So in those cases, I would say that one of the things that came out was this really interesting idea … I think Danielle says well, it’s a blessing to have children as part of your marriage because it puts you in a place where you’re on a mission together, right?

So for the times when romantically, you’re not maybe staring into each other’s eyes as much as you used to be, or you know, people talk about marriage sometimes as a rollercoaster, you’re up and down and there’s ups and there’s downs. But in the down moments, if the children are your purpose or your mission, well, you’ve got something holding you together even in the down moments.

I would say a bunch of women … talked about how great things were pretty consistently and others, you could hear it in the conversation, that they struggled more, but their children were constantly a source of bringing the couple back together. So I think, again, not to sugarcoat anything, these aren’t all storybook marriages, but they’re marriages that they’re hanging in there and they’ll say things like, I see us together going forward through thick and thin.

Trinko: So how does it affect the children to have lots of siblings? Like you, I’m the oldest, of five kids, so I know my own experience, but I’d be curious when you were interviewing these women … again, I think we see a lot of negative media things like, oh, they won’t get enough attention from their parents. There won’t be enough resources, et. How was it for the actual children?

Pakaluk: Now, of course, I’m talking to the moms. I didn’t interview the kids, and the kids are mostly quite young, but this was really interesting. And I think we’re having a conversation now in this country about why the kids aren’t growing up.

You couldn’t talk to women for more than a few minutes about their families before these stories came out, stories of what do you love most about this lifestyle? What are the things you want to get on the record? And you’d hear these things. Well, what I really swells me with pride is when I’m at the playground and my 11-year-old son climbs to the top of a wall and looks for all of his younger siblings to make sure they’re all seen. …

If you have five kids in your family or six or seven, there are aspects of stepping up, the older kids step up and outside of diosyncratic situations, that stepping up as a source of joy and source of pride and something that naturally causes oldest children or older children to mature in ways that I think, it’s tough to do just by saying you have to buck up and mature.

So I heard a lot of these kinds of stories and I thought, well, this is the really interesting. You know, all of these college students, they can’t wash their laundry. They can’t, they don’t know how to cook a meal.

Well, I think the way one mom put it was something like at a certain point, you know, you can’t do it for everybody. That feels really overwhelming when you’ve got two or three kids and the fourth one comes along and you think, well, I can’t make everybody’s ramen. I can’t make everybody ramen, but then all of a sudden your nine year old’s going, “I can boil that water,” and you’re thinking, oh my gosh, they’re going to kill themselves. In a sense, out of desperation you go with that or you let them do it. But …they grow up.

Two pieces that I heard about that seemed worth discussing. I can’t verify all of this; these are just ideas that we’ll hopefully have a conversation about. One was the maturity—that it allows older children in the family to become mature in ways that clearly our culture is having trouble producing, like these kids who failed to launch.

And the other piece that lots of moms talked about was the way in which that being needed for the kids that are older—the 10-year-olds, the 12-year-olds, the 14-year-olds—that being needed by younger siblings was a source not just of joy, but a really deep happiness.

We’re raising these teenagers who don’t know who they are and they feel useless. And they struggle with depression, anxiety, and they’re on their phones a lot. They’re just isolated. And so here’s this whole other testimony that says, well, maybe if you’re 12 years old and you are the favorite big sister of this three year old who follows you around everywhere, [who] basically thinks you walk on water, how does that change the experience of the awkwardness of their teenage years?

And how does it change your sense of who you are, your identity? And certainly how does it prep you for thinking about whether children are worth having when you enter your twenties and your thirties?

So those were all, I would say, just discoveries or startling things to me that I wasn’t out hunting for, but I felt that I had to include in the book because they were so interesting.

Trinko: Yeah. I thought that was one of the most interesting parts in “Hannah’s Children,” actually, when you discussed mental health in large families. I know you unpacked it a little bit just now, but could you unpack a little bit more how how you see possibly a large family affecting mental health in a positive way?

Pakaluk: I want to say that this definitely came as a surprise. It’s not something … I’m certainly not a qualified professional. I don’t have reams of research on this, but it was certainly something so resounding that I included a whole chapter around it at the very end of the book because I do hope it’s something we can pick up.

It turns out that there’s very little research on this. I did a quick search … for instance, like what is the protective effect against not becoming depressed, not becoming anxious, not having various manifestations of psychological distress in your teenage years? What’s the protective effect of being around an infant or a baby?

We’ve been so primed to think of babies as a burden that it’s not even a question we ask.

And, of course, we’re afraid of the possibility that people out there might have babies on purpose to be a lifeline, and, you know, of course, we don’t want to normalize that …

I heard early on in the study from a mom who talked about bringing, I don’t know, her ninth or 10th baby home and that she had a teenager at home who was, she thought, kind of on the border of being clinically anxious and depressed. And she said that … when this 12 year old boy held her newborn, that it was like a sunlamp, that being with, holding the baby was like a sunlamp and it just melted away his issues.

And at the first time I heard this in the study, I thought, well, that was a nice story. It just went into the transcript. And then I heard it again from a woman who talked about her husband, who had lost his job and then lost his dad back to back. And he wasn’t sure he was happy about her pregnancy. So it’s a confluence of bad things.

And she says, well, when I had that baby, I put her in his arms, and he just didn’t put her down. He would go down and hold her on the sofa. And she said something like he just, he held that baby and he healed. And after that experience, he said to her, we can have as many more babies as you want to have because the baby is not the problem. The baby is the solution. And so I heard it there.

And then I heard it again—another story [from the] other side of the country. And it was a case of a much more severe, a child who was much more severely depressed and in therapy. They had an unexpected pregnancy in that family. The mom was struggling with why God would send her a baby when she was struggling with this older child, but the baby was the cure. …

At that point I said, all right, that’s enough, this is a theme. This is not just a one off. And I think I counted up about 20% of my stories had some piece like that.

And I just thought, where’s the teams of researchers researching this? So I say at the end of that chapter … we have all these diets and all these therapeutics and therapies and medications, but there was a subset of my subjects who thought, well, maybe we should try having more babies, maybe more babies as the answer to our overly medicated culture.

And I thought that’s a really provocative and interesting thought. So I just hope it opens up a conversation there. Of course, I don’t have the end of the story on it.

Trinko: So on the Right, as well as across the country, there’s a political debate going on [about our] very bad fertility rate. I think it’s 1.7 kids per women. How do we fix it? Is government involved in that? Are public policies part of that? And I know that’s not the main focus of your book, but did your research give you any thoughts about that?

Pakaluk: That’s a that’s an important question. It’s not the main focus of my work, but in a sense, it’s the motivating backdrop.

I want to differentiate between two types of things. So what I think is true is that policies and structures can certainly make it harder to do things that we want to do. … So I think there are some pieces of this conversation about what policy can do … for instance, deregulating some of the construction of housing in places where housing is very expensive, those sorts of things. We should remove obstacles.

But the major kind of thrust of this story is that the people who are defying that 1.7 … that it’s really a question of demand. … It’s a question of what do you want and how much do you want it? So I like to use the example of running a marathon. If you looked around and you thought we don’t have enough people running marathons, one thing you could do is you could think well, maybe people should have more running shoes. So you could helicopter drop a whole bunch of running shoes into your neighborhood. And would you get any more marathon runners out of that? The answer is maybe there’s one guy out there who wanted to run a marathon and was like resource constrained. …

So if the problem is you don’t have enough people who want to run a marathon, then you have to ask the question, how do people develop the desire to run a marathon? And so that’s what I’m focusing it on, and it’s actually what I think is really the truth about the situation.

It does not stand to reason that in the most wealthy society across the globe, in the history of mankind, as a general principle, we are resource constrained against having children. What makes a lot more sense is that as we’ve gotten wealthier … we basically don’t want children as much as we used to.

So the question is where does the desire to have children come from? And so I basically say, look what policy could do, if it can do anything, is think hard about the value-creating institutions. What are the institutions that help shape people’s desires? And I think we’d have to think about schooling, think about the way we treat our churches, especially our biblical churches who really do teach these biblical principles about the inherent value of children as a blessing.

And when I look around, I think to myself, well, we’re super wealthy in our culture, but we certainly aren’t treating our churches very well, right? We’ve boxed our churches into … a couple of hours on Sunday, maybe not even 45 minutes of coffee and donuts. But it’s tremendously difficult for churches to build schools. …

So that’s what my research would point to is again, not that there aren’t some obstacles we could try to remove out there, but I don’t think removing those obstacles is going to get us from 1. 7 to 2. 5. I think to get there, you have to really think about value creation, how we shape values.

Trinko: So, lastly, you mentioned you’re from a big family, you have a big family as a mom. What would you say to young women or young men today who are terrified by the idea of having a large family, maybe even having a couple of kids? What would be your message to them?

Pakaluk: My message would just be to start with one, actually. I started with one in the sense that I didn’t go into marriage thinking I wanted to have eight. A lot of my students say, well, when did you decide to have eight? I said, I never decided to have eight, I just decided to have one. You know, I got married, decided to have one. And the experience of one was so great that we were like, well, we got lucky. Maybe this first baby was amazing. We should just have one more and so just one more one at a time. And I mean that entirely sincerely, not everybody has a great experience.

It’s certainly true. And something I want to acknowledge [is] that people have physical and emotional burdens that are not the same ones that I had. And for those people, one might be the most amazing accomplishment in their lives. And I wouldn’t take anything away from that, but I think that if you wait too long to have your first, that’s the thing we’re looking at today is a lot of people have their first at 31 and go, man, I do feel a little gypped, like I do, this is pretty great, but you know, in your thirties, your fertility isn’t what it was in your 20s.

So there’s something about just try that first one and then lots of people will, but as lots of my colleagues and co-researchers in this area of fertility point out to recover the birth rate from 1.7 to say 2.5 or 3, which is probably the social sweet spot. We don’t need everybody to have eight, actually.

We just need a few more people to be open to having two or three. And I actually think that there are enough people by nature who will enjoy motherhood a lot more than they expect to enjoy it. Just one. Just have one.

Trinko: All right. Thank you. Again, this is Catherine Ruth Pakaluk. She’s got a new book out, “Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth.” Thanks so much for joining us.

Pakaluk: You’re welcome. Thank you.

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