Catherine Ruth Pakaluk
Ph.D., The Catholic University of America
Sommario: 1. Introduction ‒ 2. Birth Rates in America ‒ 3. US Case Study: Leah, age 40, 5 kids, Jewish ‒ 4. US Case Study: Angela, age 44, 5 kids, Catholic ‒ 5. Policy Suggestions for Survival.
In the spring of 2010, I was riding a train surrounded by working men and women headed home for the night. My small baby, a few months old, was wrapped tightly against my chest, with his soft head peeking out. As I was seated, passengers around me saw my baby with surprise. A middle-aged woman near me asked «Is he your first?» . . . «No… he’s my sixth» I said. At this, there was some whispering. And the woman returned: «Six! I guess your husband still wants you».
What I want to share with you today is a message of hope in the darkness. Social sciences mostly offer descriptions of dis-order, dis-function, and in-sanity. Almost no one aims to describe order, function, and sanity, or what we also might call the good, the beautiful, and the true. There are reasons for this, but a subject for another day. But a social science of disorder fails to enlighten or achieve wisdom. Since it is the witness of truth which makes conversions and points to the restoration of the social order. For instance, the Lord said to the woman of Samaria, «You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly» (John 4:17-18) and He chastised divorce saying, «So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate» (Matt 19:6). The mission of Jesus Christ included telling the truth about the family.
In a two-child world, eight children asks for an explanation ‒ an apologia. Why do you have all these children? And what does it mean? I get asked this question a lot, and it turns out that other women with big families get asked too. And I know what is not the answer.
I don’t have eight children because I don’t believe in birth control ‒ even though I don’t. We could easily have limited our family size using natural family planning. But we didn’t want to. And the answer isn’t because I’m a Catholic, and the Church says that I should have eight children ‒ because it doesn’t. You could try to describe the Catholic Church as ‘pro-natalist’ because of its stance on abortion and birth control or the history of large Catholic families ‒ but in my forty plus years as a Catholic I have never heard a sermon on the value of having children. I have never been urged in the confessional to have more kids. There is not a single teaching to suggest that there is anything more holy or good about ending up with the most kids. It would be difficult to make a case that there is a social norm among Catholics or preaching from the bishops to have big families. Nothing sums this up better than Pope Francis’ airplane advice that women don’t have to breed “like rabbits”‒ a comment deeply offensive to mothers.
If those are not the answers, then what is the answer? It’s hard to say. The answer seems to be a deeply held faith, confirmed by experience, that the capacity to bear children, to receive them, to dwell with them in love, and to enjoy them, that that thing, call it motherhood, call it childbearing, call it fertility, that that thing is the most worthwhile thing in the world. As I had more children, this sense of value only increased. With my seventh I remember that I could not believe how blessed we were that God would give us another child. My sense of my role in fact diminished, and the more each child seemed as a pure miracle, a pure gift of God. Why, if you believe, and then you experience, that a child is a gift from the King of the universe ‒ why would you refuse such a blessing? The question becomes not: «why did I choose eight?» But, like Mary, «who I am I to be so blessed to be the mother of this child?».
But that is not easy to say. Not on a train, not anywhere. I began to wonder if other women who shared my life choices had ideas about why they do this, and better ways of explaining it. In the summer 2019 I traveled to ten American regions and interviewed fifty-five women with five or more children to find out why they do what they do, and what they think it means.
However, in a two-child world trending to a one-child world, the desire for children and how it is charted in relation to competing human goods, isn’t a small thing. It’s a big thing, the biggest thing ‒ it changes the destiny of nations. There is no more economic question than where people come from, and how many of us there will be. The ideas of Thomas Malthus and John Maynard Keynes (who was obsessed with Malthus) are deeply embedded into mainstream economics. There are two lines in economic thought: the line which takes Malthus for its father and the line which prefers the lineage of Adam Smith. So, what started as a personal interest quickly took on a professional dimension.
The scientific study of low birth rates has focused exclusively on low birth rates the dis-order. I realized that there is an opportunity to add value by studying women who have large families on the “inoculation principle”. We learn about immunity to disease by studying the healthy, not the sick. The smallpox vaccine was discovered by observing that people exposed to cow pox didn’t get as sick from smallpox. Who is immune? Low birth rates are a state of disease for families, for nations ‒ yes, we can declare this even as our politicians admit it only because they are terrified of the fiscal consequences. Who is immune from the disease of low birth rates. Israel gives a clue. In every nation, there are minority groups, immune from low-birth rates. Who are they? What can we learn from them?
In older times, birth rates depended more on weather, crops, famines, disease, marriages, deaths, fortune, and fate. But with chemical birth control, fertility is an object of choice in a completely new way. Do people want children? Why do they want them? Or why not? How will they know if they want them? The desires of people, their beliefs about children and marriage shape the future of nations because the sexual appetite alone no longer brings children. Unless the capacity for childbearing is switched ‘on’ children will not come.
This is why we must have an answer for the woman on the train, and the others like her, to provide a witness of a way of life immune from falling birth rates. To exclude these testimonies means that pro-family policy is a solution looking for a problem. To be sure, the problem is low birth rates, but policy can only work on the direct cost side. We have assumed the problem is direct costs, that the cost-basis is primary for the decision to have a child. But like the labor problem that Marx created, the search for a cost-basis for prices and wages is futile. Things are not valuable because people made them (LTV). Things are valuable because they are wanted, and labor is more highly rewarded when it is applied to things that people want.
We can derive a similar insight about children. Children have intrinsic value ‒ of course! But as an economic ‘decision’‒ which is the one that policy makers want to manipulate ‒ children are chosen based on a comparison of values. The value of the child compared with the value of what is given up to have a child ‒ the opportunity (or indirect costs). These opportunity costs are personal and subjective, and outside the influence of policy. Low-fertility is not a cost problem, but a valuation problem. Because relative valuation of the child (compared to other choices) determines the personal cost.
In communities where children are highly valued ‒ for religious or personal reasons ‒the mothers who bear those children are also valued highly, rewarded, and honored. Where children are held in cheap regard, mothers (and women too) will be held in cheap regard.
- Birth Rates in America
At the time of the American founding the total fertility rate of American women was 7 children per woman. By 1900 this number had fallen in half, where it largely remained until 1960. However, from 1960 to 2000, the total fertility rate halved again. The United States recorded its lowest total fertility rate on record in 2022, (check) 1.64 lifetime expected births per woman.
The explanation for the first shift is the move away from agricultural and home-based work where children are a benefit to households, to non-home-based work where children are a net cost to households. Scholars debate whether the second decline since the 1960s resulting in fertility rates below replacement is part of the same trend, or instead a second demographic transition in the West. But there is little debate that the slowing of birth rates since mid-century resulted from a new calculus centered on the role of women: the competition between work and family introduced by the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s.
The birth control pill made it possible for women to postpone childbearing, invest in higher education, and pursue a career, all without delaying marriage or partnership. Between 1960 when the first contraceptive pill was approved and the end of the century, the share of women in the labor force surged from 37.9% to 60.0% (in 2000). Labor economists Goldin and Katz (2002) report that «neither [the 1963 nor the 1973] cohort [of women] had as many children as ‘desired’, but their desires reflected trade-offs they were willing to make between family and career». Low fertility trends of today are the result of women entering the workforce, since having more than two children and a job or a career is blindingly difficult. It was not that children became more costly, not even that they were wanted less. It was that children would compete for time with something else now desired: higher education, a career, and financial independence in the face of eroding marriage norms.
However, this tale of career over family is not the whole story of American birth rates in the twentieth century. A small portion of American women did not fall short of their desired birth rates, and still today many women have families as large as their early American sisters. Largely hidden from popular view, these are women in the uppermost tail of the birth rate distribution.
About five percent (4.8%) of women have five or more children today (vs. 20 % in 1976), and about one percent (1.2%) today have seven or more (vs. 6.2% in 1976). Despite the large decline since 1976, the percentage of women having five or more has remained relatively constant since 1990 and has not continued to fall. Why they do this in a two-child world is as much of a puzzle as average birth rates plunging below replacement. But they hold the secret to the population dilemma today.
The American public policy debate largely assumes (first) highly religious people will obviously have children, but their reasons cannot be understood, generalized, or relevant for policy; (second) that pro-family policy can do its work in any kind of culture whatsoever. We can incentivize anything that we want with carrots and sticks. My work challenges these two myths.
- US Case Study: Leah, age 40, 5 kids, Jewish
We met Leah in her home, expecting her fifth child when we visited. She told us she «had graduated college and had attended a religious women’s yeshiva for 8 months. And we got married. I knew going into marriage that our intention was to start a family right away. Like we weren’t getting married to wait. …I was in a very intentional mindset when I got married. . . . And [my son] was born 10 months after we got married basically». She continued, highlighting the importance of her religious turn.
I think I always knew that I wanted to have children, but I never had a preconceived notion of, ‘I want to have x amount of kids.’ I just knew that I wanted to be a mom and I knew that I wanted to have a family. But I didn’t grow up with a lot of siblings and I didn’t have that experience and I didn’t grow up super religious. …I grew up in a reformed congregation which basically completely secular except you do token Jewish things. And now, we’ve chosen a different life where we are much more intentionally practicing religion and the traditional.
For Leah and her husband, having children was part of marriage, and both were linked with a sense of mission and purpose in relation to God’s plan for them. Leah recalls that at the time, as a young mom, it was incredibly hard:
to go through another pregnancy and everything and not having really slept through the night very much, but I mean, I just really saw it as divine providence and God’s will for me. And I really felt like it was a blessing.
Expressions of the blessing of children, as a statement of value, overwhelmed my data. Esther [age 38, 9 kids], another Jewish subject, more than once commented:
«God’s not out to trick us and send us trouble» she said «He really wants to send us blessings. Yes, things don’t always turn out exactly the way you might have expected it, but children are a great source of blessing. And God wants us to have more blessings and more healthy children and we should definitely ask for that».
Regarding personal identity in relation to her choice to have a large family, Leah described how her values and the ordering of priorities had evolved for her over time:
Like I think that when I had my first 2, I was hyper-committed to my goals. I still was recording full-length CD’s and playing in concerts and having rehearsals late at night. I had more energy and stamina, and the will, and the drive. I think that has definitely been affected by having a large family, and I think that after having the third and fourth, I think there are identity challenges.
It’s not as easy to pursue personal dreams and pursuits right now as it once was. It’s a sacrifice that I’ve made because I value having a large family, and I value every child as a gift. But I wouldn’t be honest if I said it wasn’t a struggle….And I think I’ve had to sacrifice some of my own interests and pursuits at this time.
I don’t think they’re on hold forever. But I also think that creatively, there’s only so much that a person has at any given time. I think as a mother of a large family, you have to understand sometimes things are on a back burner. It doesn’t mean the burner is off. It means you’re rotating priorities as needed, and I’ve done a lot of that.
I think our culture really values the sort of very rigid perception of success and work and has started to devalue a mother’s contribution to society. And it’s almost like radical and feminist to say that my contribution is healthy, well-balanced children and that is a contribution. Like it’s not just about my music career or how much money we make or any of that, really. Those are all secondary to what you contribute to the world, which is the future of humanity.
Leah argued that it is customary to assign ‘contribution’ to professional work and career, but to motherhood rather consumption in the way economists use the term ‒something chosen and consumed for personal benefit. In contrast, Leah’s view is that children are a contribution ‒ her contribution ‒ to society.
She concluded by saying:
…which literally the future is about good people being in the world. People that will go on to raise their own, healthy, happy families and contribute positively. And yeah, coming from a divorced family, that was a big motivation for me in choosing this life, I think. Like valuing children first. The family unit being the priority above career and personal identity.
Leah also remarked:
It has gone by way too fast, honestly, even though it is hard and there are times that I feel really overwhelmed and like this is a really big responsibility I am bringing on my shoulders, bringing another child, starting from square one at age 40. I could be doing this another 18 years. I could be on the beach drinking margaritas. But that’s just not what my life is about. And I just didn’t build my life around sitting back and relaxing. I built my life around working really really really hard and bringing goodness and light into the world.
…if anything, children are light. Every child brings a divine gift into the world that nobody else can bring. Nobody else can do what that person is here to do. And yes, it take so much self-sacrifice, but I ultimately feel like my husband and I are really happy. We are really really happy and fulfilled even though we have had to work really really really hard, to the breaking point at times. For sure, I mean, sleepless nights, endlessly. Both of us working. Both of us parenting. Putting aside some of our personal pursuits. But ultimately, yeah, we went out for our 16-year anniversary this past March and those moments are really really special. We appreciate them more, I think, because they’re rare.
In this single passage Leah articulated three things: (1) the extraordinarily high value she places on children ‒ each one is unrepeatable, irreplaceable, and divine; (2) the assertion that the opportunity cost of personal pursuits is well compensated for by that high value; (3) her marriage is stronger because of the shared project of raising a large family.
- US Case Study: Angela, age 44, 5 kids, Catholic
Angela welcomed us into her university office on a warm, early fall day. She taught at a liberal arts college, and her office, piled with stacks of books and papers, featured a child-sized table squeezed to one side, with tiny chairs and a plethora of tiny ‘masterpieces’ taped to the walls. Early in our conversation she described the challenges of balancing her work as a tenured professor with her lifestyle of openness to having children:
[Between my fourth and fifth] I just needed a break. But I think – I don’t think that’s the children. I think it’s because I work. I honestly think it’s work and children. I had four of the five on tenure track. And it’s difficult, as you well know. And it’s – for me I think there’s so much stress going on here that that’s the real delay for us.
The stresses of work and a full house had caused her to wait longer between kids, she thought, than she might otherwise have done. But her family life had taken a toll on her professional work too, something she readily describes in terms of trade-offs:
…Let’s be honest. I don’t have a published book. That’s not happening. I don’t care. But it’s not happening, actually. For some it’s fine. I’m not that person. Would I be a better scholar if I didn’t have children? For sure. For sure. Honestly. I mean, I used to work all the time before I had my children. So, for sure I would. Am I following all my passions? I literally hate that word…
…Whatever happened to apatheia? Passions with a capital “P.” *laughs* No. I’m not. Ok. I can live with that. Are you sure? Would you like to have a hobby? No. My hobby right now is sitting and watching soccer. I think they’re right in this regard. This really is true. If you make a choice, you’re giving up one thing for another.
Reflecting on the fact that she was probably done having kids, she told us how sorry she’d be not to have another one:
Well, you know, I’m actually sad. Believe it or not, it’s ridiculous. I know I’m forty-four and the average forty-four year old is not having another child. But nothing has wound down yet. I love children. And [my son] won’t have a sibling close in age. So, I’d love to have one more, just so he could have a little friend. I would. So, I’m not going to lie. I would enjoy that immensely…
It’s just such a beautiful gift, I just never could have imagined. I said I did not grow up a baby person. I did not grow up around children. …But it’s such a joy. Oh my gosh. Having children is such a joy that I do feel like it’s something God is doing for me. It seems like such a tremendous gift and I can’t believe that I get to have it.
Later, when Angela elaborated on giving up some of her ‘passions’ for the sake of her children, her conversation naturally worked its way back to a statement of her values.
Well, if you think that career and passions are the only way that a woman can fully flourish, then obviously you’re going to think children are an impediment. Because your career will be diminished unless you rely on an army of other people. Which, if you have the capacity, more power to you. But most people do not have those economic means. I mean, what’s her name, Sheryl Sandberg got slammed for that. And you probably won’t follow all of your passions, or possibly any, until you retire. And then you might be dead…Or too tired. So, but that’s ok. It’s just, what do you value? So, I just think that our values are more for individual self-fulfillment than they are for anything collective.
Regarding reconciling her personal identity with having five children, she stressed that she didn’t feel the presence of her children as a challenge to her sense of self:
I often wonder if I don’t have a problem with this because I am African American. I mean, I’m obviously Western. But I wonder if it’s not a little bit of a cultural difference. Because I often think that – I mean, there’s presuppositions – we’re sort of overrun with a misbegotten sense of autonomy. And I don’t necessarily think of – autonomy is not the first thing I would think of as the characteristic of the self. If it were, then I imagine that this would look absolutely dreadful. Because I don’t have any time for myself. I can’t exactly say that I’m a paragon of self-care. That is not happening right now. It can when you have a kid who’s three, but it can’t when you have a one-year-old. That’s just reality.
But since autonomy is not my primary value, it doesn’t matter. People are actually my primary value. Persons are my primary value, and I have a home rich with persons.
People matter. People matter. And they also – my sense of identity is sort of co-related to all those other people. So, my identity is not in contradistinction to other people. So, I don’t have to pull back and have my time. I mean, everybody needs some time. But… I don’t have to pull back to be myself. I have found that I’m most myself with my family – more myself than I ever even knew I could be with my family than I would be apart from them.
Angela appealed to her religious values to explain her point of view:
I would most definitely make a connection between the culture of hospitality and the children. If you have an openness to the other you have an openness to the other. And you don’t have to fear the loss of yourself in the openness to the other. I think that’s my fundamental point – is that I am most myself in the openness to the other. I mean really I guess it’s just Pope John Paul II’s self-gift, the whole personalism thing. You know, love is the gift of one’s self to the other, for the good of the other, and it really just comes down to that. I mean, I think you are most yourself in that act of gift.
We are most ourselves when we give ourselves away – it’s the paradox of the Cross, though… That is, Christianity, I mean, that really is the Cross. That’s just the paradox of the Cross. So, I do think that’s a mystery.
Angela’s belief in what she called the mystery of Christianity contained an implicit ranking of goods, not dissimilar from Leah’s. Children matter, above other things and even above personal pursuits, career interests, and personal comfort, because children ‒and people in general ‒ are part of a divine plan to “prosper you, and not to harm you” as one of our subjects put it, quoting the prophet Jeremiah. Leah referred to children as “bringing goodness and light”. And Angela connected children with the salvation of the world.
Angela laughed at the problem with answering typical questionnaires in medical offices and surveys: Is this a wanted or an unwanted pregnancy? Planned or unplanned? “Oh my gosh, it’s so irritating,” she said, “and I don’t even know how to answer the question. Well, of course they’re wanted. Well, was this all planned? What do you mean by planned? Planned by God”. Another subject, Moira, had retorted:
Three of our five kids weren’t planned by us. And every time we had a baby that wasn’t planned by us, there’s the faith that I didn’t plan this but that doesn’t mean someone else didn’t plan this. So there’s that openness we were talking about, like the stewardship of your life. Your life isn’t yours to begin with...
- Policy Suggestions for Survival
I said at the beginning that my research challenges two myths about the people having above-replacement size families. First, that religious childbearing cannot be relevant for policy; second, that you can incentive children through tax and transfer subsidy programs (socialization of direct costs of childbearing).
- Religious childbearing is the key to understanding how to construct good family policy. Families articulate both costs and benefits, or a ranking of goods with opportunity costs; the ‘big story’ from my data is the values were different, not the costs. Each woman described personal, lifestyle, financial costs. But each woman had personal values big enough to have more children ‒ a reason to keep going ‒ past 1, 2 or 3.
- The personal, lifestyle costs of childbearing are bigger than the financial ones. “Giving up a career” not “giving up income”.
- As women had more children, marginal costs (personal, lifestyle) decreased, and marginal benefits increased. Joy of the child is shared by more people.
- This narrative is critical for family policy. You have to get the benefits higher—financial rewards not sufficient because financial costs are not most important. Where does that come from? From religious beliefs and personal commitments. Women who have bigger families have a reason to have kids that is worth dying for: love for God, and love for family.
- The Church is the source of nourishment for the family.
- The most important “family policy” is “freedom of religion” ‒ thick religion. Religious institutions should take every function possible for them. Marriage, counseling, support, and most importantly: education.
- The state can’t save the family. Only the Church can save the family. If the state wants to save the family, it must protect and promote the Church. The state must stop competing with and crowding out religious institutions.
- Policies aimed at making it easier for women to work and have children will fail to increase births. Why? Women’s broad entry into the (non-domestic) work force is the primary driver of low-fertility birthrates (together with modern social pension programs). Having a child while working makes motherhood less enjoyable.
Child tax credits and subsidies are not a big enough ‘lever’ and anyway the nations are already bankrupt. There is not enough money in the world to bootstrap the birthrates by direct incentives. Direct incentives have not worked in any country historically. The family is collapsing everywhere, in states with large redistribution and states with small redistributions. Global convergence of birth rates is the single most important fact of modern demography. Religion is the answer, not socialism. The state must focus its family policy on the restoration of religious institutions. Religion is the first family policy.
* Testo originale della relazione della prof.ssa Catherine Ruth Pakaluk.
 P. Pullella, Pope says birth control ban doesn’t mean breed ‘like rabbits’ Reuters, January 19, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-airplane-idUSKBN0KS1WY20150119.
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 B.E. Hamilton, J.A. Martin, M.J.K. Osterman, Births: Provisional data for 2020, Vital Statistics Rapid Release no. 12, National Center for Health Statistics, May 2021, https:// doi.org/10.15620/cdc:104993.
 B.E. Hamilton, J.A. Martin, M.J.K. Osterman, Births: Provisional data for 2020, Vital Statistics Rapid Release no. 12, National Center for Health Statistics, May 2021, https:// doi.org/10.15620/cdc:104993.
 SDT cite.
 Westoff and Ryder; Goldin and Katz(2002; 2003); Bailey (2005)
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Participation Rate – Women [LNS11300002], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300002, November 11, 2022.
 C. Goldin, L. F. Katz, The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions, Journal of Political Economy 110, no. 4 (2002): 752.
 Some argue that women work because it is too expensive to live on one income. But this is an economic fallacy. It is impossible to live on one income since prices have adjusted to the two-wage family.
 US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey 1970-2018.
 Most of the change in birth rates since 1990 has been from the rising percentage of women having only one child (16.9% to 19.8%), and the falling proportion having three (19.4% to 17.3%).
 M.S. Kearney, P.B. Levine, L. Pardue, The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates since the Great Recession, Journal of Economic Perspectives 36, no. 1 (Winter 2022): 151-76.