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  • "In my sample, women had more children despite the costs because they valued children enough to give up those things." Tweet This
  • "Time is the most precious thing we can give our friends who are mothers—but so often we’re looking for something material to give instead." Tweet This
  • "People purchase children with their own selves. You can’t really compensate them enough to give up status, lifestyle, interests, and sleeping through the night." Tweet This
Category: Fertility, Interview

Recent reports show that the birth rate in America is not only significantly below replacement level, but is continuing to fall. In response, family researchers have been trying to understand why Americans are hesitant to have more children and what might help reverse the decline. In her new book Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, Catholic University of America economist Catherine Ruth Pakaluk comes at the issue from a different direction; instead of asking why so many women choose smaller families, Pakaluk asks why some American women (about 5%) still choose to have large ones. As a mother of four myself, I was curious to hear more from Pakaluk about what she learned from the women in her study. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dixie Dillon LaneYour book is unusual for your field in that, rather than making arguments based primarily on quantitative data, you have chosen to focus on qualitative research, in this case in the form of in-person interviews with mothers of large families. What do you see as the advantages and challenges of conducting and using interviews as sources? 

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk: Well, quantitative research based on population statistics doesn’t provide much insight into human decision-making—and this is a significant limitation. We can only look at sets of aggregate variables and conclude: ‘it sure looks as if the individuals in this sample are doing this and also doing this.’ Or, ‘being treated by this and also exhibiting this.’ For instance, quantitative data can tell us that married men tend to do better in the labor market but can’t tell us why. For that, we have to make use of a theory of human behavior. To choose between explanations, to understand the why behind fact patterns, or to revise theories of human nature that fit the patterns—qualitative data is indispensable. When Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas undertook to understand “why poor women put motherhood before marriage,” they moved into an urban neighborhood to “hear the data” that would help them advance a better theory. 

My project goal was theoretical, not descriptive in the way that quantitative work tends to be. I undertook my research to understand better how women make choices about childbearing. As I wrote, I wanted “to find the stories that may ultimately assist in a revision of economic theories about birth rates and population growth.” Such an undertaking was warranted because of the great importance of birth rates, on the one hand, and the puzzle of falling birth rates on the other. To finally answer your question, the advantage to using narrative data is that we can get inside the heart and mind of the decision maker—finding clues to advance our understanding of human nature. 

LaneMany of the women you interviewed were motivated in part by their religious beliefs, but they come from diverse religious traditions. Why do you think these Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Jews, and Mormons (LDS) all share the belief that it is good to have several children?  

Pakaluk: It’s not a question I can summarize quickly—it took me a whole book to answer it! But the core is that across religions, they had common beliefs about children, beliefs I can best describe as Biblical: that children are blessings from God, expressions of God’s goodness, and the purpose of marriage. The women I interviewed felt that God had blessed them through their children, and in other ways besides. Though they talked about sacrifice, they also talked about reward—of finding themselves, not of losing themselves, of better marriages and family lives, and of happy well-adjusted children. Women in my sample said things like, “you can’t have too many children.” That’s a very particular value structure. It is best traced to the Hebrew Scriptures, replete with language about the value of children. I found the Biblical figure of Hannah to be an attractive archetype for that value structure.   

LaneDo you think that the experiences and beliefs of the women you studied are common among mothers of large families, or are they likely limited to those who share socioeconomic and religious characteristics with the women you studied? How generalizable are your results?

PakalukSound theories about human nature are a lot more generalizable than statistical averages from representative samples. The generalization comes from the stability of human nature. But, to speak to your question, I interviewed women belonging to every income quintile, as well as women belonging to many religious traditions and in geographic regions all over the country. I heard remarkably similar themes across the different characteristics. Often in the book I compare explicit similarities in testimonies of women in different income or religion—for instance Lauren (top quintile) and Esther (bottom quintile) both talked about being thrifty. So—if the narratives capture something correct about human nature, then what they capture is certainly generalizable. 

"People purchase children with their own selves. You can’t really compensate them enough to give up status, lifestyle, interests, and sleeping through the night."

Lane:  I’m intrigued by your argument that there is, in fact, very little that governments can do in terms of support or subsidies to increase the birth rate. What drove you to this conclusion? 

PakalukI would say this wasn’t a conclusion as much as a prompt for the research. The dominant view among scholars, based on decades of policy experiments in dozens of countries, is that there is very little that governments can do to increase the birth rate through direct incentives or subsidies. That’s not controversial. I could point readers to this summary in The New York Times about the troubles facing China as population contraction sets in. The authors say: “History suggests that once a country crosses the threshold of negative population growth, there is little that its government can do to reverse it. …  That’s because the playbook for boosting national birthrates is a rather thin one. Most initiatives that encourage families to have more children are expensive, and the results are often limited.” This long-form interview with Finnish demographer Anna Rotkirch is also illustrative: “Rotkirch cautions that [policy efforts to raise birth rates] are likely to underwhelm.” She goes on to say, “The strange thing with fertility is nobody really knows what’s going on.”

I undertook my research more to understand why don’t incentives work? I end up offering a “unified account” of childbearing decisions in a rational choice framework: women and their partners chose an additional child when the value (to them) exceeds the cost (to them). Because values and costs are ultimately subjective, the qualitative nature of the project allowed me to get a handle on the types of values and the types of costs at play for this group of women. What I heard convinced me that the most important costs were not within reach of normal policy. The costs had to do with inner identity, where becoming a mother to more than one or two involved a life-altering shift to where mothering became more who you are as a woman, rather than something that you do. The costs also had to do with the loss of social and professional status, lifestyle goods, pursuit of health goals or personal interests, and so forth. 

In my sample, women had more children despite these costs because they valued children enough to give up those things. In this framework, it isn’t hard to see why more maternity leave or cash benefits do not make a dent in birth rates—even if they are the right thing to do. People purchase children with their own selves. You can’t really compensate them enough to give up status, lifestyle, interests, and sleeping through the night. As for maternity leave, the tradeoffs women face between children and other things lasts for decades, not a few weeks after birth. 

So, I take my data to provide a theoretical explanation—drawing on economic theory—for why direct incentives haven’t worked in the past. I then make the point, just briefly, that if my story is correct, a more urgent policy question is how to address the demand side of the fertility crisis. Where do people get the desire and the energy to undertake the hard things required of parenting? From Biblical faith. So how can nations strengthen living religious communities? A lot of interesting conversations might result if policy makers believed that enabling churches was critical to reversing population decline. 

"Where do people get the desire and the energy to undertake the hard things required of parenting? From Biblical faith. So how can nations strengthen living religious communities?"

LaneYour study shows that large-family motherhood can come with significant personal costs, but that embracing these costs is often transformative in unexpected, often positive ways. Has your research given you any new insight into how friends, extended families, and communities can better support women as they bear the particular challenges of motherhood?

Pakaluk: Great question—and so important! One thing I did in my interviews is ask mothers to tell me about some of the surprising things that had been said to them in public—sadly, many times they were approached with really negative comments. I think the charity of speech is probably the first thing! Years ago, I resolved never to miss an opportunity to compliment a mom I might see in public with her children—to say how delightful her children are, how she’s doing such a great job, to find something to praise. I do this all the time! We could all go out of our way to say more encouraging things to mothers. It’s like a verbal flower bouquet.

Second, I think moms have profound challenges getting help in the home, especially with cleaning and babysitting and other small tasks. Mother’s helper arrangements (younger girls or boys who help while mom is home, not on their own) are particularly great because they are low cost for moms who might already be stretched thin financially. But on the other end, retired men and women who don’t live near their own grandchildren can be incredible helpers—with car trouble, home repairs, meal planning, or cooking. And keep it simple. A quick text: do you need anything today? I’m running errands, can I bring you a coffee? Send me some grocery items, and I’ll get them for you—you can Venmo me after.

Third, find ways to keep them company. When moms are home with really little ones, maybe all day with no adults, company may be the number one thing that she needs. Drop by! Bring tea! Give her a call. Text messages are not the same thing. Leah in my book put it best 

We are in these little individual boxes, and it’s completely unnatural to be alone with a newborn for 12 hours a day. It’s psychologically torturous to not have the support. And I would say the vast majority of women that give birth in America don’t have adequate support, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and medically. No one’s coming for you. You’re literally alone. And it’s not normal, it’s not healthy... 

Leah pointed to a great irony of progress—we’re successful enough to live in single-family-dwellings, but when it’s time to care for newborns, the suburban mom may be poorer than her ancestors who lived in multi-family dwellings. The solution isn’t to tear down suburbs and single-family-dwellings, because those suburbs and homes are just what families need when their babies become older children. The solution is to be with the moms when they have really little ones. Time is the most precious thing we can give our friends who are mothers—but so often we’re looking for something material to give instead. 

Fourth and finally, communities should look more often at ways of normalizing return to work pathways for moms who want to resume working after their kids are grown or in school. There are significant challenges to starting work after time away, and the dreaded mom-gap in a resume. But as Rachel Lu and Ivana Greco have recently argued, moms that are used to juggling responsibilities at home can be tremendous assets to places of work if they can get over the hurdles of transition. Helping women get credentialed, licensed, or qualified can be a huge gift. Often, women leaving the years of full-time motherhood feel apprehensive or insecure. They shouldn’t be. They can bring real assets of maturity and judgment to a team used to hiring twenty-somethings. Leah told me: “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.” Helping moms find opportunities to use their talents in a new way after children are grown accords real honor to their sacrifices.