[Dr. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk is Assistant Professor of Social Research and Economic Thought at The Catholic University of America in Washington. She is the Director of the American Family and Fertility Project, a multi-year, multi-phase project examining the contours of American childbearing and family formation. She lives in Maryland with her husband Michael and eight children. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her work.]
Camosy: How did you come to do a deep qualitative research dive into families with larger numbers of children? What was your motivation for doing it?
Pakaluk: This project ultimately has its roots in part of my dissertation work. During those years I spent a lot of time looking at mainstream economic models of fertility and asking questions about the sharp downturn in birthrates that occurred in the middle of the 20th century. I focused on a small subset of theories that examined the role of contraceptive technology in changing constraints within households.
We now know that the pill and legal abortion played a role in the demographic changes, contributing to lower birth rates for married couples, and higher birth rates among the unmarried. For interested readers, some of the important papers are Goldin and Katz’ The Power of the Pill (2002), Martha Bailey’s Momma’s Got the Pill (2010), and my recent paper with Andrew Beauchamp titled The Paradox of the Pill (2019). From a scholarly point of view, it is very difficult to identify causal explanations for macro-level changes in fertility trends, but these papers do about as good of a job as can be done.
But if you spend enough time thinking about falling fertility eventually you start to ask the question of why people have children at all and what really shapes decision making. Economists look narrowly at the way in which incentives and constraints bind and loose people on the margin, and yet we know that real human beings have a rich set of motives and human experiences.
So, while I was spending time with this subject matter, and really at the same time I was beginning to build my own family — I had six children when I was in graduate school — in the back of my mind I kept having these deeper questions: Were people happy with these changes that occurred? Were they satisfied? Which of the constraints and incentives for households mattered most to them? What was the role of personal experiences, family history, and religion? It’s fair to say that this project developed organically from spending many years thinking about the causes and consequences of falling fertility.
But I should mention a couple of other more proximate causes. One was getting to know the work of sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas who produced a remarkable book called Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. Since I was interested in the problem of nonmarital births I read it with great interest, and since economists are typically not trained to do this sort of qualitative work I was really amazed and impressed with what they could find in personal conversations and stories. Another source of influence was the work of my friend and scholar Mark Regnerus, especially his books Premarital Sex in America, and the more recent tour de force, Cheap Sex. I began to wonder what kind of insights economists could gain if we opened up our methods to include some qualitative approaches.
A final proximate cause for me was the fact that fertility rates did not improve after the great recession, and instead continued to decline, leading to record low birth rates in the U.S. and many other nations. These low rates are low enough to pose a real threat to the solvency of many social programs, and to economic growth as well. When we look at any phenomenon one way to study it is to ask why. But another approach is to look at where that phenomenon does not occur and ask why not. Ultimately, that was my final impetus for this project. Faced with lowest-low fertility rates in the U.S. and abroad, why not study the populations of women who exhibit a very different outcome? After talking about it with some colleagues, I was encouraged that this project would be valuable for a variety of reasons, and so with generous support from The Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, we made plans to launch the project.
We set out to understand more about “motive and meaning” among the women with bigger-than-average family sizes in the United States who described their childbearing as “purposeful.” Concretely, we interviewed women in ten cities who had five or more children with their current spouse. We conducted in-person interviews (before COVID — all in 2019 before September) that were semi-structured but open-ended enough to allow us to discover new themes. Together with my research associate at the Busch School, and collaborators at Brigham Young University our team spoke with 55 women all over the United States.
What did you find in the research that you expected to find?
One of the things I found that I expected to find was the tremendous amount of diversity among women who have chosen this path. We met doctors, lawyers, accountants, PhD scholars, musicians, artists and women with a whole plethora of backgrounds, interests and hobbies. We spoke with women who could be described as living in Charles Murray’s “super-zips” like Belmont, and also to women using food stamps and depending on the generosity of others. We spoke to women of a variety of religions, and ethnic backgrounds.
I expected to find all of this, I guess, because I fit my own study sample (I have eight children all together) and I am probably more aware than others are that this “boutique population” exists. But it was a delight to see in living color how many different kinds of women have chosen this lifestyle.
I also expected to find, and did, a lot of diversity in how it was that women came to choose this life. It is easy to think that all of the women might be like Amy Coney Barrett, from a large family. And I did speak with some women like that. But I also spoke with many women who were “converts” to the idea and concept of having a large family, and so some of the most interesting conversations that I recorded were the ones in which women told those stories. Some of those stories came along with a religious conversion, but equally often they did not.
While most of the women in my study were religious, very few if any said religion was the primary motive for choosing to have so many children. And this is something I am still trying to understand and the kind of thing which makes qualitative work so valuable for this project. We need to tease out what it means that religion correlates so highly with having a big family, and yet almost no one would say that religion was the cause of their childbearing choices. I have yet to work through all of the data but it seems more correct to say that being moved to see children as a primary good reinforced certain religious beliefs, even if the reverse was also true.
Were there things you found that were unexpected?
There were plenty of things that surprised me in the research. One thing, and it’s difficult to know how to say this exactly, is how many women expressed very deep difficulties, sacrifices, and hardships that they had made in order to pursue this lifestyle.
I think I had a kind of prior idea that having a lot of children is something that people do when they feel that motherhood suits them. You know, sometimes you will hear younger moms talk about feeling that they’re “good” at being a mom, or that it feels like it comes naturally to them, and of course some will say they feel that it does not.
I think I sort of assumed that if you kept going after two or three children it was probably because the whole thing felt natural to you or you felt that you were good at it. But many of the women we spoke to expressed very serious experiences of difficulty in overcoming moments of personal failure, and feelings that they were not naturally good at raising children. And I found this both inspiring and also surprising.
Interestingly not one of those women expressed any regret — and we did ask! So this is something that I’m still working on how to talk about in the book, but the women whose portraits I will present are women who feel that the sacrifices and the hardships were very real to them. They did not candy coat their lifestyles. I am struggling to put these things into writing in a way that is faithful to what the women in my study expressed. It was ultimately very beautiful and inspiring.
I have to ask about the reception of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States. At least by current standards in elite circles she has a large family, and this has captured the attention of many members of the media. Does your research suggest any reasons for this attention?
Well yes, absolutely. In the course of doing this work I’ve run into the fact that the women in my study, who are a kind of hidden minority, are very sensitive to feeling unseen by society.
Their life choices do not conform to the norm. Most women today choose to have about two children. And women with five or more children, like Amy Coney Barrett, represent less than 2 percent of all women and less than 5 percent of women with children. So, in a very real sense they are hard to see.
Worse still, the little attention given on TV or media to women with many children has tended to be quite bizarre, for instance, the Duggar family, or Sister Wives. I think basically the country and in fact the Western world more generally — as Emanuel Macron reminded us two years ago — is ignorant of the fact that educated women may choose to have big families, and that their reasons can be understood.
So, in fact one of my hopes for this project is to put those reasons in writing from the mouths of women themselves, and try to make them understandable to a wide readership. In fact, I am hoping that Amy Barrett’s nomination will help highlight the importance of this research.
What resources does the Church have–both theological and practical–to support families with large numbers of children?
I believe that the church currently offers a tremendous amount of theological resources, more than many churches now offer, and what I mean is that we have a rich tradition which helps to develop a framework for thinking about the meaning and significance of childbearing in the light of both the world and eternity.
I am referring of course to some aspects of the work of John Paul II which is popularly called the theology of the body, but more widely the Catholic tradition has so many texts and reflections on the beauty and richness of the maternal springing from our love of Mary the mother of God. Also in the theological category the church offers many examples of Saints who are mothers and heroic women, not canonized but nevertheless deeply loved.
On the other hand, it seems to me that we could do more on the practical side. Many decades ago, you could say the most practical support that the church offered to large families was the availability of high quality and affordable private schooling. Today, however, it seems that Catholic schools are primarily for those with middle- and upper-class incomes and they are not provided as a universal support for families. I think that Catholic schools should be an option for all Catholic families, regardless of income.
So, I would say we could do a lot better on the practical side. Still I would want to highlight that in many American cities, we encountered in our research strong parishes where women and men found friendship and support for what they’re doing. We talked to women deeply involved in parish groups ranging including homeschool communities, social activities, childcare, and so forth. So, I think there is a lot, but that there is more we can hope for in the next decades, ideally with feedback from women.