Sunny Side of The Stream: Highly Educated Mothers Discuss Benefits of Large Families

By Aliya Kuykendall Published on April 27, 2024

The trend is clear: The more developed a society becomes and the more its women pursue education and careers — often using contraception and abortion — the fewer children they tend to have.

As of 2021, half the world’s nations had fertility rates below replacement levels (an average of 2.1 births per female). This means populations are shrinking, and eventually there won’t be enough young, working people to support the elderly who no longer can work.

As value for children and the role of motherhood continues to decline worldwide, women who seek to have large families — five or more children — increasingly stand out, as there’s generally an inverse relationship between the level of education a woman has achieved and the number of children she has. What motivates them? How did these women’s lives unfold to pave the way for their countercultural choices?

That’s what Catherine Ruth Pakulak explores in the new book, Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth (Regnery Gateway, 2024).

Maybe part of the birth dearth is a lack of encouraging examples of large families and their beautiful stories.

Pakaluk shares her insights from interviews with dozens of educated women who have five or more children. She meets the criteria herself: Pakulak is an economist who has given birth to eight children. Her husband was a widower with six children from his previous marriage, so Pakulak has had a hand in raising 14 kids, now ranging in age from 43 to 7.

An Economist Produces Inspiration and Stories

Pakaluk’s book certainly has implications for those concerned about the declining fertility rate. But it offers far more than that: the insights from the women Pakulak interviewed for it come across like wisdom from maternal sages. I teared up more than once while reading it. It’s a precious reservoir of thoughts and inspirational stories from experienced mothers, as I’ll share below.

Even a liberal woman who writes for the left-leaning Slate, noted in a review that

as I made it through the book, I was surprised to finally feel as if I understood where these women are coming from. … I have some envy of their lives: If I had found my partner earlier, if our work and school trajectories had been different, might I have had more than one? Sure, maybe.

Perhaps if girls and young women were inspired by stories like these earlier in life, they would make choices regarding education, marriage, and career trajectories with an openness to future children in mind. Maybe part of the birth dearth is a lack of encouraging examples of large families and their beautiful stories.

Insights from the Interviews

The overarching trend among the women featured in Hannah’s Children is that they tend to be religious. Most said that after they were married, they had a child, found they liked both their child and the mothering role, and so just kept having more children. They maintained a general openness to life, asking God to help them feel ready to have another child after every birth, and sought Him for guidance about when to stop trying to have more children. They valued children more highly than the things they would have to give up to have them.

“Every child I’ve had has humbled me more, has brought me closer to God,” one mother said.

Pakaluk concluded that greater tax breaks aren’t enough to incentivize people to have children. Rather, governments should recognize the role religion plays in family life.

“Make it easier for churches and religious communities to run schools, succor families, and aid the needs of human life. Religion is the best family policy,” she writes.

One conclusion Pakulak drew from her interviews? Having more children gets easier over time. While a woman might think with her first child that she needs a dedicated diaper bag filled with baby items, over time she’ll realize she only needs certain items — such as one diaper, a Ziplock bag with a couple of baby wipes, an undershirt — and can then more easily maneuver through life with her children.

“Your fourth and your fifth children are not as difficult as your first and your second,” she told The Stream. “And that’s because you get better at it, which is by itself interesting.”

Everyone Was Good for Everyone

My favorite parts of the book centered on the idea that children are not a problem, but a solution. Yes, a woman has to be willing to give up various aspects of her own life to be a mother. But the love children draw from us and give us back is a powerful gift that makes it all worthwhile.

One woman Pakulak interviewed has a severely disabled child — her seventh. But the boy has made incredible progress because all the older children learned to help with his physical therapy, such as by flipping him over whenever they pass by. The mother describes this as a gift to the older children.

When the eighth child was born, Number 7 responded to her cries, and so started moving independently to reach his younger sibling. Also, as the younger child developed and learned motor skills, she inspired the one with disabilities to learn to eat independently.

When the ninth child was born, that cycle began again and built on itself. All the children in the family helped each other develop and grow.

“The baby was good for the disabled baby and the disabled baby was good for the older kids and for the mom,” Pakaluk told The Stream. “And she even says, “it’s not just for the kids, it’s good for me, too, because we [parents] become less selfish.”

Pakaluk concluded that “people are the answer. They’re not the problem. Whatever your problem is, your problem is not people. That’s obviously something that the pro-life movement has tried in different ways to articulate.”

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About 20% of the women Pakulak interviewed mentioned that a baby had helped either one of the parents or a sibling emotionally. One mother described her baby as being like a “sun lamp” for her older child, who had been feeling depressed. Another woman found that holding their baby helped her husband in the same way.

At Creation, God commanded humans to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. I used to think that command must have been conditional, only to be followed until the planet reached a certain population level; we don’t need to “fill the earth” anymore, I thought. But Hannah’s Children reminds me of another aspect of the story: When God rested after creating the world and humans, He said His creation was “good” — and the creation of new humans continues to be good.

In a world in which having many children is so abnormal that it is likely to draw stares and rude remarks, I wish more of us believed in that goodness and supported each other in living it out.

 

Aliya Kuykendall is a staff writer and proofreader for The Stream. You can follow her on X @AliyaKuykendall and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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