With Mother’s Day 2024 approaching, many women in today’s America—perhaps more than ever in our history—cannot imagine what it would be like to be the mother of a traditionally sized intact family. Some wouldn’t even want to try.  In fact, one of the many cleavages that currently run through the heart of our culture is the one between women who can’t imagine motherhood on a traditional scale and women who are still doing motherhood on a traditional scale. The former may make the headlines more, but the latter may have something important to say.

Some of what they have to say can be found in a recently published book by Catherine Pakaluk, Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth. The book is the first published report of a study sponsored by the Wheatley Institute, and I had the opportunity to be part of the research team, conducting some of the 55 interviews and reading and coding all of them.

We are experiencing spiraling rates of “family illiteracy.”

I am also the mother of 7 children myself, so much of what we heard in the interviews was very familiar. To start with, the mothers in our study acknowledged that motherhood has always entailed a number of well-known risks and sacrifices, but they also reported that today there are additional challenges, ranging from generalized economic anxiety to concerns about climate change. And it doesn’t make things easier that when parents, school counselors, and friends talk to young women about career paths, they are far less likely than they were even just a decade or two ago to talk about motherhood as a valid option, especially for a young woman who plans to attend college.

One result of all this is that actual mothers frequently experience a dearth of support—and may even find strangers accosting them in public to express opposition to their choices to have children, particularly if they have more than one or two. The women we interviewed were trying to do something of ultimate importance in a world where many, perhaps most, of the time-honored sources of wisdom, inspiration, and strength have been broken, dissolved, or bent to other purposes. As Mary Eberstadt has framed it, we are experiencing spiraling rates of “family illiteracy,” where “fewer and fewer understand what a robust kinship network even looks like.”

Such illiteracy has become both a cause and an effect of shrinking fertility rates.  The most recent U.S. Census numbers show that population decline is a clear and present reality.  Demographic winter, the idea that falling birth rates produce an unavoidable cascade of economic and other problems, was dismissible only a decade ago as over-reaction. Today, it is discussed gravely in places like The New York Times.  The extreme example cited there is South Korea, where the total fertility rate, already less than half of the replacement rate, has plummeted to a new record low every month for nearly five years—and the  United States is sliding into that pattern.  Elon Musk, from his unique vantage point, has called population decline “one of the biggest risks to civilization,” and countries around the world are beginning to grapple with empty and unsellable houses, strained national budgets, and other adverse economic consequences of steady reductions in population.

There is social fallout, too.  Traditional intact families with several children are the kind of institution in which, as Yuval Levin describes it, we fill roles, we occupy places, we play parts defined by larger wholes, and that helps us understand our obligations and responsibilities, our privileges and benefits, our purposes and connections.” As this kind of “institutional” family becomes less common, fewer and fewer children are growing up in settings where that kind of formation is happening.  

It is increasingly common for children to have not only no siblings but no uncles, aunts, or cousins.  What earlier generations could experience as a rich web of formative relationships and lasting connections is simply non-existent in the lives of a growing cohort of children, making the loneliness epidemic and many related social ills look almost unavoidable, other contributing factors notwithstanding.  It is an incalculable advantage to begin life with a set of relationships one did not choose and within which one can learn the virtues and skills that make all human relationships sustainable.  Children denied that advantage may be less adaptive and less capable later in life.

It is an incalculable advantage to begin life with a set of relationships one did not choose.

The larger institutions of civil society have begun to reflect this deficiency. Children who grow up without the formation traditional-size families provide are inclined to misunderstand what institutions are for, seeing them, in Levin’s terms, as performative rather than formative.  Teachers, employers, church leaders, and others attest to the difficulties of carrying on their work in the absence of basic, family-formed skills and virtues in their students, employees, and parishioners.

So perhaps things would go better if more women actually did try to imagine mothering, informed not by the dismissive, horribilized images painted by some varieties of feminism but by the experiences of real, everyday motherswomen who have continued to have children and invest deeply in family life in the face of the struggles and complexities.

A graduating woman manages both academic success and motherhood, embodying the challenge and triumph of motherhood viability
The study looked at college-educated mothers with large families

In our recent study, we conducted interviews in ten areas of the United States and they paint an intriguing picture.  The women are, by the study’s design, a unique group, not statistically representative of the U.S. population.  All are college-educated, and each has born at least 5 children in a traditional marriage that is still intact.  They do include various races, ethnicities, and faiths and they vary on other dimensions, as well.  They live in cities and in tiny towns, in prosperous circumstances as well as very modest ones.  All are US citizens, but not all started that way.  Some are young and have just barely had time to have as many children as they do and others are grandmothers. 

A family is a place to practice networks of mutual giving and sustaining.

One thing these women have in common is that they are nearly unanimous—and sometimes painfully frank—about how demanding and difficult motherhood can be.  And that makes it all the more striking that another thing they have in common is that they are happy about having children.  One of the research assistants in the study commented that these women seem to assume that “stress is coming anyway, so it might as well come from family life, where it will actually pay off.”

And why—and how—does family life pay off?  In the stories told by these mothers, a family is a place to practice networks of mutual giving and sustaining.  Family life on the traditional scale encourages—in fact, almost requires—husbands and wives to come to unity, treating gender differences as complementary and synergistic.  Large families help to create—and also thrive in—local communities, generating culture-sustaining friendships and underscoring the crucial role of certain kinds of social linkages in making communities flourish.  

Though some days inevitably go better than others, children in these families have natural opportunities and many good reasons to learn to put their own thoughts (and electronic devices) aside to participate meaningfully in a group.  They learn to discuss differences in a spirit of confident openness and potential compromise and to bring personal fortitude to bear and make needed sacrifices when things get difficult. This particular study didn’t address child outcomes explicitly, but even without turning to the large body of data that does, it seems likely that our current cohort of adolescents, seemingly in unprecedented anxiety overdrive, would be happier and more productive if more of them had experienced this kind of family life.

Many of the women in the study intended to have a large family from the beginning, but perhaps more interesting are those who didn’t.  A woman I’ll call Deborah tells such a story.  Raised by a career-oriented mother, she was cared for almost from birth by a nanny, sent to a progressive all-girl school, and groomed for the best in higher education, the intended goal of which was law school.   By her own account, it was a track she followed without particularly deep thought, accepting the staunchly feminist agenda that was the premise of all her schooling, graduating with honors, going on to law school, making law review, and even marrying a young lawyer in her father’s firm after her first year of law school.  They planned rather vaguely for an obligatory child or two once her career was firmly underway. And so, five years into marriage, she had her first child.

She says, “I did not like it … The first was way, way, far and above the hardest for me. … It was a very dark and exceptionally lonely time.”  Things may have been complicated by a bout of undiagnosed post-partum depression and by the fact that her baby daughter was, by comparison to the later children, a very demanding breastfeeder.  And Deborah’s mother offered cash for paid help but not a lot of support and advice.  Trips to the park left Deborah looking at other mothers and thinking, “That’s not me.”  In many ways, she was relieved when the demands of a pending litigation shortened her maternity leave. Though nominally required to work fewer billable hours, she “hit the ground running” at the office—and hired a full-time live-in nanny.

Large families are a natural school of virtue.

Three years later, in a pattern common to many women in the study, the arrival of a second child went differently.  “It was so much easier.  Every aspect was so much easier.”  That may be part of why, at about the time their oldest was starting school, Deborah and her husband decided to have yet another baby.  Three seemed a “normal” number at the time.  It was during this third pregnancy that, unhappy with the local school and searching for an alternative, they found a group of friends who would change everything.

There was a relatively new private school in the area, started by parents who were also concerned about deficiencies in the local school.  As things unfolded, Deborah and her husband enrolled their daughter and “began to become part of this community—and it was just a whole other way of living, a whole other world. … A lot of big families—and women, just remarkable women, who were intelligent, educated, kind, and just in love with … their families … Many of them were … professional homemakers, passionately committed to their husbands, to their families, to their homes, and to the educating of their children. … All of that was just new to us.  From there, it just naturally flowed that we saw the goodness of what they had … We saw the large families as a natural school of virtue for these children.  And we saw how incredibly good it was, and we just embraced it.”

As a child, Deborah had frequently yearned—even begged—for a sister, “but I was told that was wrong, that then … I wouldn’t go to college or something else that would be disastrous for my life.”  What she learned in this new school community was that siblings are a gift.  “I see so many opportunitites for them to have to refrain from saying what they want to say or be patient with the other or share the space …, endless opportunities for conflict and resolution … That is what I didn’t have.”

So law practice, though it continued on a smaller scale, took second place to a new kind of family life and Deborah had three more children.  Reflecting on the birth—in Deborah’s forties—of their sixth child, Deborah says, “It’s just all good, and it’s hard, of course.  It’s always hard, … but she isn’t just mine and my husband’s.  She belongs to all of us, and she is like a little treasure. … They say it’s abusive to have more children because of what’s being taken from the older children—and it’s so much the opposite!  The younger siblings are truly treasured by the older siblings the most and there is so much of that natural school of virtue thing!”  Then she adds, “I just can’t say enough about how much of a lie everything I learned growing up in my feminist school—how false that all was.  And I’m not saying this with any agenda.  It just literally was so eye-opening to me to see these things. … And now I just can’t believe that this isn’t widely known. … We should have started earlier so we could have had more.”

Seen this way, through the lens of living, breathing mothers, motherhood is one version of a uniquely beautiful way of being in relation, turning one’s heart and energies to the growth and flourishing of someone besides oneself.  While full of human foibles and often painfully aware of their mistakes, these mothers provide glimpses of how human beings are shaped when they offer not just the resources available to them, but themselves, for the good of children who may never fully comprehend or value or reciprocate the gift—and for the common good of a community that is often equally oblivious of its need for them.

Motherhood is one version of a uniquely beautiful way of being in relation.

We get a glimpse of fathers here, too, the indispensable men who prioritize family and collaborate in creating a space where their wives can engage in mothering in this way.  The mothers in this study report challenging but deeply intimate and rewarding relationships with the men who have fathered their children—marriages strengthened and enriched by the shared rigors and sacrifices of raising their families and highly satisfying sexual relationships, as well.

And what about the personal fulfillment of the women involved?  One mother articulated a sentiment common to nearly every woman in the study.  She was responding to the question, “Why are you having children when so many people have chosen not to?”  Her answer was swift and emphatic:  “This is where the joy is!”

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