Urban dads in the 1950s did a surprising amount of childcare. (from Phase 1 of the Princeton Longitudinal Fertility Study)

It looks as though the dad pitching in with the kids and housework is not quite as recent as people, particularly on the right, often claim.  While GI fathers show decent evidence of being hands-off, it appears things had changed for the fathers who came along a decade or so later.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot of excited demographers studying the lower age of marriage and relatively higher fertility, and thrilled at the idea that a new pattern of family growth even in urban areas via natural increase might be the new normal.

One of those studies was done in two parts in 1957 and 1961 and it involved over 1100 white collar and blue collar couples in the eight largest major metropolitan areas at the time. It involved white couples who’d had their second child in 1956.  They further narrowed the group with technical requirements beyond the scope of this post, but the upshot was that they got some interesting data that Catholics, Jews and Protestants alike all wanted 2-4 children (90% across the board) and less than 10% wanted 5+.

Another interesting detail of this study is the post title.  Many of the mothers were still housewives, but fully 2/3 of them could count on their husbands to take care of the children as a norm.  Fully 1/3 of these urban women mostly living in apartments could also count on someone who wasn’t their husband (and by definition for the study NOT one of their own children, since they were tiny babies) to help them around the house as a norm.

If one includes “sometimes”, 85% of the 1100+ wives could expect some recurring level of help with the kids from their husbands.  And excluding “sometimes”, it was 60% of those wives.  So by 1957, the husband was already viewed as a major source of help by urban wives.

They did a follow-up study covering whether a third (or higher) child had been born, and I haven’t gotten far into that one yet.  But I found the detail about help that the wife felt she could count on reliably very relevant to 60(!) years later.

Source: Family Growth in Metropolitan America, 1961, Princeton University Press.

The Boomers’ mothers wanted smaller families.

A great many women who had children from 1955-1964 wanted exactly two children, but due to contraceptive inefficacy compared to the Pill, they ended up with 3+.  And women who wanted large families of 6+ found themselves having around 5-6 with a suspiciously high frequency.

Long story short, even without the Pill, the desire for contracepting into a smaller family was already baked into the postwar cake for American women.  It’s not clear that large family desire is particularly common to American women when they aren’t part of an intensely religious subculture.  Frontier women had large family sizes, but this is confounded by the frontier being a hotbed of highly religious subcultures.

Now the story of how more education for women went from being strongly correlated with fewer kids to…not is a different story, mostly still unwritten by any demographic researcher.

Notes about twin births

Some quick tidbits about twin birth because it’s yet another factor in the current birth trends and relative robustness of fertility in college moms.

  • Twin birth was around 10 per thousand births for white women and 12 per thousand for black women in 1940 and this was relatively unchanged through 1960. The relatively higher number for black women appears to be almost entirely from black women getting pregnant a lot more often.
  • Current twin births are more than triple those rates of a mere half-century ago.  But the “twin gap” has shrunk, with non-Hispanic whites at around 36 per thousand births and non-Hispanic blacks around 39 per thousand births.  This kind of puts a pin in the notion that it’s substantially genetic in black women.  Maybe, but the rapid changes and closing of the gap suggest environmental factors are the major driver.
  • As recently as 1985, the total twin rate for all races was around 20 per thousand births.
  • Twin births among (white, non-Hispanic) college moms are typically above the national average of around 3%.  They are more like 4-5% in many states, with a lot of it happening in regions where I found third children to be born above the national baseline for third births.
  • Twin births these days are more likely to be second births than first.  I don’t know if that would be the case pre-birth control and pre-ART, it’s hard to find birth order data because live twins were so much rarer until quite recently.
  • If one is willing to spend a lot of time digging around older historical birth data going back hundreds of years, one finds that women within the Hajnal line had twin rates in 16-20 births per thousand range prior to the 20th century.  Which is to say, during the 1800s or 1700s or 1600s white women were mysteriously having twins at way higher rates than early 20th century black women or 18th and 19th century America slave black women, relative to the proportions recorded.