Large families when you can’t run away

In America today there is a paradox of choice regarding large families that is as far as I can tell totally ignored by people who have or defend large families.  My experiences with large families (double-digit) are that I’m only one generation removed from women who couldn’t escape that size of family.  It wasn’t just one option they were taking and could drop at any time.  Yes, even extended abstinence is a major privilege that many of those women would have been pretty cheerful about having access to.

They had to agree to what he wanted when he wanted it, no matter if they were just a few weeks postpartum or had had a hard delivery and needed more recovery time. Formula being easy, cheap and reliable to use wasn’t the case and some of the double-digit kids didn’t make it on the various alternatives available.  This informs a huge amount of my views on birth control.  I don’t think birth control is something women should feel pressured into doing either for related and religious reasons, but let’s just be real and note that the medium-term consequence of that is fewer children you can handle if you do have a resource shortage in your household.

I just have to shake my head at women who have the totally free and unfettered choice to have zillions of kids acting like women abandoned that in droves in the last 50 years out of (@($*@#@(!@ “selfishness” or “hard hearts” or whatever self-righteous word of the month gets tossed out there.  Being able to feed, clothe, house and provide for the medical needs of ten or fifteen children with relative ease and comfort no matter what your income level is should be acknowledged as the astonishing modern consumption good that it is.

Now certainly some of these women would argue with me on the ease point, but you know what, if you can welcome pregnancy after pregnancy with zero concern that the other children or the one(s) you’re carrying will be stunted or die from lack of food or medical care when sick or have to be shipped off to sometimes pretty distant relatives because you can’t feed them all once the next one appears, that’s relative ease of provision.  This is not what the women I am speaking of could count on.  I am talking about deaths under age 5 all the way into the 1960s, in America.

It was really bad in the richest country in the world before mass-economy made food and clothes so cheap.  And anyway that’s where I’m coming from regarding large family rhetoric among conservative Christians.  It didn’t matter whether you had joy in your heart or not, you were facing another pregnancy anywhere from a few days to several months after that delivery until your 30s, and sometimes into your 40s.  A lot of those women knew however dimly about the sterilizations performed on many of them without their consent after World War I and many weren’t mad about it because it meant a break from the treadmill of fertility.  They weren’t as stupid as people think and had some idea what was going on.

Nearly 10% decrease in number of third and higher births from 1992 to 2014

For white non-Hispanics, a little over 600k births in 1992 were the third live baby or higher.  This represented just under 1/4 of all births.  Over 75% of all births for 1992 were first or second births.

The approximate distribution of the 600k higher birth orders (less than 100% due to rounding) was:

3rd order: 66%

4th order: 22%

5th order: 7%

6th order: 2.6%

7th order: 1%

8th order or higher: 1.1%

In 2014, there were over 50k fewer such births, a bit over 550k and that represented just OVER 25% of all births for that year.

The distribution of these 550k higher-order births over 20 years later was:

3rd: 61%

4th: 23%

5th: 8.4%

6th: 3.4%

7th: 1.6%

8th or higher: 2%

The total births for 1992 were around 2.5 million, while for 2014 they were around 2.1 million.  So people were having fewer children overall, but the ones having many are chugging along pretty impressively.  The problem is that there’s no filtering for how much of that chugging along is in little horse-powered buggies, so there’s that to keep in mind.

To put this distribution of higher-order births in context, here’s the “white” distribution for 1970, ten years after the Pill and IUDs were introduced.

Total white births: approx 3.1 million

Total third or higher order white births: approx 1 million

Percentage distribution of third and higher order births:

3rd: 48%

4th: 25%

5th: 12.5%

6th: 6.4%

7th: 3.4%

8th: 4.5%

Admittedly this includes some Hispanics, but only about 4-5%, not enough to shift the overall pattern.  This pattern from 1970 could be returning at the higher orders, but it’s too soon to tell.

TFR, or Total fertility rate is not the last word on fertility

Even though it’s a statistic you can find in many spots on the internet, like the CIA factbook and Wikipedia, TFR or Total fertility rate (the total children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime, across an entire nation, ethnic group, or religious group, etc.) is a misleading portrait of the drop in childbearing over the decades.

Take two countries with a TFR of 1.5, which is very low, below the “replacement rate” of 2.1.  This would be 15 children expected per 10 women in their lifetimes.

Country A gets to a TFR of 1.5 this way with ten women: 5, 5, 3, 1, 1, 0,0,0,0,0.

Country B gets to a TFR of 1.5 this way: 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 0, 0.

One country has a robustly fertile subculture leading to 20% of the women bearing 67% of the children and half of the women remaining childless for life.  The other country has most women having kids, but nobody has a large family.

When everyone has one or two kids, this is child-friendly in a very limited sense of the term.  Everything is set up around the expectation that women will be mothers, but not too much and not for too long.  It is a Nordic model and in fact they do look more like country B.

When a few people have most of the kids, things are more complicated and uncertain as to future fertility trends.  Because the choice to mother in country A is so much more stark and binary, there’s less child-friendliness in terms of maternity leave or whatever, but the women who will have kids will “harden” and just have them anyway…up to a point.

While living in a world with easy birth control is very new in human history, purposely limiting the number of children for any number of reasons is not.  By the way, America looks more like Country A.

Low TFR is a data point, but how groups get there is also relevant to understanding what a robust natalism would look like.

Dear conservatives, women are not having large families except on the internet per their (fictional?) husbands.


Because I am a data fan, I looked into the census data on fertility, especially for white non-Hispanic women, who make up most of your typical pool of conservatives in America.  And what I found is that the data supports my contention that women are simply not having more than four children and most are not having more than three, and this includes women in their 40s, who can be classified as biologically “done” whether they sped the process along with medical interventions or not.  This would include the overwhelming majority of conservative women too.

Either conservative men need to admit how utterly tiny the group is that they are classifying as “conservative” or “traditional” and that this group is simply too small to outbreed anyone via natural increase (the daughters are not replicating their mothers’ fecundity, according to the data as the cohorts move through time) or they need to shut up about how it’s not hard to have seven or ten kids, they know lots of women who do.  It’s called clustering.  It isn’t surprising if all the people with nine kids hang out together at Latin mass or Particular Baptist churches, but statistically speaking, they can’t be doing so at very many such places because there just aren’t enough of them to represent like that.

As of 2014, about 1%, or one women in a hundred is having five or more children, among the white non-Hispanic women aged 15-44.  Among the women who could still pop out a surprise baby or two (women in their 30s and early 40s), the percentage is three women per hundred.  There is nothing wrong with having three or four instead of the mass media-advocated “perfect two”, but out in conservative media, a distinct effort is being made to promote families of 7 kids or more as both normal and common and only marginally more difficult/expensive to raise than smaller families.  There is an assist from conservative men online with mysteriously high amounts of free time and mysteriously high levels of unemployment and underemployment chatting at great length about how easy it is for their wives.

The percentages I’m talking about have remained under five percent for over twenty years now.  In 1970, about one woman (all races) in five had five or more kids.  By 1985 it was less than one woman in ten, and by 1990 it was around one woman in twenty.  And those numbers are for all races of women, the white non-Hispanic numbers were slightly lower at every stage, with the current numbers for all races being about 2% having five or more children.

Babies are great, kids are great, but the function of female humanity is not solely to reproduce until menopause and even if it was, they sure aren’t supposed to do it alone in a tract house in a faceless suburban housing development with no way to get to anything except by car.

One of the biggest pieces of a practical Benedict Option would be some honesty from conservatives, male and female alike, about where exactly people are with the kid-having and why they have given up on large families despite most of the people having kids being people who greatly desire and want children.

ETA 8/10/15: I found an example of the conservative online deceptiveness with the note at the end of this sadly funny post about how silly women are for not having zillions of children with some unemployed Latin Mass LARPer.  I’ll paste the note below if you don’t want to slog through the linked post:

US Census shows 42% of women of childbearing age currently have no children. 22% have two, 17% one, 12% three, and 7% four or more. That means only 1/5 of women today have yet to dodge the ignominy of the Darwin Award. Interestingly, nearly all of the traditional women I know (who eschew divorce, natch) are in that final 7%. Having won the genetic lottery, why go feral? Domesticated animals rarely leave the warm farm if the farmer is feeding and breeding them well.

Setting aside the wonderful way this conservative man refers to Christian wives and mothers, what this guy is doing is combining data that is separated out by the Census.  I combined the data for women having more than five children because the category “7+” is measured in fractions of a percent for nearly all age groups and ethnic groups among women.  And having five or six are combined by the Census people to get that data consistently over 1% for most ages and ethnic groups of women.  The guy, by flinging around “seven percent of women have more than four kids in their lifetimes”, is combining categories in a way designed to over report how frequently women have larger numbers of children.  Four is only being included because without that group, the real math is the following:

All women, 5 or 6 children: 1.6%

All women, 7 or more children: 3/10% (three tenths of a percent).  This of course rounds up to the 2% of all women I am using.

Five percent of all women having exactly four children is very different than what this guy is trying to imply.  It also means that plenty of “traditional” wives and mothers are faithful and behave normally without having large numbers of children.  Not quite what this guy was going for, but the reality on the ground.  Women who are committed to Christ first honor their duties and obligations regardless of whether they have any children, three, five or fifteen.

Practical Natalism: A conservative approach to fertility

Every few months there is a fertility discussion somewhere on the internet.  It is generally either “lalalala women can pop out babies on demand after age 35/40/45 and anyone who says otherwise is sexist!” (liberal flavor)  or “lalala women’s ovaries dry up instantly at 30, better marry at sexy 17 to be on the safe side girls!” (conservative flavor).  Once in awhile a vague gesture is made in the direction of male fertility having a time limit, but the main show is the endless binary battle between the delusions of liberals and conservatives regarding female fertility.

The truth is that both the liberals and the conservatives are a little bit right about the nuances of female fertility, and a whole lot wrong about what normal female fertility looks like.

It is certainly the case that we women cannot expect to conceive in our 60s or later barring explicitly Divine intervention.  But at the same time, women are not all granted the same level of fertility.  Some have a more robust baseline than others.  There are women who can start at 35 and have one each year until 45, while others can struggle to have three or four starting at age 21.  Obviously we shouldn’t give advice to young women based on the first case, because it has such a high margin of error if a young woman is not so blessed in the fertility department.  But neither does it really do much good to expect all women to start at 20 in a world that mostly doesn’t support young marriage.

We should instead be honest with women about the number of children it is reasonable to hope for at different age ranges assuming decent health. Start at 25, having 5 in 15 years is not unlikely.  Start around 30, having 5 in 10 years is much less likely.  Better to expect 3.  Not all women want more than a couple, but my experiences with women who sincerely seem to think it’s reasonable to start at 35-38 and still end up with 4-6 kids by 45 suggest that they are clearly not getting the best information on what’s reasonable at that age if that’s the family size they hope to have.

And honesty about how much more physically demanding kids can be after 35 would also go a long way towards honest fertility information.  Natalism, properly understood, is about more than just having babies.  It’s about having energy and time and a loving community to raise them so that at the margins, women do have that extra child or two.  So what if it’s possible to conceive and birth healthy, term babies after 40 for the first time? You may not live to see that kid or kids have their own children, and that’s profoundly self-centered.  You may not even live to see that kid reach adulthood.  The very act of conceiving for the first time at such ages comes with its own problems, since women are designed to be optimally fertile from 18-35, as far as the balance between growing babies and being able to wrangle them too.

And fertility should be whole-body, not just about getting pregnant over and over again.  Breastfeeding the kids for at least the first year of their lives, and ideally for some portion of their second and third years provides time for mother to recover physically and adjust to the demands of each new infant more smoothly than trying to get pregnant within seconds of the previous delivery.  This can produce breastfeeding-related temporary infertility, but simple consideration by husbands to not try for more in rapid succession is also part of whole-body fertility.  I know that for many women, there is pressure to closely space due to marrying in the late 20s or early 30s and wanting more than two kids, or a fear that if you aren’t constantly pregnant, he won’t let you have more than one or two.  Or pressure from the guy to build up the family as quickly as possible.  Some men count coup in how fast they can get their women to conceive again after each delivery.  This is a terrible thing, but it’s usually related to men not having proper outlets for healthier masculine expression.  But whatever the reason, it breaks the female body down faster and leaves her less to give to the raising and tending of the home and family in the medium and long term.  A lot of those historically fecund multi-great grammas keeled over promptly after finishing up with number 12 or 14 in their early 40s.

ETA, 5/2015: This guy writes a long book review concerning a book about the birth control debate among Protestants from 1870 to 1970.  The book review is not why I linked though, I linked for note at the end of the article, where he describes his fellow professors at a private Christian college as being fecund and gives the total number of children for 13 of them, totaling 63 children.  He boasts that the average is 4.84, but misses that the mode (most common number) is 3.  This isn’t the best post to tack this onto, but it is about natalism.  Part of practical natalism is understanding statistical reality as it reveals patterns of human behavior.  His colleagues are having one extra kid much more often than they are having 11 (one family).  Six of the thirteen professors have but three kids apiece.  This is more than the usual two, but it also means the average of about 5 is a bit misleading.  Also, related, the private Christian college in question has had a number of appalling scandals attach to it, ostentatiously left out by this smuggerson mcsmuggypants.  That link doesn’t cover the Ayn Rand acolytes peopling the college, but I can’t find that reference right now so I’ll just end here.