About 55% of American women 40 and over have 1 or 2 children.

Given biology, this percentage is much the same for American women 35-39 as well.  About 20% have exactly three and a bit under 8% have exactly 4.  Hispanic women have three at noticeably higher rates than other ethnic groups, which has kept the percentage of women having 3 pretty stable over the last couple of decades.

The numbers were a little lower 15 and 20 years ago, but not by much.

Adding all that up, over 80% of women have 1-4 children in their lifetimes.  Nearly all the rest do not have kids at all. About 3% have five or six.  More than six is, statistically speaking, a rounding error.

Sometimes you hear that “80 or 85% of all women reproduce”.  Well, yeah, but in practice, this is what that means as far as actual children born.

On a related note, Scandinavian birthrates are mostly below replacement and they are only as close to it as they are because of social and government pressure to get women over 35 to have a marginal extra child.  The Scandinavian model of family formation is to have one child in your early 30s, and occasionally a second in your mid or late 30s.  It’s really a disastrous approach long-term for reasons I’ll leave as an exercise.

The American model is much more diverse, but tends towards closely spacing births and having as many as you can handle mostly alone, which appears to max out around 3 or 4.  But because child spacing varies so much among Americans having kids, it’s difficult for people who had three kids five years apart over two marriages to understand the travails of someone having three kids in three years in one marriage.  Or having one kid out of wedlock in one’s early 20s and then two more in marriage ten years later.

It’s interesting that for several decades now women have been starting their families in their 30s in America more and more often and trying to have as many as they can then, but they can’t outrun biology, so the overall TFR doesn’t shift much.


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.

American women born from about 1915-1925 jumped on birth control pills with both hands and a foot

Women who were in their late 30s and early 40s in 1960 when the Pill came along rushed out to keep from having a third-order or higher child.  The drops happened within less than five years of the Pill’s appearance and were especially sharp for the women avoiding a 6th, 7th and 8th+ (all births after 8th are in one category of 8 or more) birth.  The births of third and fourth children recovered a little and flattened out briefly as younger cohorts of women aged into that 35-44 age range, but then continued the drop even more steeply.  The CDC graphed the declines in page 5 of their 1975 National Vital Statistics Report.

The early 1960s were pre-internet, household goods productions still sometimes was competitive with store-made goods,  and food was still pretty expensive.  But once women born in the wake of World War I had the chance to not keep having babies up until menopause, they jumped on it, despite living in what was in many ways still a more “authentic” lifestyle by the standards of many modern conservatives with rose colored memories or film-only knowledge of the era.  There was a lot of stuff going on in the 1960s and 1970s politically and socially, but average people weren’t political then, just as they are not now.  And if so many women who already had large families were jumping on the chance to not have yet another baby, it’s important to understand why and that the why was probably not for politicized reasons.

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.

Having 10 or more kids is fertility depressing, not enhancing.

What a lot of conservative men have massive cluelessness about is how having babies impacts women and can actually inhibit fertility multigenerationally.  Ok, so you wanna outbreed those dastardly liberals.  The way to do that is not by having wives produce a dozen kids.  They aren’t really cheaper by the dozen.

Once you’re in double digits for sure and generally speaking at some point after about 6-7 kids, a large family inhibits fertility.  With that many kids, there’s free riding (“Oh, some of my numerous siblings will provide grandkids, no worry, no hurry”), and there’s childcare burnout because as the Duggars usefully show, there’s no way Mom can be pregnant near-constantly and also take care of all the kids.  It generally falls to older female siblings once they are aged 9-10 or so, who unsurprisingly tend to be disinclined to rush into motherhood, or even pursue it at all.

There’s also the two or three family problem, where because of the inevitable wide gaps that open up between the oldest and the youngest, you just might get the household segmenting itself into little sub-units where some of the siblings take on mother/father roles because they are 15 years older than the littlest kids.  That also inhibits fertility, by simulating the parent/child relationship in what is not necessarily a healthy way and which delays family formation.

The takeaway is that you can look with your eyes at the generational spread with such families.  Parents have 12 kids, who typically have 15-30 grandkids between them, a huge drop in fertility.  And since those grandkids grew up in families much much smaller than what their parents had, that inhibits their own baby-having even though they know they have a zillion aunts and uncles.  At the low end of that range, several of the 12 didn’t even reproduce, further dinging the overall robustness of the family tree.

That’s how it tends to play out in reality-land, as opposed to daydreamland when conservative men propose that the solution to have normal life return is just for conservative families to pop em out like pez.

If one is really set on robust reproduction, the approach that gets you multiple generations of 3+ kids per mother is to arrange your society so that people expect to see 4-6 kids as a “typical family”.  Some families will be smaller and a few will be much larger, but that range of kids is manageable. If the couple wants to “get it out of the way” and have them closely spaced, that’s an option.  If they want to follow a more natural spacing and rest up between each kid, that’s an option.  It’s not so many kids that daughters grow up seeing a constantly tired, constantly pregnant woman who keeps giving them more and more work to do.  It’s not so many kids that sons are really worried about how on earth they could possibly support so many babies.

But it’s not so few kids that people stop getting used to seeing children in the public sphere.  It’s not so few kids that helicopter parenting is high-status, nor so many kids that nobody expects much in the way of fathering or mothering to happen.

And in practice the result is that parents have 4-5 kids who have 4-5 kids, who…have 4-5 kids.  The occasional kid doesn’t reproduce for whatever reasons, but overall 3 or 4 of every five do, and typically by having about as many as their parents did.  This is much more robust and builds a strong community of kinship and openness to children as part of normal life in general.  The divides between parents and non-parents don’t have the same kind of space to open up and make it difficult to keep kids in the public sphere.

Yes, this is a Mormon approach, and where they’ve bought fully into the birth control mentality, it’s stopped working. But it’s also the approach for a lot of societies, including a fair amount of America during the early and middle 20th century when America was more regional.

Caveat: this post assumes that when (male) people promote having quite a bit more than two kids that they are sincerely clueless about how exhausting the raising and bearing of kids is and that they would welcome a society where motherhood was taken seriously and supported as a vocation and real lifework.  It is not a post that assumes these people actually want the way worse than purdah system their blithe advocacy ends up producing in practice.  It assumes good intentions, which may well be overly generous on my part, but there you are.

ETA, 8/20/14: Nick B Steves is baffled that I don’t agree with the neoreactionary consensus and irritated that I don’t argue like a man.