Meet the Women Defying the ‘Birth Dearth’

‘Hannah’s Children’ offers a glimpse into countercultural women having five babies — or more.

Catherine Pakaluk, shown at her doctoral graduation with some of her children, has been researching women who, like herself, have five or more children.
Catherine Pakaluk, shown at her doctoral graduation with some of her children, has been researching women who, like herself, have five or more children. (photo: Jack D. Hardy photo / Courtesy of Catherine Pakaluk)

Populations are collapsing globally. The total fertility rate (TFR) during a woman’s childbearing years has declined by more than 50% over the past 70 years, from around five children for each female in 1950 to 2.2 children in 2021, with more than half of all countries and territories (110 of 204) below 2.1 births.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in the U.S., since 2007, the total fertility rate has declined from 2.12, which is just above the replacement level set by demographic tradition at 2.10 births per woman, to 1.67 in 2022, leading many to speculate that our country has entered a sustained period of what is considered below-replacement fertility.

This situation captured the attention of Catherine Pakaluk, Ph.D., director of social research and associate professor at The Catholic University of America. 

“Growing up, I heard people complaining that the world would be overpopulated, but in the last 25 years, it has become clear that we don’t have enough children,” she told the Register. “When a country is shrinking, economic output shrinks along with family sizes. Most sociologists and economists around the world are studying the reasons why people won’t or can’t have children. I thought that I could add to the conversation by talking to those who are having children.”

Pakaluk interviewed 55 college-educated women from 10 states raising five or more children. With a grant from the Wheatley Institute and assistance on 20% of the interviews from Mormon colleague Emily Reynolds, assistant director at Wheatley and a part-time professor at Brigham Young University, they used open-ended questions to understand why these women affirm children as a gift without measure. 

From that research, Pakaluk wrote Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, a narrative of this first qualitative study of the motivation behind American women open to having a large family. 

“Since countries have not been able to convince women to have more babies by paying them,” she said, referring to countries such as Finland, Italy and Japan, “I thought, ‘Let’s talk to the women having more babies and find out why.’ I found that they have strong and interesting reasons for doing so, but no one has ever viewed it as a research project.”

The title, Hannah’s Children, comes from the Book of Samuel with the “Song of Hannah” connecting the fate of Israel to the gift of Samuel — through whom King David would be anointed. Hannah had been barren, but God answered her prayer with Samuel — and then three more sons and two daughters. 

Hannah’s Children reveals women in contemporary America who see children as their greatest purpose and blessing, Pakaluk said. 

“Women like them may never be a majority,” she admitted, “but their stories have profound relevance for the domestic-policy questions related to demographics, as well as for the deeper public dialogue.”


Author’s Large Family

Pakaluk comes from a Massachusetts family of nine children. At 23, she married Michael Pakaluk, a widower of six children ages 6 to 16. They met through the pro-life movement while she was doing doctoral work at Harvard University. Together, they had another eight children. 

Pakaluk heard comments such as, “Do you know what you are getting into?”

“The truth is I didn’t know,” she admitted, “Every year got easier. I really trusted God. He wouldn’t put me in this position without providing what I needed. I just held onto that belief.”

Pakaluk explained her reason for being so open to having children in her book: “I suppose it boils down to some sort of deeply held thing, possibly from childhood — a platinum conviction — that the capacity to conceive children, to receive them into my arms, to take them home, to dwell with them in love, to sacrifice for them as they grow, and to delight in them as the Lord delights in us, that that thing, call it motherhood, call it childbearing, that that thing is the most worthwhile thing in the world — the most perfect thing I am capable of doing.” 

Catherine Pakaluk with baby No. 7
Catherine Pakaluk holds baby Valerie (No. 7).(Photo: Gary Huber Photography)


Varied Backgrounds, Similar Values

Twelve women from the study were included in the book as representative of the sample. Using church bulletin announcements, Pakaluk garnered 500 responses that were whittled down to 55 women, ranging in age from 32 to 71 and having five to 15 children, with an average of seven children. The women cited were Baptist, evangelical Protestant, nondenominational Christian, Presbyterian, Mormon, Jewish and Catholic. 

Seventy-five percent were white; 25% were either Black, Hispanic, Asian, Filipino, Semitic, mixed race or another. Some used artificial contraception in between planning their next child. 

Pakaluk included explanations from Catholic women about following Catholic teaching against artificial birth control, instead using natural methods to space children while still being open to a large family. Economic status varied from wealthy to living paycheck to paycheck, and women worked full time, or part time, or not at all.

Regarding the financial cost of having children, the women all shared that the monetary expense was less than most people thought — and contended the blessing of children makes up for any and all challenges.

Pakaluk wrote, “If these notions seem biblical, they are. The women defying the birth dearth had a reason to have children big enough to give up their lives more than once or twice, and that reason came from deep trust in God, or love for their spouses, or love for their children — often, all three.”


Bringing Goodness Into the World

Steph, a Mormon pediatrician with six children ages 13 to 24, was the only one profiled with a stay-at-home husband. She expressed that the hardest part of big family life was managing the day-to-day details. 

“And we’ve learned to tell our kids, ‘You play one sport at a time.’ But it’s okay because kids these days do too much.” She added, “There’s just never a dull moment. It’s that there’s just so much joy … I would just say, because this is where the joy in life comes from.” 

Steph actually regretted that they did not have just one more child, blaming her “late start” at age 27 after medical school.

Jenn, a Chinese-American Baptist with six children, comes from the southern U.S. She had been warned by a college professor that women should only have one, two or no children, lest they be irresponsible. Her husband and their pastor thought they should leave family size to God. Jenn struggled with her first pregnancy and then miscarried. That loss made her treasure the second pregnancy. 

“When [my son] came along, I felt like I had somebody with me, and he was precious and perfect, and it just felt like it was what I was designed for. It’s hard to describe that feeling of peace and joy and fulfillment, even just in the very beginning of motherhood.”

There were struggles and more miscarriages, but she felt God took care of things, including getting through difficult financial times when her husband switched from the medical profession to being a church pastor. 

Miki, a Japanese-American university professor, eight months pregnant with her fifth child, admitted that she and her husband — an Irish Catholic — were not religious when they met in graduate school. He was one of seven children and was adamant about not being a practicing Catholic.

But talk of marriage drew him back to the Church. Miki researched the intellectual arguments, converted and accepted Catholic teaching against artificial contraception but initially wanted only one or two children. Her conversion, however, left her open to the possibility of a third child. That openness has led to five now. 

What helped change her focus on being open to life was that she left the demanding university tenure tract and found a Catholic parish with other above-average-size families that offers social support. 

Pakaluk shared that the women all reflected on how raising children brings goodness and life into the world. 

Pakaluk concluded that, among study participants, faith in God played a central role. 

“Nations that crowd out the sacred functions of the Church will continue to reap a sterile harvest of disappointment,” she said. “Religious freedom as family policy would mean the government’s taking a step back from providing human services directly, starting with education, and asking churches to become stronger by doing more.”

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