Why Are Americans Having Fewer Children Than They Want?

Americans may desire to have more children, but their lives are often orchestrated in a way that makes that seem impossible.

Studies show that Americans want more children than they are currently having. When asked what they view as the ideal family size, Americans still say two to three children, even as the birthrate continues to decline. Perhaps more surprising, the number of respondents who say the ideal family size is three or more children has increased in recent years.

The results are not definitive, and some surveys include the ambiguously worded option that the ideal number of children is “as many as you want.” The question is also not, as other commentators have noted, asking about your specific family and desires. Still, there is disappointment for many bound up in those statistics.

When a couple announces that they are expecting a child beyond the socially acceptable two to three (or simply waits and lets the reality of the child speak for itself), they are often met with looks of disgust and confusion. To many, prolonging the seemingly unpleasant season of having young children is excessive and disordered. What could possibly lead a person to such a lifestyle if not total irresponsibility? 

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At the same time, there is a quieter but equally strong reaction you can observe: wistfulness and longing. Many couples enjoy having babies and raising their children, and they long to have “just one more.” However, for many, their lives are orchestrated in a way that makes that seem impossible. 

Ironically, in an age obsessed with choice and control, people seem to be unable to do what it is they want. If people think it is good to have more than three children, why aren’t more people doing it? 

Much of American culture, especially that in the coastal regions, is no longer set up to accommodate families. In areas with such a high cost of living, there is even greater emphasis on the assumed need to have two incomes. The inflexibility of a dual-career household means that having many children is often unattainable.

There are also subtler pressures. Ross Douthat wrote memorably a few years ago about his and his wife’s decision to have one more baby. His piece highlighted the findings of the “car seats as contraception” study which examined car seat requirement data. As car seats are legally required at older ages, families are squeezed out of most mid-sized cars by kid number three, and adding to the brood becomes prohibitively expensive. While a handful of lives are saved each year from traffic fatalities, researchers estimate thousands of babies are not born each year because getting a bigger car was too big a burden.

There are also ridiculous reasons people invent for not having more children, such as their inability to love another child or the perceived need to throw lavish birthday parties and take trips to Disney World. 

From the dual-income trap to the need for a larger vehicle, there are any number of identifiable reasons and invented excuses for why it is difficult for families to joyfully welcome many children.

The reality is that it was never easy to have many children. Books like Cheaper by the Dozen, in addition to demonstrating the now-outlawed practice of piling a dozen young children into the back of a car without seatbelts, chronicles the comedic outcomes of trying to run a household with many people, most of them young, chaotic, destructive, and uncivilized. 

For example, a modern parent of many may face the dilemma of a shower handle being ripped from the wall, which, once replaced, leaks and sends water into the breakfast nook ceiling. This problem, and the resulting damage to property, is made more challenging due to modern plumbing. However, the fact that many children cannot be micromanaged and accidents will occur is not new.

What has changed is not the challenge of having children but our unwillingness to tolerate discomfort. Generations before us had many different ideas about the substance and meaning of life. That life should be comfortable is an assertion that likely never occurred to them because it was so incongruous with the reality into which they were born. Now, however, we can insulate ourselves to the point of believing the silly lie that life is supposed to be spent in comfort. What has changed is not the challenge of having children but our unwillingness to tolerate discomfort. Generations before us had many different ideas about the substance and meaning of life.Tweet This

There are forums where parents anonymously vent their frustrations and claim to regret having children at all. What began as a taboo-breaking ritual is now a tawdry exercise in which parents complain about their offspring and explain how much they would rather be watching more television and taking occasional trips than caring for the kids.

With this much airtime given to the regretful parents and the childfree-by-choice contingent, there is strong social encouragement to forego having children, or at least not many of them. No matter how much we may say we want more children, as a culture we have opted for comfort and control.

Wanting control is not a new phenomenon. Think of Scarlett O’Hara firmly rejecting Rhett Butler because she wants a thin waist far more than the possibility of another child. What is different is the positive reinforcement of these selfish and antisocial desires backed up with the deadly promises of contraception and abortion. We can wonder endlessly about the real reason people are not having as many children as the “ideal family size,” but the reasons are obvious.

Christ instructs us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It is not by our own strength that perfection is ever possible. If we, of our own power, command children into existence and pursue family-building as a competitive sport, the result will be a legacy of pain and dysfunction. On the other hand, what does a joyful family offer the world if not an embodied image of the Trinity and a foretaste of Heaven? 

When you’re cradling a colicky newborn and the four-year-old has appendicitis or the six-year-old needs stitches on his head, that is not the time to make a long-term decision about the possibility of welcoming another child. After all, and here is what is now a radical proposition, it’s not actually up to us at all. When married couples, by God’s grace, are open to another child, it is an act of radicalism that our culture sorely needs.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Anna Reynolds

    Anna Kaladish Reynolds attended the University of Dallas and received an MA in Theology from Ave Maria University. She is a wife and mother, who lives in the great state of Texas, and she writes at InspireVirtue.com.

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