To understand America’s falling birthrates, Catherine Pakaluk, a social scientist and economics professor at the Catholic University of America, turned not to childless women but to the outliers bucking the trend — the women with children, and lots of them.

To her, this made sense, just like you’d go to get fitness advice from someone who’s fit. She wanted to know what’s driving women to have large families when, to so many others, motherhood seems so incredibly difficult today.

Pakaluk had flyers put up in churches and community centers across the country, seeking women who had five or more children and could explain their reasoning behind this increasingly countercultural decision. From about 500 women who responded, Pakaluk and her colleagues from the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, which funded the study, interviewed 55 women from all parts of the country.

The interviewers visited women’s living rooms and sat on their couches as the mothers spoke of their abundance and the challenges of their bustling households, while bouncing and nursing their babies. These stories, which are at the heart of Pakaluk’s new book, “Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth,” reveal a worldview where children are at its very center, and a world in which children exist for no other purpose than being themselves.

“We were convinced that there was a kind of hidden story to tell,” Pakaluk told me, “and that the general portrayal of people with families in the media, social media, and in culture and movies, is generally really quite far from the lived experience of people.”

How a declining birthrate could impact every American
What a flat U.S. birthrate could mean for the future

As Timothy Carney, the author of “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be,” put it in a blurb for Pakaluk’s book: “The birth dearth is the most important story of our time.”

In the U.S., birthrates are in steady decline and are now at around 1.67 child per woman; in 1950, that number was 3. The replacement rate, the rate at which a population replaces itself, is 2.1; below that, a country’s population begins to shrink. According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, by 2034, Americans who are 65 and older will outnumber those under the age of 18 for the first time ever.

The situation is even more dire in other countries. Outside the U.S., birthrates are the lowest in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. In Italy, there are 12 deaths for every seven births, according to CNN.

Catherine Pakaluk is pictured with six of her eight children in this 2010 family photo. Pakaluk, economics professor at the Catholic University of America and mother of eight, asked women across the country what's driving them to have large families. She's the author of "Hannah's Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth," which came out in March. | Jack D. Hardy

Despite all this, a lot of Americans say they want two or more children. According to a 2023 Gallup poll, 44% of Americans said that two children was the right number for a family. But 45% of Americans prefer larger families: 29% of those people believe three is the ideal number, 12% are leaning toward four children, and 2% said they favor a family with five or more children.

“Mothering is going away as an institution and as a way of life,” said Emily Reynolds, assistant director at Wheatley Institute. “What that means is we’ve got a couple of generations of attachment-disorder children running around, and it’s no wonder the culture is falling apart — they don’t know how to group and how to connect.”

Reynolds helped interview the women in the West, while Pakaluk took the Midwest and East Coast.

Various government efforts to reverse the plummeting birthrate haven’t proven effective. For instance, Taiwan spent more than $3 billion to incentivize families to have more children, including six months of paid parental leave, a cash benefit, tax breaks for parents with young children, and investment in day care centers, according to Vox. These kinds of incentives are important, Pakaluk says, but as she learned from her subjects, to really move the needle, incentives have to emerge from within, from “the reasons of the heart.”

As societies grapple with the future of families and the economic implications of the coming demographic changes, Pakaluk’s book investigates the deeper questions of meaning, motivations and fulfillment of women who are resisting the individualistic narrative that is so prominent today.

‘The most worthwhile thing’

While most of the women featured in the book are religious — only one isn’t — Pakaluk told me the choice to have many children goes beyond cultural norms and religious traditions. After all, not all Catholic, Jewish or Latter-day Saint families opt to have five or more children.

“Even if all women today with large families are religious, not all women who are religious have large families,” she writes in the book. “Religion is correlated with total fertility, but not obviously causal.” The book bears the name of the biblical Hannah, a fitting archetype for being open to and blessed by the will of God through her children.

A Catholic herself and a mother of eight, Pakaluk never felt that her church prescribed a number of children she should have. Although the Catholic Church forbids contraception, she wrote that she’s never heard a sermon on “the value of having children” and a priest never told her to have more kids. She and her husband simply delighted in their children and wanted to have more, even as they advanced professionally.

By the time Pakaluk finished her Ph.D. at Harvard, she had six children. She writes in the 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.”

In 2018, Pakaluk went viral on social media when she started a hashtag, #postcardsformacron, in response to a comment by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, that implied that educated women didn’t choose to have seven children. (Macron later said he was talking about women in poor communities.)

Following the comment, Pakaluk posted a photo of herself and six of her eight children, adding her academic credentials: undergraduate from the University of Pennsylvania, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard. “Let’s flood Macron with beautiful postcards from educated women with large families born from their own loving choice,” she wrote. Other women began sharing their family photos.

Now with her new book, Pakaluk is again elevating stories of motherhood in its fullest capacity.

Why have a lot of children?

Centuries ago, children had economic value; for example, they provided help on farms. People tended to have more children for a tragic reason, too: because the rate of child mortality was so high. (It’s estimated that during the Industrial Revolution, four out of 10 children did not survive to age 5.)

As the economic value of having lots of children in a household decreased, and health outcomes drastically improved, couples needed a new motivation for having lots of children, and Pakaluk explored those motivations in her interviews.

For many, parenting is the experience and a milestone that marks adulthood. “It’s a kind of personal value to become a parent — it’s like a personal experience,” Pakaluk told me. “It’s this idea of parenting as part of being an adult, rather than parenting in order to have children.” With this framing of parenting as a personal experience, however, there is no need for a lot of children — one or two would check the box.

But for the women in “Hannah’s Children,” the motivations for large families transcend the self. At a recent talk at Catholic University, Pakaluk put it this way: “My subjects described their choice to have many children as deliberate, chosen rejection of an autonomous, customized, self-regarding lifestyle in favor of a way of life intentionally limited by the demands of motherhood.”

To these women, children were “expressions God’s goodness and blessing” and were desirable for their own sake.

One woman in the book, Hannah, a mother of seven, who came from a reformed Jewish background and explored Native American and Sufi religions, connected her desire for children with an almost mystical quest for “infinity.” As she meditated on the question of life’s meaning (“What’s the meaning of everything?” she asked), she got her answer: “And I kind of feel like it all came down — like the core of the answer — was that children are this key to infinity.”

For Hannah, children were her link to the chain extending from Moses, Abraham, Noah and Adam.

Then there was Danielle, who went to medical school and loved it, but struggled through her residency and developed anxiety as a result. After finishing the residency, she had a son and discovered how much she loved the new way her life was unfolding. “I realized that was the first time in my life that I hadn’t just sort of gone from one thing to the next,” Danielle says in the book. “I came up for air and I realized I don’t want to keep doing this.” She decided to stay home with her son and went on to have five more children.

Pakaluk said that all the women seemed to have a “posture of openness.” They didn’t always have a “grand vision” for the particular number of children. “But the door wasn’t closed, even if the next baby wasn’t imagined yet or even wanted yet,” Pakaluk said in her Catholic University talk. “That openness allowed for a reassessment of costs and benefits at later stages of childbearing.”

Challenges and rewards

To talk about motherhood is to talk about hardship, and the women didn’t shy away from acknowledging the gamut of challenges: the physical strain on the body (one woman had a heart attack when she was pregnant), mental health struggles such as postpartum depression, financial hardships and the heavy weight of responsibilities. They shared the sadness of giving up hobbies, time alone and a clean house. Many of the mothers who stayed home longed to pursue a career in the future. Those who worked outside the home spoke about the numerous trade-offs.

“It’s about having a very important reason to do this,” Pakaluk told me. “And the reason to do it then outweighs the costs, which are very significant.” These women were serious about motherhood, Reynolds told me, and wanted to discuss it that way.

Catherine Pakaluk, economics professor at the Catholic University of America and mother of eight, asked women across the country what's driving them to have large families. She's the author of "Hannah's Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth," which came out in March. | Tyler Neil

But the challenges the women described unfolded alongside moments of great happiness and they were accompanied by the belief that their self-sacrifice would be repaid in a “divine economy of goodness and joy.” Many women also said that the costs of additional children grew smaller — things got easier, for example, after the third or fourth child.

For Reynolds, the narratives in the book present the possibilities that motherhood holds. “For me, the project is about offering a vision of women who are doing this, and who are thriving doing it as persons,” she said. In losing themselves, she said, the women found their identity. And their communities and neighbors received the abundance of their “thriving.”

Where Utah stands

While interviewing women in Utah, Reynolds was struck by how quickly Utah’s birthrates are moving toward those in other parts of the country. While Utah’s birthrates are still above other states, its downward trend over the past 20 years is the most pronounced among U.S. states. Fertility rates in Utah declined more than 40% from 2007 to 2014. “It’s falling farther in the shorter period of time. And the speed at which it’s catching up is the story to tell,” she told me. Women with five or more children, she said, are no longer the norm in Utah.

In a recent piece on Fusion, Pakaluk drew a comparison between Wonder Woman and Hannah Neeleman, a Utah mother of seven and Latter-day Saint who runs the Ballerina Farm social media accounts and was crowned Mrs. American. Pakaluk called Neeleman “almost a unicorn, even in her own church” and recalled Neeleman’s answer on the pageant stage about the empowering experience of bringing “these sacred souls to the earth.”

Not knowing at the time about Ballerina Farm’s popularity, she wondered of Neeleman and other moms like her: “Are they religious zealots with little bearing on social trends? Or might they offer hidden keys to understanding our population woes?”

In solving some the biggest problems society is facing — loneliness, division, anxiety, self-centeredness — Pakaluk suggests looking inside the home, within the dynamics between brothers and sisters that cultivate an orientation toward the other. “The testimonies in this volume suggested to me that a lack of fraternity and sorority, the state of growing up without a brother or a sister like you, matters more for the character of the nation than, say, ideas left to us in books,” she said, noting that this observation extends to non-biological brothers or sisters, as well biological ones.

Pakaluk has often thought of herself as different for liking children as much as she does; she considered herself unusual and even “a little crazy.” But recording the women’s stories has brought into focus what is important about sharing her experience. “We have no shared language for what it means to have eight children in a two-child world,” she told me.