Motherhood. It’s often named the hardest and most important job in the world. Yet society increasingly defines women by their professional success, rather than the way they run a home. Perhaps that’s one reason we are having fewer children than ever before.
While walking around the city last week I was surprised to have a passer-by comment to my husband and I that we have “such a big family”—two young boys and a baby girl. I would perhaps expect that comment if I had four or more children, but three? The times are clearly changing.
Low fertility is becoming normal across the globe, with most countries’ total fertility rates now between 1.4 and 1.9 children per woman. According to recent data collated by economist Lyman Stone, we’re seeing a global convergence to fertility rates of around 1.6 or 1.7 children per woman.
Yet, studies also show that many couples would prefer to have more children than they do. Forty per cent of adults in the United States think that families of three or more children are ideal, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. One third of EU women aged 40 to 54 also said in a 2011 survey that the number of children they actually have is fewer than their personal ideal. What is stopping us, when previous generations seem to have been comfortable having far bigger broods?
One theory is that people increasingly feel more valued in the labour market than they do in the home. Given the value placed on career, and how much paid work now adds to many women’s sense of identity, finding the right time to stop to have a baby can be a dilemma. I have friends who feel they must go straight back to work to preserve everything they have worked for, or limit the number of children so they don’t disturb their workplaces too much. Moreover, for many couples, two working parents has become a financial necessity.
I have other friends who stay home with their children, but struggle with the change of identity when they become “just a mum”. Because women generally focus on education and career in their early lives, the reality of motherhood often comes as a somewhat unexpected shock in a way it didn’t for previous generations. I only realised how much my profession was tied into my sense of self when I stopped working and encountered the common dilemma of “how to have it all”.
In part because of the desire to first establish a career, women are having children much later than ever before, thus naturally limiting the number they are able to have. On the tram this week, another friendly stranger commented that my husband is “just so young” to have three kids. Yet, he is 34.
Like grey hair and wrinkles, declining fertility has a way of quite suddenly hitting you. This dawning realisation, which I didn’t really consider before, has led me to moments of overwhelming joy and gratitude that I already have my three children. I have a friend who would have loved a third baby, but felt she was already too old by the time she realised that was what she wanted. Another friend wanted a fourth baby, but was unable to conceive in her early 40s. There isn’t always time to change your mind about family size.
Another contributing factor may be that parenting has become more intense. Parents today are expected to, and indeed do, spend far more hours with their children than generations before them. They are also expected to keep them far freer from risk. There is a plethora of parenting information and increased pressure to give children every possible advantage. Between smartphones, sexual norms and the internet, mainstream Western culture is a minefield to navigate. With so many expectations, you can understand why many parents feel they couldn’t possibly manage more children. For instance, it’s unusual for children not to have expensive weekly swimming lessons at my son’s school—was that the case 30 years ago?
Mother of eight, Lisa Canning, says it wasn’t until after the birth of her fourth child that she figured out how to feel less overwhelmed. She describes a “breakdown” point when she realised that a lot of exhaustion was wrapped up in comparing herself to other people and expecting far too much of herself. Giving up control was a turning point. For her, this has meant walking in faith, trusting in God, and His plan for her life.
There are studies showing that mothers of four or more children are actually more satisfied than other mums. I wonder if learning to embrace the messiness and uncertainty of life contributes to that happiness. Many apparent needs and requirements turn out to be not-so-necessary to children’s long-term happiness after all. There is no proof that multiple extra-curricular activities, for example, or their own perfectly decorated bedroom make children any happier or more successful in the long run.
While no family is perfect, children with siblings are generally lucky to have family support and playmates throughout their lives in an age of a very real loneliness epidemic. Siblings may well hold the same values and beliefs—not necessarily held by the wider culture. It’s comforting for parents to reflect on the family that will hopefully accompany them through life too.
Perhaps a more flexible job market is one answer for women who would like more children. It would provide more options for mothers who wish (or have) to maintain work, but see creating a home under their own influence and care as very important too. A re-think of the diversity of the workforce is increasingly happening in many companies, and mothers could be better included within that appreciation of available skills.
Yet, being a mother also needs to be a respected identity in its own right, both economically and socially. The family is fundamental to the life of every society. I make a point of recognising my role as a mother of young children first, even when I am working in another job, because I see maintaining a home as an important and very necessary societal role. It is a fallacy to think that mothers (or stay-at-home dads) aren’t contributing to the economy. They are shaping the generation who will fill a future workforce. If the job is done with love, children are more likely to be well-adjusted, virtuous citizens who will not enter our criminal justice or welfare systems, but be productive members of society.
It is a shame in some ways that couples are having babies later, because parenthood is a profound experience of personal growth; a challenge to embody the unconditional love of God in your words and actions. Watching my babies emerge into the world, I felt I encountered the miraculous—newly created souls I now have the responsibility to nurture. Through parenthood, I have gained the purpose that comes from living for something beyond myself; a role born of love and sacrifice that has truly stretched me.
The type of love that the apostle Paul celebrates in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:1–13) is a demanding love, one that is “patient” and “kind” and “always perseveres”—and that is what makes it so beautiful. Parenting involves hours and hours of sacrifice, learning and challenge, but through that arises moments of pure joy that truly touch heaven. Professional success in a workplace, while good and often necessary, pales in comparison.
When I had my first baby, I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly manage two, and I did indeed find managing a baby and a toddler hard. But having our third has seemed a reward for all the adjustment of the first two. Experience frees me to feel so much more of the joy, and less of the worry. Like many mums before me, perhaps I have made some progress towards walking in faith and relinquishing more control to God. Though there is always the bigger challenge still—children ultimately emulate us, and growing my own virtue is the greatest parenting battle of all.
Shannon Roberts is a freelance writer and busy mum of three. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.