Defying the trend: mothers of large families

Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth
By Catherine Ruth Pakaluk. Regnery Gateway. 2024. 400 pages.

We live in a world – I am thinking particularly of Europe and the United States, though its shadow is cast worldwide – where we are experiencing a dramatic collapse in population. There is an acute dearth of babies, the exact opposite of the doom-laden, much-repeated prophesy of an imminent population explosion.

Catherine Pakaluk, a mother of eight children, points out that "one in six people in the US is over 65 today, compared to one in twenty a century ago." Writing as a Catholic, she laments that she has never heard a sermon in her Church "on the value of having children".

Her book is a personal study of a very small 5 percent of US women: those who willingly choose to have five or more children within a society that has chosen the opposite. She and a colleague visited 10 regions and interviewed 55 women in this category.

Her subjects are college-educated, sometimes with advanced degrees. There is a balance of race, religion and ethnicity, and names are changed to protect identity.

It is highly significant for what it reveals about the relationship between religious faith and family size. The women interviewed – Mormon, Jewish, Evangelical and Catholic – are "different in kind", not in degree, from other women, even women in their churches.

For instance, Catholic women today use birth control "at about the same rates as everyone else". Pakaluk’s quest is to discover why these women, articulate, educated, passionate in their views, are so different from their peers "and what they think it means."

The result is a treasure trove of reflections, joyful, exuberant, life-enhancing – rich in importance for society and for our civilisation as a whole.

Transcendent faith

Esther, Jewish, with nine children, thinks women generally are too "rational" and that they need to be "a little bit more super-rational", in order to know "the possibilities of expansion in your life."

Her friend Hannah, with seven, who returned to her Jewish faith along with her husband after a period of searching, adds that "marriage meant children": children provide a link with the past and the future; they are "this key to infinity… this chain of infinity."

Kim, an Evangelical, homeschools 12 children. She had not initially envisaged such a large number, but "we just fell in love with babies."

Rosalie, with nine children, comments in a remark echoed by the other mothers, that having many siblings is a good thing: "You don’t need stuff. You just need one another… As a big family, we really work together." Like the other interviewees, all with deeply religious instincts whether as converts or reverts, she has an implicit trust that "God will provide".

June, with eight children, supports Kim’s remark, saying, ‘We began to see life differently, and we enjoyed our children so much that… really it was one at a time.’


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Miki, a Japanese American with five children, adds a different angle. She is a convert and her husband, a lapsed Catholic, had (unusually) not rejected Catholic teaching that sex needs to be united to fertility and marriage.

Like several of the women interviewed, women who had initially thought they would continue their academic goals after marriage and seek tenure in university positions, she experienced "painfully having to let go of myself". She had to learn to "embrace mystery and hierarchy", but added that moving to a parish and neighbourhood with many big families had made a huge difference to the community support she experienced.

Shaylee, a Mormon with seven children who, like her husband, had come from a large family, speaks for all the interviewees when she confesses that "Motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the most rewarding thing I can imagine doing."

Strong foundations

It is noteworthy that all the women in this book have strong marriages and supportive husbands. Terry, with ten children, is clear that motherhood was her vocation and that she needed to find the right man to marry. "God created me a woman to have babies," adding, "I think we’ve lost this idea that the whole point of marriage is to have a family, and I think that’s really sad."

Lauren, with five children and who has a doctorate, is unusual in this book as her family size has been husband-led. "He wants nine" – more than she had envisaged. But she emphasises that they have a close marriage, that her husband loves being a father and that he earns a very good salary. Despite their material comfort, Lauren believes in only giving her children modest treats, and "the older children help with the younger ones." Her lifestyle is not so different from other less affluent families in the book.

Esther speaks for other women surveyed when she says, "We don’t go anywhere for the most part. I work on trying to make our home life fun and happy." And she adds, with a touch of humour that other interviewees would have concurred with, "Fighting with your siblings doesn’t cost anything." (As a mother of eight children myself, I always saw such "fights" as character-forming: they required energy, mental alertness, the acceptance of losing and the need to repair the relationship afterwards.)

Esther added a thought implicit to all these women: "Women are so strong. I wish that women knew how strong we can be."

Danielle, a medic with seven children who married a fellow doctor, sees family life and babies as "a surprise encounter with new joy". As a mother she is "parenting, shepherding, nurturing, teaching, fostering the growth" of her children. Steph, with six children, thinks "people need to be awakened to what they know in their hearts is true. And that is that families are really wonderful."

Angela, an African American with five children, describes her home as "rich with persons." She believes one can "resist the revelation of God or you can surrender to it in all its beauty and pain." Leah, with five children, speaks for all the women interviewed when she comments that the "self-sacrifice" demanded of mothers "required a supernatural perspective." She added the profound thought that "bringing children into the world is like bringing holiness into the world."


Pakaluk adds her own reflections to what she has heard throughout her book. "My subjects described their choice to have many children as a deliberate rejection of a self-regarding lifestyle in favour of a way of life intentionally limited by the demands of motherhood… They believe they have found themselves in having children… They believe their personalities and capacities have expanded" owing to the "empathy, generosity, solidarity and self-denial" that is demanded.

She emphasises that she does not "judge" couples with smaller families and that many women "want more children than they actually achieve", often because by the time they have completed their higher education plans and found a suitable husband their fertility has significantly waned.

Nonetheless, the advent of the Pill, with the control predicated on its use, brings a "new calculus" to child-bearing. In her book, children are constantly referred to as a "blessing" and a "gift" – words with religious connotations – rather than the result of calculated choice to be accommodated within a lifestyle already planned in advance.

Pakaluk also provides new insights: that the loss of a baby or child can lead "to a greater appreciation for the possibility of new life" – and that babies within a family can bring their innate capacity to heal trauma to older siblings who may be struggling with grief and depression. Her conclusion? That love and faith "can move mountains"; indeed, can lead to a life of sacrificial joy that has to be lived to be understood.

I will give the last word to Guadalupe, who has ten children. "Having a large family is not for everyone… but I feel a lot more people could do this than they think."

What do you think of having a large family? Leave your comments in the box below.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.

Image credit: Pexels


Showing 5 reactions

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  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-05-07 14:32:48 +1000
  • mrscracker
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I saw an article about the book also in the National Catholic Register. Someone in the NCR comments had suggested the reason only college educated mothers were selected by the author was to counter the stereotype of only less educated women having large families. But I still find it odd that mothers from other educational backgrounds were excluded.
  • David Kolf
    commented 2024-05-06 18:19:53 +1000
    Glad to see an article that talks about the beauty of large families for their own sake, not as a solution to macroeconomic problems of a birth dearth.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-06 14:03:10 +1000
    Why is adoption never promoted on this website? With well over 100 million orphans worldwide, adopting a child is the most selfless thing anyone can do.
  • Francis Phillips
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-06 13:56:18 +1000