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How Many Children Do or Did You Hope to Have?

The 2020 U.S. Census reveals the most popular family size.

Key points

  • The 2020 U.S. Census shows that the one-child families now outnumber families with two or three children.
  • Wanting two or more children remains a preference, but it is unrealistic for many.
  • The pandemic has parents rethinking family size.
Izzy Park/Unsplash
Source: Izzy Park/Unsplash

As part of the Only Child Project, a research study I’m leading, I have been asking only children and parents of only children how many children they think they want or thought they wanted. Most, though not all, say two or more.

The idea of the nuclear family with two or three children is burned into society’s belief system. But the 2020 Census underscores what’s really happening: One-child families outnumber two-child and three-child families, and they have now for several decades.

Families with one child under the age of 18 outnumber two-child households; the same holds true when you look only at families with children under age 6. Notably, the number of parents with some college or college degrees continues an upward trend. That indicates women are staying in school longer, marrying later, and waiting to start their families.

Consistently, women in the Only Child Project were at least 30 years old, and some were considerably older when they gave birth. Like many I spoke with, Kathleen,* 41, says that she might have had another child if she had married earlier. “My biological clock is counting down; I didn’t expect to marry at 37 and have a baby so late, at 39. We’re done. I’m concerned about the risk of pregnancy complications being older.”

Meredith and Doug are 39; each has three siblings and good relationships with them. When you ask them about having children, they say, “You would think because we have siblings that we would want to repeat that, but we don’t. We’re focused on our careers”—she’s an oncologist, he’s a biochemist—“and want to buy a second home.” “If we have any,” Meredith says emphatically, “it will be one.”

When sibling relationships are positive, it can be difficult to reconcile the one-child choice. In contrast to Meredith, Fredda, 42, says, “I always wanted two children because of my relationship with my sister—one that I may have idealized since she died in her early 20s. For me, a lot of reasons came together.”

Women today have career opportunities they didn’t have in the 1950s and 60s in line with goals they’ve set for themselves. Accordingly, many women, like Meredith and Fredda, weigh how having a child or more children might affect their job trajectory. Fredda wants more in her life than being home raising children. “When my husband and I hit 40, our son was 7 years old and becoming more independent. We realized that we were on the verge of having our lives back. We were content and wanted the freedoms you lose if you start over with a baby. Underscoring our decision was the jarring time I had after my long maternity leave. Unlike the United States, my country gives a full year of paid maternity leave.

“When I returned, I was pushed to the side; it was a career break, and I had to find another position in a new company. I knew from experience that if I took another maternity leave to have a second child, I would essentially be replaced again. Short-circuiting my career was hurtful, and a tiny voice in my head said, don’t do it again. I listened.”

More than half of Millennial women “assume that if and when they have children, it will be harder for them to advance in their careers,” according to Pew Research Center.

For the most part, women in their 20s, whether single or partnered, don’t think about their fertility. They focus on getting ahead at their jobs and being financially able to support a family. Those in their 30s and early 40s and in the family planning stages are also settling on one. Richard and Elena, together for 18 years, have decided it’s time to have a baby. She’s 38, and Richard is 39—older by the standards of previous generations to be starting a family. They are united in how many children to have: “It was a long road to get us to want a child. We are definitely having only one—we are both only children.”

Juliet was 43 when she gave birth to her son and explains another usual “decider” for having one child—the expense of infertility treatments. “When I was younger, I thought two was my number… as I got older, I worried about my fertility,” she says. “To have a baby took two expensive rounds of IVF, and, of course, they were not covered by insurance. We felt lucky to have a viable embryo and then fortunate to have a healthy child. We agreed to call it quits. We decided not to tempt the fates anymore.”

The pandemic changes minds.

The pandemic dropped a veil of uncertainty, causing people to rethink childbearing and how many children to have. The pandemic will probably affect the birthrate negatively for a long time, if not permanently. In the middle of the lengthy lockdown, Joe Pinsker, who writes regularly about families for The Atlantic, shared, “…in times of heightened uncertainty, people are less likely to bring children into the world. And the future is doubly uncertain right now: Potential parents are likely worried both about their (and their children’s) future health, and their future finances.”

The pandemic has put only child parents and would-be parents on high alert, as evidenced by recent posts on parenting boards. Comment after comment, sound an alarm:

  • “When my husband just mentioned having a second baby, I went back on birth control.”
  • The parent of a 2-year-old posted, “This pandemic and money convinced me to stop at one.”
  • The mother of a 3-year-old added, “Too many unknowns. I have friends who tell me life will be fine, and I’ll be missing out if I don’t have another child. I’m not convinced. I think we should make the child we have a priority.”

Young enough to have more children, Rebecca, 36, has a 2-year-old and admits to having lengthy debates with herself and her husband. “We thought we wanted multiple children, three or four,” she told me. “When we thought we could have a second, the pandemic started. We both were working in jobs with shaky security. That brought us up short and got us thinking that this is not a good time to have another child.”

No matter how many children men and women say they want, today, a huge number of them prioritize their education or career and want to stabilize their place in the workforce before having babies or more babies. “We’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history,” writes David Brooks in The Atlantic. “The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once.”

With the high cost of raising children and the pressure on working parents and amidst a pandemic that’s only further challenging norms, it’s understandable why many parents—including those who originally expected they would have multiple kids—are embracing the one-child family.

*Names of study participants have been changed to protect identities.

Copyright @2021 by Susan Newman, Ph.D.

References

Brooks, David. (2020). “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake.” The Atlantic, March 15.

Pew Research Center. (2013) “On Pay Gap, Millennial Women Near Parity – For Now: Despite Gains, Many See Roadblocks Ahead.” December 11.

Pinsker, Joe. (2020) “We’re Talking About More than Half a Million People Missing from the U.S. Population.” The Atlantic: July 23.

United States Census. (2021) Families and Households. Parents With Coresident Children Under 18, by Living Arrangement, Sex, and Selected Characteristics: 2020Table A3: Table AVG3. Average Number of People per Family Household With Own Children Under 18, by Race and Hispanic Origin, Marital Status, Age, and Education of Householder: 2020

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