Three of the author Catherine Ruth Pakaluk’s eight children

Fruitful discussion

Hannah’s Children is a sharp retort to assumptions about barefoot, bread-baking women harassed by scores of children and domineering husbands


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

American women have 1.66 children on average. Yet academic Catherine Ruth Pakaluk isn’t interested in averages, but in outliers — the five per cent of American women with five or more children. A mother of eight herself, Pakaluk seeks the “kernel of difference” that makes the five per cent exceptional. Hannah’s Children is born of her interviews with 55 such women, all American-born, university-educated and religious.

Do not dismiss these women as trad wives seeking to serve God through procreation. Pakaluk’s five per centers report being motivated not by religious obligation but by the sheer delight they take in their children, together with a crucial “posture of openness” to the possibility of another child.

Hannah’s Children: the Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, Catherine Ruth Pakaluk (Regnery, £23.99)

Pakaluk’s interviewees are radiant with what I term “parent joy”: they call their children “blessings”, noting that the amount of happiness generated by a baby’s arrival increases with family size, because parents’ delight is added to by that of siblings. “This is life and joy in its purest form,” says Amanda, mother of five. By comparison, I think of the hit UK show Motherland, in which parenthood is thankless and, as Janice Turner recently wrote, children are “boring, fun-sucking tyrants”.

In a rare interjection from an interviewee’s husband, a MAGA-hat-wearing father of nine points out in consternation that we find it easily intelligible when a billionaire buys ten houses. Yet not so when a couple channels wealth into having a big family.

Pakaluk argues that the value her interviewees place on children helps immunise them from socio-economic pressures in favour of smaller families. The structured career paths we pursue can be difficult to pair with parenthood, but if you value children very highly, you may willingly take on that opportunity cost.

I wanted to hear more from fathers than Hannah’s Children offers. Clearly, women take the physical brunt when a couple joins the five per cent. (“My body’s falling apart now,” says Shaylee, mother of seven.) But there is surely more to learn about modern Western men who want large families.

In a country such as the UK, where large families are almost a historical oddity, Hannah’s Children describes family dynamics that once would have been common, but have faded from memory. Siblings have purpose — the ten-year-old who pauses in the playground to count her brothers and sisters or realises the baby needs a nap and lays her down.

This is the organic result of a large family and Pakaluk’s interviewees felt that far from “spoiling” their childhoods, such responsibilities enriched the lives of older siblings. Kim, a mother of 12, argues that being “useful” made her children less likely to feel depressed. Multiple interviewees agreed that growing up in a large family teaches children pro-social behaviours, describing “me me me” culture as both a cause and result of smaller families.

The burdens upon Pakaluk’s five per centers are significant but they avoid demands that bear down on typical parents. Laura, mother of nine, said: “I couldn’t care less if my kids are happy. That’s their job.” There are no helicopter parents in Hannah’s Children.

The Baby Boom was catalysed by medical advances, household technology and affordable housing

It seems clear that smaller family sizes enable parenting styles that are more demanding in time, and emotional and material resources. Take “gentle parenting”, which forbids giving children orders or punishing them, in favour of affirming their emotions. In a supermarket last year, I saw a small boy kicking his tired-looking mother, his tiny foot lashing out. “You are kicking mummy,” she droned serenely, “you are feeling angry. Would you like a cuddle to calm down?” How many children can one have if one believes this is the best approach? One, two? Certainly not nine.

Time with Pakaluk’s five per centers is time well spent and Hannah’s Children is a sharp retort to assumptions about barefoot, bread-baking women harassed by scores of children and domineering husbands. The lesson is that establishing how we meet the demographic challenge and help people to have children will mean thinking seriously about the lives of people who do have many, not only about those who don’t.

Pakaluk concludes that government policy cannot help us have more children, arguing that religion is the “only effective family policy”. Faith can make people more likely to start families. Yet France, Europe’s most secular nation, is also its most fertile; Italy, one of Europe’s most religious countries, has one of its lowest birth rates.

And the Baby Boom, the last great demographic wave to sweep the West, was catalysed by medical advances, household technology and affordable housing — changes that weren’t about God, but which made parenting safer, easier and cheaper.

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