I live in a rural area and I work in a (different) rural school district, and one of the things that has pleasantly surprised me is how many children everyone seems to have. Despite being working mothers, the women I work with all have 3-4 (several have even more) children and my kids’ friends’ parents all seem to have 3-5 children, too. Is this a factor of being in a rural area? Maybe, but I’m also wondering if it isn’t something else, too.
Many of the women I know earn what I think of as “helper incomes”. This is how I loosely define “helper income”:
- flexible about full/part-time
- even when full-time, does not regularly require in excess of 40 hours per week
- in a safe environment
- weekends/holidays off if needed
- allowed to take days off to care for sick children or family members, either paid or unpaid
- remuneration not enough to easily raise a family on by itself but a perfect complement to a husband’s income
Men do have a fairly large say in the number of children a married couple has and in my experience, many women say they wanted more children but their husbands did not, with the reason given often being concerns about finances. In short, the husbands were quite reasonably worried about their ability to support a larger family and wives respected their husbands’ preferences.
But is it possible that a helper income can take enough of the pressure off a man that he is willing to entertain the thought of a third or fourth child? I don’t know for sure, and I don’t feel like I know any of my colleagues well enough yet to say to any of them, “So, tell me about your reproductive choices!” 🙂 But I do wonder.
So here is my working hypothesis: I posit that for white, married, lower middle, middle, and upper middle class women (and the only reason I’m limiting it to these demographics is because those are the demographics of the women I know), having a wife who earns a helper income may take enough financial pressure off the husband so that he is willing to have more children. It may also make women feel like they can afford that third or fourth child and give them the confidence to suggest it to their husbands.
If there were any data on this, I would hypothesize that fertility would look like this, from highest to lowest:
Helper-income wives – highest fertility (most that I know seem to have 3-5 children)
Housewives (stay-at-home wives who do not earn an income) – second highest fertility (most that I know have 2-4 children)
Career wives – I don’t know a lot of heavy-duty career women, but those that I know have 1-2 children and several have none at all.
This is not to be understood as me encouraging women to work outside the home! That is absolutely not my intention, as only the individual couple can determine what is needed and what would be best for their family. This is also not me suggesting the superiority of one group over another. What I am trying to do is generate a reasonable hypothesis to explain my observations of the consistently higher fertility of the working, rural, married, white women that I know.
I’d love to hear what others have observed. Also, I’d be interested in hearing about other demographic groups as a comparison. For instance, do working Hispanic women have higher or lower fertility than their non-employed counterparts? What about African-American women? The one trait I’d like to keep the same in any comparisons, though, is “married”.
I cannot prove or disprove my musings because I could find nothing about this in the published research. I could not even find a single statistic comparing the average number of children between housewives and working women – nothing! But if you are able to find data on this, I would love the link. I’m also curious to know if you can suggest an alternative hypothesis that explains what I am witnessing with the increased fertility of these women.
If my hypothesis were somehow proven to be correct, then to any young woman reading this who is interested in having a larger family, I might suggest that she prepare herself for the possibility of working to earn a helper income if her husband would feel aided by that (not all husbands would want or even allow this, of course, and the husband’s vision for his family should be given the respect that it deserves by virtue of his position as head of the household).
By the same token, my advice for young men who want a larger family but fear not being able to support them: perhaps consider looking for a young woman who would be willing to earn a helper income if needed.
In any case, my observations have provided me with food for thought.