But how should we interpret this gap? Frequently, discussions like these take for granted that what individuals — usually women — say they think is an “ideal” family size and how many children they personally want are one and the same. But ideal family size might be too abstract to be useful; for example, some people respond with the general two-child norm without meaning that they want two children themselves. Instead, it’s preferable to measure how many children people say they personally want to have; it’s even better if we have information about their desires for having children in the short term, since many people change their long-term plans as life unfolds.
Of course, some people do have fewer children than they’d like, with many women in their 40s, especially childless women, still desiring (more) children. For some people, “underachieving” childbearing goals occurs because of involuntary infertility. The longer people wait to have children, the more likely age-related declines in the ability to get pregnant and carry a child to term become an issue.
Another dominant assumption in these conversations is the idea of “competing preferences” — activities, behaviors and statuses that are difficult to combine with having and raising children. For some, this conjures up images of lazy millennials playing video games or spending time shopping and dining out; others interpret this line of reasoning as evidence that individuals — especially women — are selfish and narcissistic for putting other goals ahead of forming a family.
This is a mistaken assumption, and it hides a reason that America’s lower birthrates should be celebrated. The United States has historically had high levels of unintended fertility, with people having children earlier than they desired or when they didn’t want children at all. Recent years have witnessed the first decline in such births in decades. Many men and women want children, but also have a preferred context for having children — they want to have completed education, established economic security and formed a stable partnership. Difficulties in meeting whatever markers they personally deem important might mean some people don’t have children, but the fact that people are better empowered to manage their reproductive behaviors so that they only have children when they feel ready is a tremendous achievement. It benefits not only individuals, but future generations and society overall.
If helping people have the families they want is the goal, rather than trying to increase U.S. fertility out of misplaced panic about population decline, we need policies that address the direct difficulties in combining parenthood with education and employment, as well as the indirect obstacles to parenthood such as the student loan debt crisis, housing affordability, the high cost of health care and widespread income inequality. So if relatives pester you over Thanksgiving about when you’re going to have children, or when they can next expect another grandchild, turn the question around: Ask them when they plan to restructure the American economy.