The pew research center reported in 2018 that despite the overall ‘baby bust’ in U.S. fertility, the education gap in childbearing has been closing rapidly, with the most dramatic changes among women with Ph.D.s and professional degrees. In 1994, only 65 percent of such women aged 40-44 had given birth to a child, compared with 76 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees and 88 percent of women with high school degrees or less. But by 2014, that percentage had reached 80 percent for the most educated group of women, representing a 15-point increase in two decades, and a rate nearly identical with the 82 percent for women with bachelor’s degrees.
These univariate point estimates don’t tell the whole story of fertility among well educated women here, but they hint at important facts often glossed over in the contemporary narrative about women and childbearing. The first is this: education and fertility don’t have to move in opposite directions. If vastly more professional women are having children today compared with20 years ago, then education alone is not responsible for declining U.S. fertility rates. The second is that patterns of fertility in the modern economy are by no means settled. The tired idea that executive-level women will ‘lean in’ to careers by setting aside traditional aspirations for family life simply fails to get it right. We still have a lot to learn about why women choose to have the families they have, and what these choices mean to them.
It seems to me that Catholic women have a tremendous opportunity to bring a certain amount of richness and human interest to the contemporary narrative about women, work, and family. In the first place, we believe that the fundamental vocation of woman in nature and grace is to be a wife and a mother, whether lived out through family life, or a spiritual vocation. This means a woman never ‘sets aside’ her natural gift for nurturing others when she develops her talents and takes on a professional role. In other words, if she is called to a professional vocation – which many women are – it isn’t a question of balancing work and motherhood. Rather, with God’s grace and in prudence, it’s a matter of living her motherly role and her professional work each as fully as possible, while keeping her priorities in right order: God, family, work. When work is necessary for the well-being of her family, it is not a distant third but a very close third.
But another way Catholic women can enrich the conversation is this: since we believe in the eternal destiny of the soul and the infinite value of every child, we are more likely to bear witness to life through having bigger families. It’s not a stereotype for nothing. Going back as far as data exists, U.S. Catholic women have had about one more child per family than others. What this means, I think, is we can give witness to the fact that children are worth choosing for their own sake – we don’t need special reasons or perfect circumstances.
I think many people intuit this but strong cultural norms in our increasingly secular country prevail against it. A friend of mine (with a master’s degree in statistics) recently told me about an African immigrant who visited her home as part of a construction crew. When he met her larger-than-average family he exclaimed: “This is the first time I’ve seen something in this country that I want!” We can relate to this sentiment, but we can also provide its source and foundation: our entire faith is predicated on the blessing and beauty of human life. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1:5), and “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me” (Mt 18:5, Mk 9:37, and Lk 9:48). L
CATHERINE RUTH PAKALUK, PHD is an assistant professor of social research and economic thought at the Tim and Steph Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. She is the author of the #postcardsforMacron viral hashtag. Pakaluk lives in Maryland with her husband Michael and eight children.