Catherine Ruth Pakaluk
Squinting at screens scanning for an alternative to CNN and MSNBC at the gym recently, I caught a bit of a 2017 film iteration of Wonder Woman. It was fun—I hadn’t even thought about Wonder Woman since my mid-80s childhood when, like millions of other girls, I pined for her Marvel-themed Underoos and placed her action figure in a cherished top-floor spot in my Barbie house. Gazing in mild amusement at the fantastical scenes depicting mythological beauty and feminine power, I was reminded of late summer’s viral video of 33-year-old Hannah Neeleman. The glowing mother of seven children was crowned Mrs. American in Las Vegas on August 25, 2023. Questioned on stage about when she had felt most empowered, Hannah responded: “I have felt this feeling seven times now as I bring these sacred souls to the earth. After I hold that newborn baby in my arms, the feeling of motherhood and bringing them to the earth is the most empowering feeling I have ever felt.” It was a fair answer, and her pageant-win means that it resonated with the judges. If women have a superpower, that’s got to be it—bringing new people into the world.
But around the country her answer probably inspired more curiosity than admiration. Fewer than one percent of her peers have as many children as Hannah. Birth rates have been generally below the number needed for replacement (2.1 births per woman) since the 1970s, and now hover around 1.67 births per woman. States like Massachusetts and Oregon are below 1.5. It’s hard to understand rates this low. Doesn’t the species have a propensity to replace itself? And nobody seems to know how low they can go. South Korea suffers the world’s lowest birth rates—0.71 expected births per woman. In the city of Seoul, that number is just 0.59. The South Korean government estimates that it has spent $210 billion trying to revive its gasping birth rate. The cash hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked anywhere it’s been tried. If having babies is a female superpower, American women don’t seem eager to lean into that empowerment.
A member of the LDS church, Neeleman is almost a unicorn, even in her own church. And she’s exactly the sort of person I set out to find four years ago, wondering if we could learn about falling birth rates from women like her—strangely immune from demographic collapse. Are they religious zealots with little bearing on social trends? Or might they offer hidden keys to understanding our population woes? Traveling across the country from Boston to Los Angeles, I asked women like Hannah why they’d chosen to have a lot of kids, and what it meant to them and to their families. Amanda, a Mormon mom with five kids in a suburb of Washington, D.C. sounded a lot like Hannah. “What do they mean to me?” she countered? “Everything. And nothing compares. I almost feel like [saying] this will hurt my friends that can’t have children. Nothing is as good.”
Her fifth baby just three-months old, Amanda welcomed us in yoga pants, apologizing for her appearance. She had worked in non-profit and intended to go back to it later. Gesturing at her infant, she said of having him:
It’s so physical and it’s the most hard thing you’ve ever done and you can feel their body and smell them and you look into their eyes and it’s like it’s another person, and nobody—fathers are so important—but no human will have a better impact on this soul than I will, as a mother.
So, when I think about all the work, go out and speak or start a charitable foundation that helps people—which I want to do, and I’m going to do—but nothing I ever do will ever be more purposeful, meaningful, and have more impact on a human than giving them a body and then nurturing them as a human.
And because of my religious beliefs, I also know that that relationship is eternal. So, for me, it’s the most worthwhile thing that I will do in this life. Is that making sense?
Around the country, women like Neeleman talked about having so many children because they valued them so much—more than their careers, their passions, and getting a good night’s sleep. “They’re everything. They’re like the purpose,” Amanda said. She went on:
The timing of him was just awful. His middle name is Atlas because that is the name of the Greek god that had the weight of the world on his shoulders and that’s how my husband and I felt.
So, having him is because we really wanted him, because it didn’t make any sense in our timing. And I think it’s because I started identifying what my children mean to me and what I’m doing.
Amanda’s comments called to mind an interview with the late, great Lakers basketball hall-of-famer, Kobe Bryant. “I had a purpose,” he said, “I wanted to be one of the best basketball players to ever play. And anything else that was outside of that lane I didn’t have time for.” When asked about a game he had finished with an excruciating injury, he said:
I tell this example, and I think this is the best way to explain it. You know, you have a hamstring injury. You pulled your hamstring really really badly, you can barely walk, let alone play anything.
You’re at home, all of a sudden a fire breaks out in the home. Your kids are upstairs, your wife is wherever she may be, you know, shit’s going down.
I’m willing to bet that you’re gonna forget about your hamstring, you’re gonna sprint upstairs, you’re gonna grab your kids, you make sure your wife’s good, and you’re gettin’ out of that house.
And the reason is because the lives of your family are more important than the injury of your hamstring.
And so, when the game is more important than the injury itself, you don’t feel that damned injury.
Not at that time. . . . This is another obstacle. This obstacle cannot define me, it’s not gonna cripple me, it’s not gonna be responsible for me stepping away from the game that I love.
I’m gonna step away on my own terms and that’s when the decision was made that, you know what, ‘I’m doin’ it’.
Amanda had her own version of that story. “For me,” she continued, “I had to have another one, even though my body was done, because I thought, well there is nothing that will compare or be more worthwhile, so I want to do it as many times as I can.” She went on:
Because when it’s over, because this is one part of our life, when that time is over and I miss it, I can say, ‘I did it, though’—I had as many as I could in the right way, in the way I wanted to . . . ‘I did it, though’ And no, this charity isn’t as fulfilling, it’s still good.
But—‘I did it’.
Amanda and Kobe’s purpose-above-obstacles-attitude was ubiquitous among the women I met of all faiths. In the words of one Jewish mom, Esther, children were “God’s expression of goodness,” and she didn’t feel you could have too many. The extraordinary value they placed on children overcame the pains of their sacrifices and provided a reason to go through hardships and struggles.
The Future of Humanity
Pronatalist policy proposals in the US make two faulty assumptions about falling birth rates. First, that religious outliers like Hannah and Amanda have zero relevance for reviving American families. Second, that we can incentivize anything we want with tax and subsidy schemes. My findings challenge both suppositions. Leah’s story illustrates why. Her fifth due just weeks after our interview, Leah—an accomplished musician—confessed:
I’ve had to sacrifice some of my own interests and pursuits at this time. I don’t think they're on hold forever. But I also think that creatively, there's only so much that a person has at any given time.
I think as a mother of a large family, you have to understand sometimes things are on a back burner. It doesn't mean the burner is off. It means you're rotating priorities as needed, and I've done a lot of that.
Leah told us how she and her husband had “met in college” and “kind of went on this journey together of building a life based on religious values.” She continued:
I think I always knew that I wanted to have children, but I never had a preconceived notion of, ‘I want to have x amount of kids.’ I just knew that I wanted to be a mom and I knew that I wanted to have a family. But I didn’t grow up with a lot of siblings and I didn’t have that experience and I didn’t grow up super religious.
Like I grew up in a reformed congregation which is basically completely secular except you do token Jewish things. And now, we’ve chosen a different life where we are much more intentionally practicing religion and the traditional.
After they got married, they started their family right away. “We weren’t getting married to wait,” she told us.
And I was in a very intentional mindset when I got married. I was really dedicated to prayer and [Jewish] practice, and I was surrounded by like-minded people. So, I lived in a community that was very conducive to that—a lot of other young people that were getting married and having families. And older people that were still having children and/or just there as support and mentors in my life. And [my son] was born 10 months after we got married basically.
She laughed. “Not like instant, but very close.”
Regarding her music career and passions, Leah described how motherhood became more who she was than what she was doing. “I think [my identity] has evolved over time. Like I think when I had my first two I was hyper-committed to my goals. I was still recording full-length CDs and playing in concerts and having rehearsals late at night. I had more energy and stamina and the will and the drive.” She continued:
I think that after having the third and fourth, I think there are identity challenges. It's not as easy to pursue personal dreams and pursuits right now as it once was.
It’s a sacrifice that I’ve made because I value having a large family, and I value every child as a gift. But I wouldn’t be honest if I said it wasn’t a struggle.
And I think that part of your identity just evolves into motherhood being a really big tenet of who you are and what you're giving to the world, like a shift.
At first motherhood might be added into a mix of identities: I’m an artist and a mom. Perhaps this is where most moms are—or where most moms stay. But on Leah’s account, add a couple of more kids and some worthy pursuits are likely to be placed on “the back burner.” And somewhere in that “rotating of priorities” motherhood emerged as a primary identity for Leah rather than one among many. She continued:
I think our culture really values the sort of very rigid perception of success and work and has started to devalue a mother’s contribution to society.
And it’s almost like radical and feminist to say that my contribution is healthy, well-balanced children and that is a contribution.
Like it’s not just about my music career or how much money we make or any of that, really. Those are all secondary to what you contribute to the world, which is the future of humanity.
The “shift,” as Leah had called it, resolved the tension between two realities. No more balancing. The mom-self and the old self became one self, herself. She is a mother, and motherhood is what she gives. She didn’t speak of losing who she was before. Rather, her old self found new life in her children—an immortality of sorts, wrought by a willingness to first bury what was hers.
Leah’s commentary raised the question: are children more a consumption good, something you choose and enjoy because of your work and your contribution? Or are they more something supplied for others to enjoy, a vital good, a contribution of themselves? Well, both, of course—and Leah drew this out plainly. To the extent that children can be considered as goods, they are private goods, ‘bought and paid for’ by households alone. But children are simultaneously the most critical public good—the future of humanity—a good that society can’t ‘demand’ in the way that it demands other goods. Their coming into being is mediated through the personal demand of mothers and fathers. And mothers and fathers demand them when they value children above other things they can choose, assigning to children enough worth to counterbalance the weighty personal costs—the putting “things on a back burner,” as she had said, “rotating priorities as needed, and I’ve done a lot of that.” Leah went on:
Which—literally—the future is about good people being in the world. People that will go on to raise their own, healthy, happy families and contribute positively.
And yeah, coming from a divorced family, that was a big motivation for me in choosing this life, I think. Like valuing children first. The family unit being the priority above career and personal identity.
Can society redistribute Leah’s burden? Not in her estimation. It might rightly try to honor it, or reward it, but not carry it. Only Leah can suffer the loss of her career aspirations and the disruptions in her personal identity. It must be worth it to her before the benefit spills over to society. If you need more babies, you need more people like Leah. Because women are both the demanders and suppliers of the same good. They bear the incommensurable costs; they alone assess the balance of the merits against the costs.
What type of merits could possibly answer the deep costs Leah outlined? Supernatural ones, she stressed. “Having children is definitely intentional. Definitely something that I feel is a divine blessing, just like wealth and health. And it is a partnership between us and God for sure. I feel like I’m doing this work for God, the work of raising children that will be bringing light and holiness and goodness to the world, to the best that I can.” She continued:
I think children bring a lot of meaning and depth and purpose to a person's life that—there just would be a really big void. We all know that when you engage in selfless acts, it brings you joy, even though it's counter intuitive. But parenting is a selfless act in many ways. I mean, yes, [you] are propagating your spawn, your offspring. But beyond that, so much of the actual workload of parenting, which is huge, is selfless.
And it's not based on, "What am I getting out of it in this moment?" And it's finding those hidden treasures of beauty and joy that children bring to the world and to your life. It's the little things that enrich our lives the most, like something cute they said while eating their cereal in the morning, or one little precious fleeting moment. And life is so fleeting and so short and so precious. And I almost feel like it's funny, do we really have time to waste on all these fripperies? Parenting is the meat and potatoes, basically. I feel like we won't be in the child-bearing years forever. And this may be my last baby.
Contemplating the likely end of her childbearing called forth a lamentation of sorts: “this may be my last baby.” And the lamentation called forth a more refined statement of her purpose:
I feel like it has gone by way too fast honestly, even though it is hard and there are times that I feel really overwhelmed and like this is a really big responsibility I am bringing on my shoulders, bringing another child, starting from square one at age 40. I could be doing this another 18 years. I could be on the beach drinking margaritas. But that's just not what my life is about. And I just didn't build my life around sitting back and relaxing. I built my life around working really really really hard and bringing goodness and light into the world.
If anything, children are light. Every child brings a divine gift into the world that nobody else can bring. Nobody else can do what that person is here to do. And yes, it takes so much self-sacrifice, but I ultimately feel like my husband and I are really happy. We are really really happy and fulfilled even though we have had to work really really really hard, to the breaking point at times.
For sure, I mean, sleepless nights, endlessly. Both of us working. Both of us parenting. Putting aside some of our personal pursuits. But ultimately yeah, we went out for our 16-year anniversary this past March and those moments are really really special. We appreciate them more, I think, because they're rare.
Leah made the personal accounting of cost and choice as evident as possible. “Sleepless nights, endlessly,” working hard “to the breaking point at times,” and “so much self-sacrifice”—all counted as worth it for the sake of bringing “goodness and light into the world” and a “divine gift” that “nobody else can bring” except for that specific human being who might be next welcomed into the world—through her own maternity. These were her incentives. Because the cost was worth it to her, she had become a self for another self. “Like valuing children first,” she said, “the family unit being the priority above career and personal identity.” And not children in general, like “mankind in general” noted by Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. She laid down her comforts and dreams for specific people—her own children.
Leah’s story made it excruciatingly obvious why child subsidies won’t raise the birth rate. Cash incentives can’t answer what needs to be answered: a reason to give up dreams and aspirations that can’t hang on past one or two kids. We know we can incentivize moving away from oil, cigarettes, and Big Gulps. But can we incentivize moving away from careers and interests we’ve prepared women to fulfill from their earliest school days? My research suggested that such a choice comes from deep within. It must be wanted for its own sake, counted as worth the costs which are personal and subjective.
Leah also illustrated the falsehood of the assumption that religious outliers have zero relevance for the revival of the American family. Leah and her husband went to an ordinary 4-year liberal arts college. Though they had grown up secular, in college they encountered—and then chose—a lifestyle “where [they] are much more intentionally practicing religion and the traditional.” Her faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had been the catalyst for her births. She might have been pleased to receive a bigger child tax credit. Absent her religious conversion, however, such a credit wouldn’t have moved her to desire more children. The policy lesson is simple: the flourishing of traditional religious institutions breaks the low-marriage-low-fertility cycle. People will lay down their comforts, dreams, and selves for God—not for subsidies.
Cost and Choice
The ways women like Leah narrativized their choices urged us to see that falling birth rates are not a cost problem, at least not in the way we normally think about a cost problem. The relevant obstacle to choosing a child, they said, was the cost of missing out on the other things you could have done with your time, your money, or your life. At every income level the women I met talked about giving up other things to ‘pay’ for their children. They talked about the actual expenses being smaller than people thought, and about surprise blessings that made paying for children easier than expected. But where they really leaned into the ‘price’ of children, the real cost, was what they had to give up. They talked about sleepless nights. About giving up comforts, plans, hobbies, status, and a clean house. Giving up alone time. Giving up accomplishments. Giving up freedom. “Having children and parenting is all about living for someone else, not yourself,” one mom Jenn opined.
These costs, they granted, had been big and consequential. But they saw them as obstacles the way Bryant saw his injury. They would not be defined by what they had missed out on because the reason for missing out—their purpose—was so much bigger than the losses. Yes, the losses meant parts of yourself had to die, they said, unrealized as it were; but those parts were only dead for a time. They would be transformed, brought forth in the crucible of suffering, and redeemed by the children they would bear. They gave up something of themselves, but their children gave it back to them with interest. If these notions seem Biblical, they are. Women like Hannah Neeleman have incentives to have children that came from spiritual things: love for God and His plans, love for their spouses, or love for their children—often, all three. Like Bryant had said, “When the game is more important than the injury itself, you don’t feel that damned injury.”
And the losses weren’t the end of the story anyway, they insisted. Their children had been their greatest blessings. In so many words, they told us how their children had saved their lives, saved their marriages, and saved their souls. They were saved from immaturity, loneliness, selfishness, and uselessness. Their kids and husbands too. They told stories of healing and growth. “We’ve seen miracles,” one mom told us. The upshot of all this—they believed the nation would be happier and more virtuous if we spent more of our adult lives taking care of children—and if our children grew up with more siblings. They believed that the worthiness of having children proved itself over time in ways that evaded human design and expectation. They were open to more children not merely because they believed that children were good, but because they believed in a greater wisdom of which children and human generation were a part.
Taken together, the narratives challenged the possibility of raising family sizes through conventional tax and transfer programs. Across the world, already bankrupt nations are rushing to establish programs of benefits to do what’s never been done: raise the birth rate through direct incentives. They won’t succeed. Cash incentives and tax relief won’t get people to give up their lives. People will do that for God, for their families, and for their children. Expanding the scope for religious institutions to play a greater role in people’s lives is the only path forward. Religion is the cardinal family policy.
The Miracle That Saves the World
Another Hannah, the great German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, agreed with the new Mrs. American about the power of childbearing. In her 1958 discourse on The Human Condition, she wrote: “The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the tact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted.” She went on: “It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.”
When I first read this passage, I stumbled over her use of the word ‘tact’. She couldn’t have meant “discretion.” Puzzling over the text I figured she meant the tack of a ship, maybe, the wind in the sails. I wondered if her native German caused her to misspell the word and whether her editors had missed it. But some light research proved this theory false. In German, the word ‘tact’ means a stroke in the time of music—like rhythm, or pulse. It turns out that in very old English dictionaries ‘tact’ was included with this other meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary gives The Century Dictionary’s entry from 1891: Tact. in music, a beat or pulse; especially, the emphatic down-beat with which a measure begins; hence, also, a measure. Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 and could very well have used an English dictionary from around 1890 when she was learning English. This is an example of the rule that to understand someone you have to look at what they were reading when they were in their twenties. Published by the University of Chicago Press in the late 1950s, her editors didn’t seem to worry about the outdated usage—or perhaps it was still known. But it seemed to me a happy occurrence. The meaning of her original is marvelously apt. Rendered as “the pulse of natality” her expression conjures up both the sensuality of our fecundity and the fragility of its nature. The beating heart of humanity, fertility gives meaning to our marriages, life to our nations, and eternity to our souls.
What we aren’t seeing about falling birth rates is that they’re more like a broken heart than a broken social order. Sure, there are things we could do to make it easier for families to have children. We should try to do them. But right now, whatever the difficulties, there are women in every state in the nation, at every level of engagement with paid work, having abundant families despite the norm. They don’t do it because they face lower costs—they live in the same world as we do. They do it because it’s worth so much to them. We won’t have more babies until more women think about children the way Leah does, “valuing children first. The family unit being the priority above career and personal identity.” To get there, policy makers need to stop pretending we don’t know where women like Leah, Amanda, and Hannah Neeleman come from. They come from the temple of the Most High, where their hearts and desires were shaped, like the biblical Hannah, by the Lord of Hosts who invited them to participate in “the miracle that saves the world.”
Catherine Ruth Pakaluk is Associate Professor of Political Economy and Social Thought at The Catholic University of America. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth (Regnery Gateway, March 2024).