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Regular version of the site

Beyond Normal

How Society Judges Large Families


Couples with three or more children often feel that others judge or refuse to understand them. Their decision to have many children seems to annoy their extended family, neighbours, colleagues, health professionals and government bureaucrats. Very often, other large families are the only one who offer them support. Based on findings from in-depth interviews, HSE researchers describe the effect that social interactions can have on fertility.

Social Control

Whether to have another child is a decision influenced by many factors, such as being remarried, coming from a family with many children, and certain reproductive stereotypes, including those linked to ethnic and religious traditions.

People's reproductive intentions are shaped by their personal as well as economic and social factors; the latter include the opinions and behaviours of one's family and close friends, acquaintances, colleagues and broader society.

Overall, social attitudes influence one's desired number of children, birth schedule (age at first pregnancy and birth spacing), and the sense of parental self-efficacy, i.e. one's ability to raise children properly. Families which feel that they can rely on relatives and friends for support are more likely to opt for many children. Macro factors such as availability of child maintenance benefits can also play a role.

Social influence, however, can be negative as well as positive and relies on four mechanisms of influence: pressure, contagion, support and training.

Pressure and Control

Most Russian families have one or two children. This reproductive stereotype is perceived to be 'the norm', as opposed to having many children, which is associated in mass consciousness with poverty, insecurity and dependence on handouts.

Society often attempts to ‘control’ large families, in particular by  putting pressure on women, such as discouraging them from having another child and even denying their legitimate right to do so, found sociologist Maria Goleva after conducting 25 in-depth interviews with parents in Moscow and its metropolitan area, and Arkhangelsk and Vladimir Regions. According to the respondents, they have faced these kinds of attitudes from all types of people – healthcare providers, government officials, neighbours, and total strangers – and have been forced on many occasions to confront other people's stereotypes.

This is how a mother of many children describes her visit to a gynaecologist: ‘During our third appointment, she said to me, okay, I am referring you for an abortion, right now’. The respondent added, ‘They [the doctors] would throw tons of mud at me’. Another respondent recalls her visit to a government office to access child benefits, when she had to take her five-month-old daughter along because there was no one to leave the infant with at home. Although she was holding a baby, no one allowed her to jump the queue, and she had to wait to be received alongside other visitors. 'They told me, you've chosen to have all those children, now wait in the queue', she explains.

Large families have to deal with rejection at the child's kindergarten, on the playground, and even in the grocery store. 'We are the only [large family] in our kindergarten', a respondent notes. 'And of course, others look at us judgmentally'. Although some people prefer to make judgmental remarks behind a parent's back rather than in their face, others will often pass it along. According to a respondent, 'Our neighbours would sometimes relay to us what they have heard someone else say about our family, like "Why do they breed so much, who needs it?” People keep asking such questions all the time'. 

As one respondent summarised, every large family 'has to go through trying times socially'. Yet, some people have decided to have many children despite negative factors such as society's attitudes, financial problems and a lack of meaningful assistance.

Power of Example

However, the social environment can play a positive role by supporting large families and thus encouraging them to have more children.

Relatives and friends' examples as well as strong social connections can make a difference: according to one study, a new birth in the family of close friends increased a respondent's chances of also having a baby within the next two years. Goleva's findings confirm the importance of strong social ties.

According to one respondent, she had not expected to have a large family: 'I'd thought, maybe two [children] but not three ...' But then she was inspired by close friends' example: 'Our friends had a great experience [with having a large family]. We looked at them and thought that perhaps we could make it work as well'.

One's parental family  can also serve as an example: if a respondent had a role in raising his or her siblings, they usually have a better idea of 'how to deal with children' – which, in turn, can influence their own reproductive decisions.

Social connections do not need to be particularly strong or long-standing to be inspiring (or, in the study's terminology, socially contagious). The example of colleagues or recent acquaintances can also provide an encouragement by activating the learning mechanism (whether or not there is expectation of support). A respondent reports being inspired by recent acquaintances, a family raising five children: 'Oleg and Luyba, their family really inspired us. We began visiting them, and they were explaining what to do and how [to raise a large family]. So, I became interested'.

In both cases, the respondents realised that they had what it would take to raise several children, even if they had previously doubted it.

Support from Extended Family

Social support relies on strong connections: large families benefit from assistance offered by their own parents and, to a lesser extent, their friends. 'Parenting many children is virtually impossible without support from one's social environment', notes the researcher. In addition to moral solidarity, practical assistance such as babysitting or taking children to classes is always relevant. 

'Our grannies are simply the best', a mother says. 'They are very accepting of us as a large family, they understand that we need their help and are totally devoted to us... They take the children to classes and exhibitions, so we can all live an active life'. In another case, grandfathers are the main helpers: 'If my dad is around, he would come around [to help] <...>. Then the other grandfather comes by'.

Some grandparents support large families by contributing cash, e.g. towards purchasing a flat or a car.

To what extent the grandparents are prepared to help depends on their attitude towards large families. A case of two sisters, one of whom had a large family and the other's family was small is illustrative: a grandmother who had problems with accepting large families visited the latter sibling more often. In such instances, friends rather than family tend to serve as the main source of support.

Solidarity and Sympathy

Some respondents received assistance from friends who hosted them while the family was searching for a flat to rent, helped with moving home, looked after the children or offered to drive them to school.

Families with many children also benefit from peer support, e.g. by joining clubs and associations of large families whose members share solidarity and learn from one another. In addition to this, parents with many children stressed the role of a broader social environment being responsive to their values and prepared to offer sympathy and understanding. 'It is particularly important that your peers share your values', a respondent concludes.



October 27, 2019