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Three to Ten

Why families choose to have more children, more often

"Bubbles", G. A. Brendekilde. 1906 / © WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

More than 500 large families in three Russian federal districts were surveyed to explore reasons why couples choose to have many children. Five main patterns were identified, driven by values (partner trust and religious beliefs), socioeconomic circumstances (income and education), and availability of support from extended family and friends.

Reasons for Having Large Family

Most couples in Russia have one or two children, and less than 10%  have three or more offspring, according to the Federal State Statistics Service. While the fertility rate necessary to sustain the country's population is more than two births per woman, it did not exceed  1.6 births per woman in 2018, having declined from almost 1.7 in 2015, far below that which is needed for simple population replacement. In this context, the question of what motivates large families to have more children, more often, is particularly relevant.

Pro-fertility measures such as maternal capital, housing loans, monthly child allowances for children aged three and younger, and others, work as incentives (the proportion of families with two or more children has increased  since these measures were introduced), but they are not as effective as intended  and often short-lived. Indeed, the effect of maternal capital proved rather limited: by 2011, the resulting increase in fertility was just 15 children per 100 women of reproductive age, although birth spacing was shortened, with subsequent (usually pre-planned) births occurring earlier than they would have done with the absence of incentives.

Ten years ago, less than 7% of Russian families had three or more children, while today, as mentioned above, it is almost 10%, causing some researchers to suggest a revival of the traditional family, i.e. a family with many children, in Russia.

However, pro-natalist policies are just one of the factors which influence childbearing decisions. Other factors, according to social scientists, are linked to the parents' background, such as personal attitudes concerning the desired number of children  or the number of siblings and the relations between parents in one's family of origin. In some families, reproductive stereotypes, e.g. 'there must be at least two children (or many children) in the family' are passed down from generation to generation. Sociocultural factors such as the family structure (e.g. patriarchal) also play a role.

Ivan Pavlyutkin and Olga Borisova analysed the findings from a structured survey of residents of a few big cities in Russia's Central, Northwestern and Far Eastern Federal Districts, aged below 40 on average and having three to 16 children. The researchers compared the respondents based on five characteristics:

 Family relations: trust between the spouses and relations in their own and their parents' families. Whether any of the spouses has been divorced is important, since remarried couples tend to haveat least one new child in common to strengthen their new marriage.

 Level of education: the higher a woman's education level, the more her reproductive behaviour is rationalised and the more likely she is to plan her fertility. More generally, women's empowerment, interest in career success and self-fulfilment outside of the family cause them to postpone motherhood and have fewer children.

 Attitude to religion, including the frequency of attending religious services and having a religious upbringing. Religious beliefs, such as Russian Orthodox or Muslim, have been found to influence birth rates.

 Socioeconomic status, including self-reported financial situation and employment. Many families postpone childbirth until they achieve a certain level of income sufficient for raising a family.

 Social support network, e.g. availability of assistance from parents, extended family and friends. Couples expecting to be helped by relatives and friends are more likely to opt for many children.

According to the researchers, 'Large families can be described as a continuum with large families resulting from divorce and remarriage on one side and traditional large families on the other'. Based on the survey findings, they categorised all respondents into five groups:

 ‘new religious’ (the largest group of 212 couples);

 ‘rational planners’ (98 couples);

 ‘formally large’ families’ (92);

 traditional large families (53);

 remarried couples with many children (47).

Most respondents were in their first and only marriage and about one-quarter were remarried. Families of clergy were 12 in the sample. The degree of religious adherence and practice varies across the sample: about a half attend religious services once a year and about one-third do so at least every month. More than half (52%) of women and 44% of men hold university degrees. 

There are significant variations across the sample in terms of financial resources. Almost a quarter of the surveyed families are relatively affluent (they can afford expensive holidays and a good car), while 16% struggle with daily expenses. In half of the families, women are not employed outside the home. About one-fifth of men in the sample are in senior management positions. Thus, large families vary widely in terms of income and socioeconomic status.

Traditional Large Families: Social Support

This group includes stable couples in their first and only marriage; in more than half of these families, the spouses trust each other in everything. Nearly half of the couples have at least six children and one-third have seven and more. The average age difference between successive siblings is usually less than two years.

This group is very religious: more than half of the families attend religious services at least every month. Almost one-quarter of the women were raised and socialised in a religious background. However, only 11% of families in this group are clergy families.

For many couples in this cluster, having many children 'runs in the family' as they grew up with at least two other siblings in their family of origin.

Their socioeconomic status is not the best: less than 40% have higher education, finances are limited, and many are forced to borrow to survive. Half the women in this group do not have employment outside of the home.

The main factors influencing their decision to have a large family include their parents' example and their own religious beliefs and lifestyle, according to the researchers.

It is no coincidence that 60% of respondents in this group are 'reproductive fatalists' who reject family planning and believe that in matters of having children, 'one must rely on God's will'.

In the context of an observed decline of the traditional family in Russia, such couples are 'rare islands of stability which rely on a supportive social environment for survival', the researchers note. Most respondents receive help from other large families and, in their turn, offer assistance to others: 90% of men and women in the group are involved in at least one organisation supporting families with children. According to the researchers, 'such families can be socially generative and capable of creating public benefit, making them donors as well as recipients of assistance'.

‘New Religious’: Large Families of Affluent and Educated

Marriages are as strong in this category as in the former group, but their incomes are higher, with nearly 28% of respondents happy with their financial situation — the greatest proportion across the groups.

Generally, this is the largest and most paradoxical cluster of families in the study. They are more educated: 57% of women and 47% of men hold university degrees. While a high level of education, according to the study authors, is usually associated with having fewer children, families in this group have three or more offspring, and 40% are raising four or more children, with a relatively short average interval of 3.5 years between births.

Religion seems to be the main factor at play, which 'outweighs the negative effect of other factors and motivates couples to have many children', the authors comment. This group comes second in terms of religious adherence: 40% of the couples have had a religious marriage ceremony and almost as many attend religious services regularly, even though they never did so in their own childhood. This means that their religiosity is a conscious choice made as adults.

Their decision to have a large family may have been driven by their religious social environment.

Members of this cluster have an even wider circle of relatives, friends and colleagues they can turn to for support than the first group. 'Compared to traditional families with many children, these couples do not have an experience of being raised in a large family or having relatives with many children; therefore, the effect of their current social environment is particularly evident in their case', according to Pavlyutkin.

‘Rational Planners’: Childbirth on Schedule

Couples in the third group are the oldest in the sample, with 70% of women aged 36 and over. They usually have three children and are unlikely to have more in the future, given the mother's age. The fairly large intervals of six years between childbirths indicate a long-term union. It has been shown that the risk of divorce which is low while children are young can increase once the youngest child reaches six, but a new baby can help strengthen the marriage.

'In terms of faith, this cluster of families is the least religious of all', according to Pavlyutkin.

Instead, they approach the decision to have another child quite rationally, taking into account their financial situation (it is usually average, with a possibility of making savings; these families particularly appreciate the availability of 'maternal capital'), the chances of receiving help from extended family,  and the ages of older children. A good time to have a new baby is when their siblings begin to attend school and become more independent. The long intervals between births and the relatively small number of children in a financially stable family 'indicate the important role of conception planning', the researchers explain.

‘Formally Large’ Families: New Marriages

People who remarry may decide to have a shared child even if they have other children from previous marriages. In this group, the average birth interval is just under six years, and most families have three children.

This cluster also includes couples who have children from previous marriages but not a shared child. Such families with three or more children from the couple's previous marriages are also formally considered 'large'.

Their financial situation is below average, and they tend to borrow money more often than other groups. Many men in this group have multiple siblings, so the choice of having many children may be at least partially influenced by their parents' example, but as for the grandparents' assistance with the third child, most respondents in this category do not really feel it, which is typical for remarried couples, as is lower trust between the partners compared to families where the spouses have not been married and divorced before.

Members of this group also tend to be rational in their childbearing decisions: more than one-third believe that a family must have sufficient financial resources before they have (more) children. But despite this rationality, this group is more religious than the one described below, with more than one-quarter of women regularly attending religious services.

New Marriage, Large Family: Second Attempt

This group includes couples in which at least one partner — or both partners in one-third of the cases — are remarried. The families have at least three children, and one-quarter have five or more offspring, with three years' intervals between births.

This is the youngest cluster: 60% of women are between 22 and 35, and men are somewhat older, with an average 4.5 years’ age difference between spouses. Compared to the previous group, this one is more family-oriented. For those who are remarried, their first marriage was usually short and childless.

When asked about reasons why they chose to have a large family, most respondents said they wanted to have a common child in their new marriage.

Their education level is not very high, with just 45% of women and 40% of men having a university degree, while the income level is higher than that of 'formally large' families and allows for monthly savings (making this group similar to 'rational planners'). Of all fertility support measures, this group particularly appreciates the availability of kindergarten programmes for large families.

Respondents in this cluster are not particularly religious, with almost one-quarter of the women and about 40% of the men never attending religious services.

Network Effect

The researchers admit that categorising large families of remarried couples is difficult due to scarcity of distinctive details. Such families, however, are increasingly common due to the high prevalence of divorce in Russia. In contrast, traditional large families of partners who are in their first and only marriage and intend to have many children from the start have become rare.

Much more common are those who carefully plan the birth of each new child, among other reasons, as a way to strengthen their marriage. Such families rarely have more than three children.

Perhaps the most remarkable group are the 'new religious' who have a large family despite the fact that their education, income and absence of religious socialisation should have made them more rational in their fertility choices. According to the authors, 'religious messages often encountered in social networks and interactions' may have outweighed rational factors.

Social connections — which provide protection against uncertainty, show model behaviour to emulate and promise assistance — are a really important factor to be considered in studying large families', the researchers conclude.

Study authors:
Ivan Pavluytkin, Senior Research Fellow, Sociology of Religion Laboratory, St. Tikhon's Orthodox University; Associate Professor, Department of Economic Sociology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Olga Borisova, Research Fellow, Sociology of Religion Laboratory, St. Tikhon's Orthodox University

* The study was implemented by St. Tikhon Orthodox Humanitarian University with support from the Russian Science Foundation (Project No. 18-78-10089).

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, January 22, 2020