• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

How Many Children Is Enough?

Why families opt for a certain number of children


Most Russians would like to have two children: a boy and a girl. The others fall between the two extremes of either wanting no children (at least for now) or planning to have three or more. Having a large family is often associated with affluence. The reasons for having another child are many, from wishing to strengthen the family bond and teach older children to care for younger siblings to hoping that the maternity subsidy may help the family improve their housing situation. A HSE demographer used data from a sample of 15,000 respondents to study reproductive attitudes in Russia.

Changes in Reproductive Climate

Fertility projections are largely based on surveys asking families how many children they would like to have — what demographers call 'reproductive attitudes' or 'reproductive intentions'.

In terms of having children, wishing does not equal planning. The former, i.e. how many children a couple would ideally like to have, is an unreliable predictor of fertility as it changes with age and circumstances. Thus, people may wish to have five offspring but, due to lack of time, resources or resolve, end up having just two. Indeed, most families in Russia have one or two children.

A more accurate predictor of fertility is how may children a couple plans to have in the near future, because it implies just one step between intention and action, particularly if future parents set a deadline of having a baby, e.g. within two or three years.

The desired number of children is often not only an individual family's choice but also a reflection of the relevant social norm.

In addition to this, certain reproductive stereotypes, e.g. 'there must be at least two children (or many children) in the family' are handed down from generation to generation. In recent decades, both in Western countries and in Russia, the two-child family, i.e.  the generational replacement approach, with two children replacing their two parents, has become the new norm: a couple wishing to have two offspring usually ends up having two offspring.

However, knowing the reproductive norm is not enough for describing a country's reproductive climate: it is also necessary to assess the average expected number of children.

Tatiana Gudkova calculated the averages of desired and expected births in Russian families over time based on data from Rosstat's 2012 and 2017 Sample Surveys of Reproductive Plans. The two waves of the survey included 10,000 and 15,000 respondents of reproductive age (women aged 18 to 44 and men aged 18 to 60), one per household. The sample was subdivided into age groups of 25 and younger, 25 to 29, 30 to 34, etc.

In addition to the survey, 59 focus groups with a total of more than 350 people were conducted in nine communities, ranging from big cities such as Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and Voronezh to smaller district centres in Leningrad, Omsk, Tula and Samara regions. Similarly to the survey respondents, the focus group participants were subdivided into age groups of 20 to 24, 25 to 34 and 35 to 44.

Many Children Versus No Children

The expected number of children is usually lower than the desired number. According to Gudkova, the difference between the two has been narrowing, with a slight decrease in both indicators over the five years.

For women of all ages, the average desired number of children stood at 2.28 in 2012 and 2.15 in 2017, and the average expected number was 1.92 in the first wave and 1.9 in the second wave. The figures for men are 2.3 and 2.14, and 1.97 and 1.93, respectively.

Over this five year period, the average desired number of children dropped significantly by 0.13 for women and by 0.16 for men, but the expected number of children remained virtually unchanged for both. Generally, the two-child family ideal still holds, despite a slight decline in popularity.

The findings from focus groups paint a more detailed picture. It turns out that some couples do not feel ready for parenting yet.

By contrast, some other respondents aim to have a large family.

Other studies have confirmed the growing popularity of having three or more children. While just a decade ago, less than 7% of Russian families had many children, today their share, according to Rosstat, is close to 10%, causing some researchers to suggest a revival of the traditional family, meaning a family with many children.

Born or Postponed

The survey reveals that women aged 25-34, i.e. at the peak of reproductive age, report the highest desired and expected numbers of children: around 2.3 in 2012 and more than 2.2 desired children in 2017; up to 2.07 expected children in the first wave of observations and 2.0 in the second wave.

As for men, those aged 30 to 39 report the highest numbers, with almost 2.4 desired children in 2012 and almost 2.3 in 2017, and a little more than 2.0 expected children in both waves.

The youngest and oldest respondents, i.e. women under 25 and men under 29 and both women and men over 40, have the lowest personal fertility projections.

 The latter are approaching the end of their childbearing years. The choice of having more children 'is carefully weighed and reassessed after each birth', the researcher explains. The actual number of children is often lower than the desired number. In 2017, the expected and desired numbers of children stood at 1.71 and 2.03 for women in their 40s and at 1.78 and 2.15, respectively, for men of the same age.

 As for respondents in their 20s, lower fertility desires and expectations may be due to postponed parenthood.

'Cannot Afford It': Barriers to Childbirth

Conscious parenting delayed until the parents are in their 30s has been associated with the demographic modernisation that emerged in the West in the 1970s and has been gaining momentum in Russia in the 21st century. This reproductive strategy has its advantages, since mature and financially independent parents with established careers can offer their children a higher standard of living and invest more in their education and health.

But there is also a downside: having children later means having fewer children. Women who become mothers later in life may not have enough time ahead of them for more births.

However, postponed parenthood is often a necessity caused by housing and financial constraints, as confirmed by focus groups.

'We live in a rented apartment while our home is under construction. This is the main reason why we are not having children any time soon,' a 20-year-old respondent said.

Some people in their 30s and even 40s mention similar reasons. 'My partner is not making enough money, plus we have a mortgage that we would like to repay before I get pregnant,' according to a female respondent. Another woman echoes her by saying, 'I would like to be able to stand on my own two feet financially first.'

A respondent in her 30s describes parenting as 'a pretty expensive kind of pleasure'. An older woman picks this theme up, ‘Look and see for yourself how expensive clothes, food and utilities are today; they charge you for things in kindergartens and schools as well <...> And one also needs a larger living space.'

The following statement made by a young mother of two illustrates the difference between the desired and the actual number of children: 'My husband and I had planned to have three children. <...> But the problem is, our flat is too small for that.'

'My Mind Refuses to Even Imagine ...'

There are quite a number of socio-psychological barriers to childbearing, such as wishing to 'live for oneself', uncertainty about the relationship with the partner or just not being ready for a baby, particularly before the first birth.

'It seems really hard to raise a child,' says a respondent aged around 30. 'Both in terms of their upbringing and the financial aspects.' According to another woman of the same age, 'I just don’t feel confident enough. Somehow, I’m not ready yet to call myself a mum. And I don’t feel supported by my husband.'

When it comes to a second or third child, the respondents assess their future prospects based on their own, often less than favourable, prior experience. 'I had a long-awaited child after a difficult pregnancy and a difficult birth; I don't think I will ever decide to have another one,' says a young mother.

Older respondents feel somewhat guilty for not having enough time to spend with their offspring. 'You need to make time for each of your children,' says a mother of two. 'Once you spend a while with one child, you don't have much time left to spend with your other child, let alone a third one.'

Many women are concerned that childcare may leave them exhausted morally and physically. A mother of two pre-schoolers admits, 'My mind refuses to even imagine me having three children.'

Another consideration is the challenge of combining family and career. A 20-year-old respondent just past her maternity leave explains, 'I still want to pursue my career <...>, it's been a struggle to find a way to go back to work <...>. Staying at home is intolerable for me.'

Family Not Ready for Baby

Support from the spouse and extended family is crucial in choosing to have children. However, many female respondents were not sure that their partners would be able to sufficiently 'provide for the family' or were 'mature enough' for parenthood.

“I’d been dreaming about a baby for five years, but my husband did not support me in that,' a young mother says. 'That's the way men are nowadays: one could wait forever before they finally decide to have children—there would be a demographic crisis,' according to a middle-aged female respondent. 'They are not ready for parenting at all, let alone having more than one child.'

Similarly, according to some respondents, grandparents are often reluctant to look after their grandchildren and need to be coaxed into doing so. ‘This generation of grandparents wants to live for themselves; [they say], if you choose to have children, they are your responsibility,' complains a 20-year-old.

Quantitative data confirms that one in three women and one in four men consider a lack of assistance from relatives an important reason for delaying childbirth.

Reasons for Putting Childbirth on Hold

The study authors asked the respondents to assess the impact of various circumstances on their decision to postpone childbirth (including the first or subsequent births) and calculated the percentages for each answer.

The most common reasons included the following:

 lack of financial means (73% of women and 70% of men);

 need to find a higher paying job (66% and 69%, respectively);

 housing constraints (58% and 56%);

 wanting to 'live for themselves' (49% and 51%);

 absence of a partner (49% and 48%);

 difficulties of combining work and childcare (36% and 33%);

 spouse's wish to delay childbirth (36% and 42%).

And finally, approximately one in three women and more than one in four men doubted the strength of their marriage bond. About one third of both genders felt they needed to repay their loans before having children. More than one-quarter of both genders were wary of difficulties with enrolling a child in day care.

Son for My Husband, Daughter for Myself

But what about the long-standing 'gold standard' of having two children per family? Many respondents of various ages believe that having just one child is not enough and overwhelmingly support a two-child family. Some explain it by stereotypes ('Two is a set’, 'There is a law of sorts—maybe a social expectation—that a family needs two children'), and by personal experience. 'I used to believe that more [children] is better,' according to a respondent. 'But now I realise that each child needs attention and love, so having two children is ideal.'

All respondents, regardless of age, education and income, opted for two children of different sex, explaining it by a variety of reasons: 'You bear a son for your husband and a daughter for yourself', 'Having both a boy and a girl seems more interesting,' 'I wanted to have a son for the dad and a brother for my daughter.'

Three Children Spells Affluence

According to Gudkova, the once widespread perception of large families as poor and dysfunctional is becoming a thing of the past. Instead, families with many children are increasingly associated with wellbeing and prosperity. [Having a large family] 'is cool and great', according to many respondents. 

“[Russian] society is increasingly polarised between those who intend to have only one child and those who want a large family with many children,' the researcher comments.

As a 20-year-old female respondent put it, 'I cannot even imagine being the single child in the family.' '[Having just] one [child] makes no sense,' says a 30-year-old man who would like to have three children and explains: 'It's more fun with many [children] in the family. I am all for family values <...>.'

Those respondents who grew up surrounded by siblings find having many children absolutely natural. 'It's our family tradition to have three children: my dad has two brothers,' says a middle-aged mother of one but promptly adds, 'Three is fine, but that's the limit.'

'I would like to have three children, but my husband wants five,' says a woman in her late 20s. 'His mother has five children and his sister has five children <...>. But I just want three. Five is too many, you could go crazy.'

According to Gudkova, many respondents perceive having three children as 'a sign of a happy and affluent family'. Thus, respondents of different ages said, 'if you can afford it, it's okay to have three or even ten children'.

However, many respondents feel they need to expand their living space before expanding their family. 'My husband and I have always planned to have three children; we just need a bigger flat and then we can manage it,' a young mother says.

She is echoed by an older respondent, 'Of course, we want three children—why not, we only live once. Our health permits it and we have enough energy and make good money; we are now considering taking out a bigger mortgage to increase our living space.'

'Gift from Above' or Family Capital?

The study has revealed numerous reasons for having a baby. But first, what was already known.

Factors which may affect fertility include:

  family relations and partner trust, having been divorced before;

  education: the higher her level of education and emancipation, the later a woman tends to give birth and the fewer children she has;

 religious beliefs (a child is a 'gift from above', ‘women must bear children’);

 socioeconomic circumstances: income and status;

 sociocultural factors such as family structure.

Focus groups highlight the diversity of childbearing motives, from longing to experience the joy of motherhood once again ('He [the son] will grow up, and then I will want to have another baby') to wanting to have a baby by the 'right' man ('You choose to have a common child with this particular person') to expecting that a new birth can strengthen the family ('Men want shared children'). There are also economic incentives such as using maternity capital to improve the family housing situation.

However, according to many demographers, maternal capital and other family support measures work as  incentives  for having children sooner, but do not create motives to have children in the first place.

Most often, a couple was already planning to have a child, and the availability of state support simply caused this pre-planned event to occur earlier. According to some researchers, maternal capital 'has led to earlier second births'.

In contrast, some respondents mentioned less rational motives for childbirth. 'If God gives me seven children, then I will bear seven children; I am against aborting or abandoning children.' 'Now that I have had my second child I'd rather not have more, but if God gives me a third one, there will be a third one,' said a few respondents of different ages.

Among other less rational motives for having a second or third child is wishing to have a child of different sex. 'We've had two girls and consider having a third [child], because my husband wants a son,' explains a respondent in her 20s.

Someone to Care For

Even more interesting is yet another motive for having more children: sparing the firstborn a lonely childhood and teaching them to take care of a sibling.

Respondents who grew up as a single child without brothers and sisters do not want their children to have the same experience.

They strongly believe that a child should not feel lonely. 'I have always wanted a sister, but my mother had an abortion. I <...> want at least two [children],' a 30-year-old woman says. 'I asked my parents for a brother or sister, but they refused to make me this gift,' according to a 20-year-old woman. 'Therefore, I decided that I'd have at least two children ...'

Another motive is that of raising a child capable of caring for others. 'I've had it programmed into me that I want a boy and a girl. My granddad insisted that I needed a second child—he said, a single child would grow up to be a selfish person,' a middle-aged woman recalls. 'A single child is sure to grow up selfish, having one more is a must,' echoes her peer.

Many respondents added that older children should learn how to care for younger siblings. 'Having two children makes one feel more at ease,' a forty-year-old woman comments.

And finally, couples opt for a large family as a guarantee of comfort and security in old age.

'The advantage of being a mother with many children is having one daughter phone you, having another one phone you, having all of them get together with you,' says a respondent in her 30s. 'It's like having your own small republic.'

Loving Family, Comfortable Old Age

The survey confirms the importance of many of the above motives, the following being the most significant ones:

  wishing to spare the first-born from feeling lonely (69% of women and 63% of men; the question was about plans to have a second child);

 one partner’s desire to have another child (58% and 62%, respectively, for second children and 48% each for third children);

  wishing to teach older children to care for younger siblings (55% and 51%; 54% and 50%);

 seeing it as a guarantee of being cared for in old age (46% –50% in different categories);

 wishing to strengthen the family (44%­–50%).

In addition to this, hoping to use maternal capital to improve their housing situation was mentioned by 42% of women and 36% of men as a motive for having a second child and by 44% of women and 37% of men [as a motive for having a third child]. About one-third of respondents in different categories mentioned the motive of improving their living standards.

And finally, about one-quarter of respondents across categories stressed that 'having two/three children can raise one's status in society'.

Fewer Children to Become New Norm?

The two-child family remains the norm in Russia. Outside of this norm, Russian society is increasingly split into those opting for only one child and those who want a large family.

The former argue for their choice by stressing the value of being able to give their only child quality time and attention and to invest more in their wellbeing and education. The latter prioritise a large and loving family, which is now free from the once-common negative attitudes towards couples with many children as financially and morally 'irresponsible'.

At the same time, young people tend to postpone parenthood, and it is anyone's guess how their choices may affect the norm. The only way to know for sure is to estimate the total fertility rate (TFR) over time. 


Study author:
Tatiana Gudkova, Research Assistant, HSE Centre for Comprehensive Social Policy Studies
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 09, 2020