Over the past quarter-century, the socially accepted reproductive norm has hardly changed in Russia: most people still believe that two children per family is the ideal. The reality, however, is more diverse, and both largeand childfree families are increasingly commonplace. A new study by HSE demographers looks at changes in public opinion in Russia between 1995 and 2019 concerning the optimal number of children in the family.
A family with two children (usually a boy and a girl) has been perceived as the ideal for many decades, but it reflects the social norm rather than reality.
Most Russian families still have one or two children. However, according to Rosstat, the share of large families has increased from 7% to 10% in the recent decade, and the same proportion of Russians, one in ten, do not intend to have any children at all.
To make it clear, people's ideas on how many children it would be nice to have and their actual reproductive intentions are two different things, of which the latter is more realistic as it is usually specific and takes into account the various external circumstances, forcing the couple to make adjustments to their reproductive plans.
Not everyone can afford even two kids. According to Anna K. (aged 34, one child), interviewed by IQ, 'I would gladly have two or three children, but only given a higher salary and a larger home. Everything is so expensive today: food, clothing, kindergarten and sports club membership. I find it wrong to have a child if you cannot give them a good, fulfilling childhood'.
Common in many Western countries and in Russia, a two-child family is demographically better than a family with only one child, since the risks of depopulation are lower when two children can replace two parents. But the norm can come into conflict with specific family circumstances such as income, parents' employment, housing, and the availability of kindergartens or supportive grandparents. In addition to this, personal reproductive attitudes are affected by prevalent ideas about parenthood in the family and in broader society.
The social infrastructure available for families with children – from quality perinatal and paediatric care to flexible employment options for mothers – is an important determinant of reproductive decisions. Thus, in France with its favourable environment for childbirth and rearing, the total fertility rate (TFR) – the average number of births per woman – is one of the highest in Europe at nearly 1.9, including births to recent immigrants as well as long-time French citizens, compared to the average TRF of 1.59 in the EU in 2017 and 1.6 in Russia in 2019.
Anna K. continues, 'When deciding how many children to have, you consider whether you'd be able to continue to work and whether places would be available in the kindergarten. Ideally, I need a flexible schedule just to be sure that I can take my child to the doctor or to a class at any time and I don’t have to sacrifice either my family or my job. Remote work [during the pandemic] has been helpful in this respect'.
Sergei Sh., aged 35, is father of two; his family does not currently plan to have more children. 'Having another [child] is a big decision. The question is whether you would be able to afford it. Even now with two children, my wife struggles with her job, but with three it would be impossible for her to continue, and we'd have to live off my salary, which is not much'.
When asked whether the 'maternal capital' has helped his family, Sergey says, 'Yes, we were able to pay off some of our mortgage, it was a good form of support'. Sergei's is one of the many Russian families benefitting from the maternal capital, which alongside interest-free housing loans is among the most popular measures designed to support families with children in Russia. In addition to this, the covid-19 relief payment came handy – Sergei's wife spent it on warm clothes for the children.
But are economic measures as such sufficient to encourage families to have more babies? Opinions differ on this: some scholars believe that maternal capital has contributed to an increase in birth rates, while some others argue that it has only changed the timing of births, i.e. has led to the births of planned but 'postponed' babies.
A few papers suggest that measures such as 'family capital' have an effect on certain population groups, mainly on low-income families, but no impact on the reproductive plans of most other families. Similar studies in other countries confirm that policies using financial incentives to enhance fertility usually have limited and short-term effect on people's reproductive decisions. Much more important are personal circumstances relevant to how many children a family would like to have and why.
Natalia G., aged 45, had a second son in her new marriage. Natalia explains that she wanted to 'strengthen her family', adding that 'The two boys have more fun together and take care of each other'. Having a shared child in a new marriage is typical.
Christina D., aged 30, is mother to three toddlers, all of them planned. 'My mum has four children: me and my three brothers. I am not sure whether I will repeat her feat,' Christina says. 'If my mother-in-law agrees to help us out with childcare, we may actually dare to have a fourth child'. Extended family support is a critical factor for many young parents. This, along with reproductive stereotypes, often passed down from generation to generation, concerning the ideal number of children in the family are likely to have an impact on fertility.
There are also those who are not (or not yet) ready to become parents. Barely a few percent back in the 2000s, they are approximately one-tenth of all couples today. 'I’m not exactly childfree, but I don't seem to be ready yet', admits Denis K., aged 31. 'But there is no pressure on me or my wife to have babies. It is a good thing that everyone can choose how they want to live their life. And we would like to spend some more time living for ourselves'.
Demographers Elena Churilova and Sergei Zakharov reviewed 13 surveys conducted by VTsIOM and the Levada Centre between 1995 to 2019 to examine changes in reproductive attitudes over time, their causes and contributing factors. The surveys used representative samples of urban and rural populations (in at least 50 constituent entities of the Russian Federation, with 1,600 to 2,407 respondents in each region). Churilova and Zakharov focused in particular on the subsamples of men aged 18 to 54 and women aged 18 to 44 (although the reproductive age for women is considered to continue up to 49, birth rates tend to drop to almost zero in women over 45).
The respondents were asked what they considered to be the ideal number of children in a family. Their responses were similar over the years, with only slight variations: 2.2 in the mid-1990s, dropping to 2.0 between the pre-crisis 1997 and 1999, but rebounding to 2.1 for women and 2.16 for men in 2000. Once the country's socioeconomic situation stabilised, Russians began to show the same reproductive attitudes as before and the proportion of women wishing to have two children increased.
In the late 1990s, many respondents wished to have just one child in the family, hence the decline in the average 'ideal' number of children.
Natalya G., interviewed by IQ, recalls that her first baby was born in September 1998, soon after the August 1998 financial crisis, and she was 'terrified thinking about the situation in which he would grow up'. She also says that in the late 1990s, she was 'really afraid to become pregnant once again, because the family could not afford it'.
In subsequent surveys conducted in the 2000s, the average ideal number of children in a family consistently stood at 2.3 for women and even increased to 2.4 for men in 2006. When asked about the desired number of children, men usually give higher figures – perhaps because women tend have a more realistic idea of what it takes to raise a child, based on what they hear from female friends and on their own experience of helping their mothers with younger siblings, Churilova explains.
'Women are more aware of the fact that in addition to financial investment in food, clothing and education, childcare requires a major investment of time and effort such as taking offspring to clubs and activities, making doctor’s appointments and taking sick leave’, the researcher notes. 'In addition to this, men are more likely to see their role as that of the breadwinner and spend less time caring for their children and playing with them'.
Last year, trends in Russia shifted once again towards wanting more children: an average of 2.6 for men and 2.5 for women. Interestingly, the share of Russian men wishing to have two children declined when compared to 2010 from 54% to 40%, while the proportion of men wishing to father three children reached 29% and doubled to 15% for those wanting four children.
Similarly, for women, the proportion of those wanting two children dropped from 62% to 48% compared to 2010, and the share of those wishing to have three or at least four children increased from 21% to 26% and from 7% to 12%, respectively.
But some other changes were also taking place at the same time. 'According to Rosstat, the biggest increase – from 40% to 52% – in the proportion of low-income families with three or more children was observed between 2013 to 2017. It was also found that family per capita income often dropped dramatically after the birth of a third child', the researchers comment.
In February 2019, the Russian President announced a series of new family support measures, including a lower tax burden for big families, reduced interest rates on mortgage loans for families having their second and subsequent babies, and some others. One can assume that at least to some extent, people changed their minds concerning family size in response to these new, pro-natalist policies.
The average expected number of children – a better predictor of the total fertility rate – is almost always lower than the desired number of children in the family. There is little difference between men’s and women’s responses on how many children they expect (rather than wish) to have.
Fluctuations of this indicator are usually limited, with the minimum of 1.75 reported by men in 1997 and the maximum of 1.99 by women in 2010. Women who do not plan to have children include those between 35 and 44, for whom the decision is probably final, and those aged 18 to 24 who may still change their plans.
The intention to have just one child was shared by 27% of men and 31% of women, which is significantly more than 23% and 20%, respectively, in 2010. The increase in the number of potentially large families is moderate, with 17% of women and 20% of men planning to have a large family, compared to 13% and 14%, respectively, in 2006.
The question is, however, whether these plans get realised. 'A comparison between the desired and expected number of children according to the 2019 survey reveals that only 35% of women who would like to have three children expect to realise their dream, in contrast to 85% of those who wish to have just one child and 60% of those wishing to have two children', the researchers note.
There is an intriguing correlation between the desired number of children and the level of education. As far as men are concerned, there was a difference in the average desired number of children based on the respondent's level of education only the 1997 and 2000 surveys, with better educated men wishing to father more children. The same effect was observed among female respondents in the 1995-1997 surveys but disappeared later on.
A positive correlation between the level of education and the desired number of children may seem counterintuitive, since a number of studies show that better educated and more emancipated women tend to have fewer children (partly because they postpone births). Other studies, however, suggest the exact opposite: a positive association between women's level of education and lifetime fertility intentions in the EU, perhaps because these women enjoy broader institutional and financial support and can successfully combine self-actualisation and their career with raising children.
According to Churova's comment on this finding, women with higher education are confident that after maternity leave, they will be able to come back to work without a drastic loss of income. Educated women are also more likely to be able to afford private childcare, such as a kindergarten or a nanny, as well as household help, such as cleaning or delivery of groceries. 'And finally, well-educated and highly employable women expect their partners to do a fair share of the parenting and other household duties', the researcher adds.
That said, highly educated women are also likely to have their reproductive intentions frustrated. They often postpone the birth of their first child, with implications on their ability to conceive. Also, the later in life they have their first child, the less time is left for subsequent births, according to Churilova. And finally, educated women are often more demanding in terms of sharing childcare and household duties with their partner and more likely to either end the relationship or to stop having children should they find their household work sharing arrangements unfair.
'We should also remember the popularity of intensive mothering in the recent decade', the researcher notes, 'where mothers tend to invest as much as possible in raising and educating their child, while coping with their normal responsibilities at work'. A working woman can cope with taking one child to numerous classes and clubs, but having two or more children makes intensive parenting impossible if the mother wants to keep her job.
According to another observation from a number of studies, the lower a person's income, the larger the family they would like to have. Indeed, according to the survey results reported in 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2019, men with lower incomes would like to have more children than wealthier men, and a similar effect was observed in women.
In 2006 and 2019, when the government increased financial support for families with children, the desired number of children reported by low-income respondents was significantly higher than in other years – apparently as a reaction to the new family support measures.
For example, in 2019, the average number of desired children was 3.17 for men who reported not having enough money even to buy food and 2.65 for women in the same income group – a dramatic increase from 0.9 for men and 0.5 for women, reported in 2015. But their reproductive intentions do not necessarily match the actual number of children.
There is no consensus among researchers concerning the single most important factor which determines why reproductive plans may or may not become reality. A variety of factors have been suggested, from the employment situation to gender equality – or lack thereof, in family and society. Empirical studies have shown that the gap between intended and actual fertility is the widest in countries with an unstable employment situation and weak work-family policies.
While all these factors are significant, it also matters 'how many children on average people wish to have', according to Churilova. In a society where having just one child or no children is well-accepted, the intent-fertility gap will be small, i.e. most people will realise their reproductive plans. 'But realising one's plan to have just one child is much easier compared to having a second planned child', the researcher notes, adding that 'stable and flexible employment for parents and the availability of childcare are essential no matter how many children a woman wants to have'.
Large families need sustained financial support and favourable conditions for combining parenting responsibilities and employment to make sure that the birth of a new child does not put the family at risk of falling into poverty.
Based on the available data and given the intent-fertility gap, there is no reason to believe that women born in the 1980s and 1990s will experience a significant increase in total fertility. But a comprehensive social policy framework aimed at responding to the needs of diverse populations groups is likely to increase overall birth rates.
But even more important than increasing birth rates is to enable people to have as many children as they would like to have.