There is a famous story about Elizabeth Anscombe, which kept drifting into my mind as I read Catherine Ruth Pakaluk’s new book, Hannah’s Children. Anscombe was an Oxford professor, a high-profile analytic philosopher, and also a mother of seven. People sometimes had opinions about that, and the story goes that she came into her classroom one day (pregnant with her seventh) to find that some mean-spirited troll had written the words “ANSCOMBE BREEDS” on her chalkboard. Calmly, without apparent embarrassment, she picked up the chalk and added two words. “ANSCOMBE BREEDS IMMORTAL BEINGS.”

Pakaluk, too, has bred immortal beings, more even than Anscombe. Hers is the latest in a string of significant books on sex, marriage, and family structure, but it stands out from the rest. Instead of pondering why people don’t have many children anymore (a now-familiar reality), Pakaluk asks why some still do.

As a mother of eight, she already knows something about this, but she supplements her own experiences by interviewing more than 50 other American women, all educated and mothers of five or more kids. She knows of course that these women are a smallish minority, breaking the trends. But she sees them as a creative minority in more ways than one. Their outlook might be instructive. If we want people to have more babies, learning from the positive examples sounds like a good idea.

Named for the Biblical Hannah (though one of her interviewees bears the same name), the book is frequently moving and sometimes searing. Pakaluk presents her findings in a plain and unadorned fashion, allowing readers plenty of space to draw their own conclusions. In the end though, the book unflinchingly illustrates a point that many pro-natalists prefer to downplay. Raising kids is expensive and hard. That’s probably why more people don’t do it. Women only choose to have large families if they value children enough to make the hardship and sacrifice seem worth it.

The mothers Pakaluk interviewed had some predictable commonalities. They generally liked kids, for instance. They also liked God. A wide range of religious traditions were represented in the book, but nearly all of Pakaluk’s interviewees discussed their faith and its impact on their life choices. This is, on one level, familiar territory for anyone who follows the “birth dearth” conversation: educated women tend to have fewer children, but religious educated women often buck the trend. But the reasons aren’t always clear, and Pakaluk’s findings may be surprising to readers on both left and right.

Progressive liberals might expect to hear a lot about religious patriarchs or religious dogma. Those were hardly mentioned. Conservatives might expect matrons of large families to talk about youthful socialization and the values of their natal communities. Perhaps these women were taught as girls to aspire to maternity, view homemaking as their central vocation, and spurn the careerism of modern feminism. I suspect that would have been a component of the conversation if the parameters of the study had been expanded to include women without college degrees. But it really wasn’t the story here. The women in Pakaluk’s study hadn’t spent their youthful years ironing and dreaming of babies, nor did they necessarily find deep fulfillment in quilting, cooking, and spreading pretty tablecloths. People might like those things or not, but women today don’t have eight children because hearth-and-home just feels like their niche. The impact of religious conviction is more subtle and complex than that: it doesn’t change the basic spread of costs and benefits associated with childbearing, but it guides people’s calculations as to what risks are worth taking, and what sacrifices and struggles are likeliest to pay off.

In short: it’s about the children. This is the simple, compelling truth that shines through Pakaluk’s book. Women have large families because they come to appreciate that children are a tremendous good, justifying the immense pain and sacrifice that they cost their parents. No other social contribution has the same significance; no other pursuit is quite as meaningful. As one woman explains succinctly: “Nothing (else) is as good….”

From Law & Liberty