One of the most common questions asked of and by new acquaintances is: "Do you have kids?" If the answer is affirmative then the next question is invariably: "How many?" How many, indeed. The number of children we choose to have (if we choose to have them at all) is one of the most personal and important decisions we will make in our lives. The factors involved in that decision are many and varied and range from the economic to the religious. We all have our priorities.
In the past, large families were the norm and often a necessity. The family unit was once much more self-sufficient and essential to survival than it is today. In an age when agriculture was the most common industry, and the family farm the mainstay of that industry, large families were desirable. Farming, even on today's highly mechanized farms, is a labor-intensive occupation. In the past it was often a backbreaking sun-up to sundown deal (at least during the growing season) and the more hands there were available to share the burden the better. During these times the children of the family were a ready-made workforce. Added to this, the child mortality rate in an age without antibiotics, inoculations, and competent, readily available medical care was much higher than it is today. Having a large number of children increased the likelihood of at least some of them surviving to adulthood. Having adult children to take care of you in your dotage was once an absolute must (with increasing life spans that necessity is beginning to assert itself again).
Today most of us don't need our children to help support the family. The kids have evolved from being an economic advantage to an economic liability. They have become a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity and families have become smaller, especially in the past generation or two. When I was a kid large families were much more common even though the economic incentive for having a large family no longer played a part. I was one of ten children (lucky #7), my husband one of five, a couple of families in the neighborhood had eight. Today, five is considered a large family and ten is practically unheard of. Can you imagine what it would take economically to raise ten children today? The cell phone bill alone would break you. And yet my parents were able to raise ten kids with working class jobs and provide them with everything they needed. When my father passed away with eight of us kids still at home (I was fourteen) my mother was able to finish the job on her own (albeit with help from her teenaged children.) Today we have much more and expect much more in the way of consumer goods. This makes it difficult and even undesirable to have a large family. Today, it seems, most people see about three as the top end as far as kids are concerned. Anything more requires too much sacrifice not only for the parents but for the kids as well.
The impact of readily available and inexpensive birth control on the size of today's families can not be overstated. Ah, the miracles of modern science! How many large families of the past would have been much smaller had the birth control options of today been available then? Changes in religious attitudes have also had an effect on the size of families. Up until 1930 all Christian denominations disallowed contraception, adhering to the doctrine that all sexual acts should be both unitive (express love) and procreative (open to the creation of life). In that year the Anglican Communion changed its policy and most Protestant groups soon declared contraception to be a biblically allowed matter of conscience. The Catholic Church stuck with the old principles. My parents were devout Catholics. Their children remain active in the Catholic Church (some of them anyway) but today's Catholics, influenced by the cultural changes of the last half of the 20th century, are less likely to take the Church's prohibition on birth control seriously, especially in America. Generally speaking, the result of all of this has been smaller Protestant families since the 1930's and smaller Catholic families since the 1960's.
Finally, there is the impact of the past generation of women entering the work force. Women working outside the home have not only made the average family more affluent (the more affluent the family the fewer children they are likely to have) it has also made caring for large numbers of children harder and more expensive. It's hard enough for working mothers to put in a full day on the job then come home and see to the needs of one, two or three children regardless of how much the husband is pitching in. Can you imagine if it were ten kids? Can you imagine the cost of day care?
In the end, whatever their reasons are, people will have the number of children they want to have and generally speaking they will opt for fewer than in generations past. One of the arguments for increased immigration is that, in the long run, we need immigrants to maintain an adequate work force because population growth has slowed appreciably. That trend will probably accelerate as long as we continue to enhance prosperity. I don't know if that is a good thing or not.