Do women want more children than they end up having?

Abigail Haddad writes:

In his column, Ross Douthat states that “most women want more children than they have”, linking to a medium article about the gap between actual and intended fertility.

The big argument/finding of the linked-to article is this: the scale of the gap between actual and intended fertility in the United States is between .3 and .6 kids, and this has been relatively stable for a few decades. The analysis seems plausible. But it doesn’t get you to “most women want more children than they have”, and I’d argue it’s only barely consistent with it. If you assume we’re at the top of the range (.5-.6) and that all of the women who want more kids only want one more kid, Ross’s line would be accurate. But, for instance, if you instead assume the midpoint of that range (which is also the most recent point estimate), and that half the women with below-intended fertility wanted two more kids and half wanted one, you’d instead be looking at 30% of women who wanted more children than they have. (To get a sense of the distribution, you’d want the person-level data.)

My guess would be that Douthat’s quote is derived from the article’s line that “women have fewer children than they say they would have liked to have.” But that’s not the same thing.

My reply:

You could be right—but it must be possible to break down the survey data for individual respondents, so Douthat’s question, even if it can’t be answered from averages alone, probably can be answered from the raw data. My guess is that if we were to label:
X = the percentage of women who have had fewer children than they wanted
Y = the percentage of women who have the exact number they wanted
Z = the percentage of women who have had more children than they wanted,
then the data would show that X > Z. But not necessarily that X > 50%. Douthat literally claimed X > 50% but I think that’s just because he’s being casual with his math, and I expect that X > Z would still make his point.

In the real world, all this is complicated by the fact that people’s intentions change. A couple can fully intend to have 2 kids, but then baby #2 is so adorable that they decide to try and have a third kid . . . and, after a few years, they succeed. So the number of children is 3, but what’s the desired number? It’s ultimately 3, but it was originally 2. Or, maybe a couple isn’t planning to have a fourth child, but they have one by accident. Mistakes happen! But then they’re very happy to have had kid #4. So, they had more children than they originally wanted, but they’re happy with the number of children they had.

I’m sure some sociologists have looked carefully at such questions, as many of them are directly answerable from the data, if you have a series of surveys asking people of different ages how many children they have, how many they plan to have, and how many they would like to have.

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