The new Pew Research Center report on the changing demographics of American motherhood (discovered thanks to a tip by Michael Kimmel) reveals some pretty dramatic changes in the ideal family size between 1990 and 2008.  In the late 1960s and early ’70s, two suddenly overtook three and four or more and it’s never looked back:

Here are today’s preferences (notice how few people want to remain childless or only have one child):

I’d love to hear ideas as to why this change happened at that moment in history.  Is it possible that the introduction of the contraceptive pill, which was the most effective method of contraception that had ever been available to women (I think that’s true), made smaller families an option and that people became interested in limiting family size once they knew that could actually do it?

Interestingly, people still overwhelmingly say that they want children because they bring “joy.”  But apparently two bundles of joy are enough!

UPDATE! A number of commenters have pointed out that both I and the authors of the study are conflating people’s opinions about ideal family size and the number of children they personally want to have (see the second figure especially).  I think they’re right that asking the question “What is the ideal family size?” will not necessarily get the same response as “How many children do you want to have?”   A very nice methodological point.

For more on this data, see our posts on age and racetrends in American motherhood.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.