Understanding the “Whole of Women’s Reproductive Lives”

women's reproductive lives

Pew Research Center recently came out with an interesting report on the numbers of women having children. Based primarily on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s June Supplement of the Current Population Survey, Pew Research Center collected “completed fertility” data on “…women who are now 40 to 44 who have had a baby.” The data reflect “what [women] actually did, not what they were projected to do.” Here’s some of what it found:

Pew Research Center Findings

Women are more likely to have children than a decade ago.
Pew reports, “Some 86% of women ages 40 to 44 are mothers, compared with 80% in 2006.”

Among mothers, “family size has ticked up.”
“In 2016, mothers at the end of their childbearing years had had about 2.42 children, compared with a low of 2.31 in 2008.”

Women are waiting longer to have their first child.
“The median age at which women become mothers in the U.S. is 26, compared with 23 in 1994.”

The share of women ages 40 to 44 who have never married and had a baby has risen.
Today, 55 percent of never-married women ages 40 to 44 have at least one child, up from 31 percent two decades ago.”

Looking at the Whole of Women’s Reproductive Lives

Pew Research Center indicates that the data look “at the whole of women’s reproductive lives.” It does in the sense that the analysis is based on a cumulative measure of lifetime fertility – the number of births a woman has actually had (not “fertility rates,” which are based on annual rates and reflect fertility at that point in time).

However, to more fully understand these numbers, the story of their reproductive lives needs exploring. For example, these kinds of questions could be researched from a longitudinal perspective:

– Earlier in their lives did women now ages 40-44 know they wanted to have children?

– If yes, why did they wait? Pew theorizes educational attainment, “labor force participation” and delaying marriage as reasons. If longitudinal data were collected on the reasons, we could more fully ferret out these and other reasons.

– If earlier in their lives they thought they did not want children, what changed their minds?

– Or did the desire to have children evolve over time? If so, how and why?

To better understand the numbers, knowing more about women’s reproductive lives over time could be very informative.

My Longitudinal Study

And this is just what I am in the middle of doing with women on the other side of the motherhood decision. I am gathering annual qualitative data on a group of childfree women. Because of the committed participation of the childfree women participants, I am conducting a longitudinal study that follows their childfree choice and their lives over a 10-year period of time.  A study that is the first of its kind, all childfree women were in their twenties when we started eight years ago. This year marks year nine of the ten-year study! Over and above numbers and percentages, it will ultimately give us a deeper understanding of a ten-year period of time in these women’s reproductive lives. I am honored to be able to conduct this study, and look forward to sharing what we can learn from the women in it!

 

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