When 35-year-old part-time recruiter Sarah Hatton informed her parents that she was having a third child, the text message conversation went quiet. She knew they might be a bit taken aback but the reply, four hours later – "You're going to have your hands full" – left her feeling nervous.
Oxford-based counsellor Helen Marshall had a similar experience. When she told her mother she was pregnant for the third time, the response was: "I'm happy if you're happy."
Reactions like this are not uncommon to women who opt to have several children today. Two children is still most people's 'ideal' family size and one- or two-child families are by far the most common set-up in the UK.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), women are leaving it later to have children and, when they do have them, having fewer. Nearly half (49%) of women born in 1989 remained childless by their 30th birthday, compared with 38% for their mothers’ generation and just over one-fifth for their grandmothers’ generation (1961 and 1934 cohorts respectively).
The ONS notes that the average completed family size has been falling since the cohort of women born in 1935 and has remained below two children since the late 1950s.
So what’s putting people off having big families? To begin with, what counts as a big family? Three, four, five? Experts say it depends on where you live. "In UK urban areas people say that three is a lot of children these days and question how they can afford it," says Valerie Fleming, professor of women’s health at Liverpool John Moores University. In very rural areas, she says, there is a tendency to have more children. "This poses economic challenges. Jobs are hard to find but it has a positive impact on keeping communities alive." The cost of housing also constrains family size and we tend to see smaller families in places where housing is expensive. As the Women’s Budget Group points out, housing in England is unaffordable for women to rent or buy and two-parent families are also impacted by this.
There are other drivers. The pandemic has led more women to question their priorities and helped some to decide that they don’t want children. Environmental concerns are becoming a factor, too. Last week environmental charity Population Matters gave Harry and Meghan an award for limiting their family to two children. The couple were praised for their "enlightened decision" and for being role models for other families.
There could also be other reasons. Perhaps it's down to a quick search on Mumsnet. "Our house is mental, there are tears and tantrums from all sides," says one mum of five. "The washing is phenomenal, there were six big loads yesterday," says another.
Certainly, these accounts paint a daunting picture of life with lots of kids but what are the real reasons families are getting smaller? And is anything over two increasingly looking like a bizarre choice?
Although the rich and powerful make it look like a breeze (Gordon Ramsay is a dad of five, Hilaria and Alec Baldwin have six and counting and Boris Johnson is believed to have seven), more children can require bigger cars, more space and more money for childcare. The average cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under the age of two is more than £6,800 per year and as children get older, families face huge bills per child for summer holiday provisions.
For some, this puts an end to any hope of having a large family. "We’d need a different car and a bigger house, and it’s just too expensive," says 34-year-old Jessica Mason, a mother of two. "Me and my partner are sleeping in what’s also his office now and he works until 10pm so I lie there, waiting for him to finish work. There just isn’t space."
For others, it’s a matter of coping. "People can do what they like but I’ve not had more than two because I can’t be outnumbered," says 37-year-old Rose Chappel from Windsor. "We can’t cope with two, they run rings around us. I’m not joking. I feel old as it is and the years have just flown by."
Experts say society is also changing. Fleming thinks people are judgemental of big families in the same way that parents of only children can be criticised for spoiling their child and women are judged for not wanting to become parents. "A generation ago, Catholic families were known for being larger than others but this is no longer the case," says Fleming.
People might not be finished with education or might not be settled in their jobs until their 30s and wait to have children until then. We know that the later you start having kids, the fewer you tend to end up having.
Amy Codling, a professor at the University of York, agrees and adds that in the past, people used to have a lot of children due to low infant survival rates, religious incentives and a lack of contraception. She thinks that many women are also waiting to start a family until after establishing their careers, and that better childcare provision is required to support women in their choices.
Although Fleming says she has "never heard any woman mention the environment as a reason for having a certain number of children", Codling thinks it should be more of a factor. "Due to ecological concerns, like human population growth and the climate emergency, people should, at most, only really be replacing themselves."
Others say it's partly down to fertility. Britain’s birth rate is plummeting and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Elsewhere, Japan, Italy and Spain expect their populations to halve by the end of the century. Bernice Kuang, a demographer at the University of Southampton, says the two child norm in England and Wales is in part explained by the fact that women are having children later. "People might not be finished with education or might not be settled in their jobs until their 30s and wait to have children until then," she says. "We know that the later you start having kids, the fewer you tend to end up having."
As well as this, fertility has been declining in the UK for the last 10 years and the latest provisional data for England and Wales suggests that fertility is at an all-time low.
"We don’t know whether this is because more people are having no children and so lowering the average, or if women who do have children are opting to have smaller families," explains Kuang.
With this in mind, how does it feel for those who have bucked the trend? Despite the surprised responses, Sarah is happy with her choices. "For me, it's like living in primary colours again. There's so many emotions in our house and there are real highs and lows but it's not something I ever wish was different."
Thirty-one-year-old solicitor Stephanie Cole is the eldest of six and says she appreciates having lots of brothers and sisters. "Getting older, it’s harder to coordinate family plans and difficult to hive off groups as you worry people will get left out but it can also be lots of fun."
Ultimately, there are negative stereotypes surrounding most areas of motherhood and it's important that we try to understand the thinking of others with whom we may not agree. The key thing is that people get support for the choices they make.
As Fleming says: "Society is changing. But there is no ideal number."
*Some names have been changed to protect identities