What's ideal got to do with it? Stability and change in ideal number of children

Colleen Ray, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Sela Harcey, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Stacy Tiemeyer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In the United States, ideal number of children is rarely thought of apart from fertility intentions. When examined, ideal number is differentiated from intentions and further separated from achieved childbearing (Hagewen and Morgan 2005). A common critique of the concept ideal number of children is that demographers need not focus on it because it is unchanging; however, little research explores if indeed people change their ideal number of children over time. Prior research has conceptualized ideal number of children as the number of children in an ideal family in general as opposed to a personal ideal number of children. In order to explore what personal ideal number of children is and how stable or malleable it is, we use the two waves of the U.S. representative National Survey of Fertility Barriers (NSFB). We use an analytical sample of 1,500 women who did not have a child between waves. The NSFB operationalizes ideal number of children from a personal rather than societal ideal, thus allowing a separation of normative ideologies from individual fertility ideals. Preliminary findings suggest that personal ideal number of children is stable for a substantial proportion of women (approximately 60% depending upon initial ideal number of children), but there are women who change their personal ideal number over the three year interval between surveys. That is, roughly one third of women adjust their ideal number between Wave 1 and Wave 2. Some women increase and some decrease their personal ideal number of children over time, suggesting that there is less stability than previously assumed, indicating an important need for further exploration. In this paper, therefore, we explore stability and change in personal ideal number of children as well as the distribution of ideal number by age and number of children within each wave.

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Presented in Session 84: Fertility preferences 2