Fertility and the Extended Family: Do Parents Influence a Woman’s Decision to Reproduce?

Policy makers have long been concerned with fertility rates. In the 1960s, the focus was on reducing fertility rates around the world. Today, in many European countries, policy makers are more concerned that fertility may be too low. Understanding how people come to make fertility decisions is still an ongoing research topic. Some evolutionary anthropologists have described humans as “cooperative breeders” meaning that individuals other than parents help raise children. A couple may decide to have a child (or additional children) if family members are able and willing to provide the couple with help. A recent article by Mathews and Sear (2013a) found that British women who have relatives as close friends are more likely to progress to their first child. Schaffnit and Sear (to be presented at the IUSSP conference) use data from 8 European countries and find that while having a living mother allows a woman to have a first birth more quickly, living with one’s parents actually delays first births and ultimately results in higher probabilities of lifetime childlessness. This may be because women who remain co-resident with parents are less ready to begin a family.

What do grandparents do to influence childbearing decisions?

In Europe, approximately 50% of grandparents provide some type of childcare today and we might expect that couples who receive help with childcare may decide to have more children. Mathews and Sear (2013b) found exactly that, when relatives provide childcare, couples are more likely to progress to a second child. Grandparents also provide their adult children with much needed financial help and emotional support, and this help also influences a couple’s decision to reproduce and can improve children’s outcomes.

Who helps?

If help by relatives increases a couple’s decision to have more children, in what circumstances do we see relatives helping? Euler and Michalski (2007) reviewed the grandparent help literature from the United States and Europe and found that grandparents are most helpful when they live nearby and have frequent contact. Also, there is typically a ranked order of grandparental help, with the wife’s mother providing the most help, followed by the wife’s father, the husband’s mother and finally, the husband’s father (although some evidence suggests that the husband’s parents may be more helpful in rural areas). Grandparents who have more children and grandchildren typically provide less help to each (although, not necessarily less overall). Some researchers have suggested that grandparents help because they have additional resources provided by pensions, but without such support, grandparents would have to receive help from their children and not the other way around.

Are grandparents a burden if social security and pensions don’t exist?

While European countries have quite extensive social welfare programs, there are many other regions of the world where people have less governmental support in old age.  Snopkowski and Sear (in prep) are exploring the characteristics of helpful grandmothers in Indonesia, a country where 90% of people have no pension or social security. The evidence shows that grandparents in Indonesia are quite helpful with 55% of the wife’s parents and 46% of the husband’s parents providing some sort of financial or household help. Interestingly, the characteristics of helpful grandparents are quite similar to those in the United States and Europe. This shows that grandparents help regardless of social security or pension programs.


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Kristin Snopkowski

About Kristin Snopkowski

Dr. Kristin Snopkowski is an evolutionary anthropologist working in the Department of Population Health and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is interested in reproductive decision making. Her research primarily focuses on two areas: testing hypotheses of the demographic transition and exploring kin effects on fertility in low and middle-income countries. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico.

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