Persistently high levels of unintended fertility, combined with evidence that over- and underachieved fertility are typical and not exceptional, have prompted researchers to question the utility of fertility desires writ large. In this study, we elaborate this paradox: widespread unintendedness and meaningful, highly predictive fertility desires can and do coexist. Using data from Malawi, we demonstrate the predictive validity of numeric fertility timing desires over both four-month and one-year periods. We find that fertility timing desires are highly predictive of pregnancy and that they follow a gradient wherein the likelihood of pregnancy decreases in correspondence with desired time to next birth. This finding holds despite the simultaneous observation of high levels of unintended pregnancy in our sample. Discordance between desires and behaviors reflects constraints to achieving one’s fertility and the fluidity of desires but not their irrelevance. Fertility desires remain an essential—if sometimes blunt—tool in the demographers’ toolkit.

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