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Does size matter?

For today's families it does

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY      Updated 05/06/2011

Kristen Chase of Atlanta has four children. New Yorker Frances Janisch has one. For Erin Dunlevy of Indianapolis, it's three. Rachel Moore, of East Windsor, N.J., has six. Kelly Damron wanted two — and got them when her twin daughters, Kaley and Ashley, were born six years ago. "We had no desire to have a large family," says Damron, 40, of Phoenix. "Two was normal, I guess." Two may well be the number of kids favored by most Americans, at least according to years of Gallup polls on ideal family size. But for many, deciding how many kids they could or should have isn't as easy as settling on a magic number — especially in an economy in which stagnant earnings and increased job demands weigh on the minds of couples who typically are starting families at older ages than those in previous generations.

As today's parents (and those who hope to be parents someday) balance school, career choices and relationships, many are looking for help making the "right" decision about family size. And everyone — from parents and neighbors to mommy blogs and a spate of specialists with new books timed to Mother's Day— has their own idea of the optimal family size. "I have had friends who are having a lot of trouble making a decision to have the third or fourth," says Moore, who notes that she and her husband, Barack, talked about kids on their very first date, when she was 26 and he was 30. She grew up one of three kids; he was one of six. "We both told each other we were interested in having a lot of children," she says. But "ultimately, it's a very personal decision. I would never presume that what's right for us would be right for anyone else."

Carl Erik Fisher, 30, isn't in a relationship at the moment, but that hasn't stopped him from thinking about his future family. He's a second-year psychiatry resident in a four-year program at Columbia University in New York, where family size is a hot topic for many of his peers.

"There's a lot of extensive planning around when to have a child, how many children to have, how to work it in, how to cover it financially," he says. "I see people doing a lot of work trying to figure it out." "Medical training is very long," adds adviser Ilana Nossel, who last week hosted a discussion for residents on Raising a Family During Residency. "People are struggling with how to balance training and career development with starting a family." Two children wasn't always the norm, says historian Steven Mintz, an expert on childhood and culture, also at Columbia. In 1800, the typical American woman had seven to 10 children, he says. But by the latter part of the 20th century — and as women became a growing presence in the workplace — two was the desired number.

Gallup, which has been asking about ideal family size since 1936, says that until 1967, more Americans preferred a larger family, with three or more children. Two took hold in the 1970s and has remained the top choice, with 52% of 1,007 adults in 2007 (the most recent year surveyed) saying two is best.  What has changed, Mintz suggests, is the way adults view children. "In earlier times, kids were clearly assets," he says. "You put them to work, and they took care of you when you were old, and you didn't have to spend on their education. What happened is that we began to believe children required investment in order to have a successful adulthood. Most recently, that sense of investment has gone up and up and up."

'Crunch time' for having kids The Department of Agriculture, which tracks annual family expenditures on children, found in its most recent report that middle-income two-parent families (those making $56,670 to $98,120 a year) could expect to spend up to $286,050 to rear a child born in 2009 to age 18. Chase, 34, knows all about such expenses, with three daughters and a son, ages 6 months to 6 years. "Babysitters are expensive for two kids — and we have four kids and don't have a lot of (other) family around," she says. " It's hard to find time for ourselves alone and as a couple." Janisch, 41, and husband Chris Fanning, 39, say the economic downturn has made them rethink their ideas about kids. Janisch says she thought she'd have two; Fanning had in mind two to five. But both are freelance photographers, and bringing up a child in Manhattan is particularly expensive, Fanning says. Their only child, Julia, is 4. "It just does come down to money and time," he says. "At this age, she has to go to private school. She goes to public school next year." He says they've discussed the pros and cons of having another. "We either do it now while we're used to having a young kid around, or just try to be a one-kid family," he says.

Janisch agrees it's "crunch time. The older you are, the harder it is. In the next few months, it kind of has to happen. We've come to the decision if it happens, great, and if it doesn't, it's also fine." Age is a consideration for many would-be parents today, as women have their first child later on average than in the past. The average age for first-time mothers was 25.1 in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available), up 3.6 years from 1970, when it was 21.4, according to data from the National Vital Statistics System. Demographers say a woman's age when has her first child is significant because it influences the total number of kids the woman likely will have in her lifetime, affecting family size as well as the overall population. Some, such as Erin Dunlevy, 27, are bucking the trend. She married right after college graduation and now has three kids: Clark, 4; Alice, 2; and Hal, eight months. "It's hard to be a young mom. I think I felt like other people would look at me and think I wasn't doing things right," she says. "I still get comments that I look pretty young. They say, 'You're too young to have kids.' I got used to it."

The most recent U.S. Census data available on lifetime fertility, from 2008, indicate that by age 44, 36% of women had two children, 28% had three or more and 18% had one. Another 18% had none. The trends were quite different in 1980, when more women had three kids by age 44, and the numbers who had one or none were roughly half of what they are now. In 1980, 56% had three or more children; 25% had two; 10% had one and just 10% had no children. Among women who gave birth in 2008, Census data show that 40% had their first child; 32% had a second; 17% had their third, and 7% gave birth to their fourth. "It's a reflection of long-term changes in how women view family size," says Martin O'Connell, chief of the fertility and family statistics branch at the Census Bureau.

Pressure on would-be parents  Age was a factor for Michele Chatburn, of Brentwood, Calif., a social media manager for a community newspaper who has two kids, Joey and Brooke. She says she and her husband, Christopher, were married five years before having their son, who turns 12 this month. "When we had our daughter I was 37, and it was more of an age thing for me," says Chatburn, now 42. "I thought we were very lucky that we had two healthy children. When you do have a child over 35, they bombard you with all the fear factors about the genetics." Older moms have a higher risk of having a child with genetic defects, such as Down syndrome.

Robin Gorman Newman, of Great Neck, N.Y., became a mother at 42 when infertility issues resulted in the adoption of a son, Seth, now 8. She says there's a lot of pressure on parents of only children. "Moms feel like they should have had more than one," she says. But part of the reason is that "they're midlife moms and might have a higher consciousness of mortality and they don't want to feel they're burdening their child when they get into old age," says Newman, founder of "Don't have second child because your in-laws or neighbors tell you to give her a baby brother or sister," says family therapist Alan Singer of Highland Park, N.J.

In his new book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size: How to Make an Informed Decision About Having a Baby, Singer suggests things to think about when trying to find the optimal size for your own family, rather than arguing that any specific number of kids is best. "We've been brainwashed into thinking two children is the perfect size for a family," says social psychologist Susan Newman of Metuchen, N.J., author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide, out next month.

She isn't suggesting one-child families are right for everyone, but "the way society is right now, particularly with the economy, it's an increasingly popular decision."

Relax and enjoy it  Economist Bryan Caplan has a different take on family size, advocating big families and stirring up debate with his new book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has three sons — 8-year-old twins and an 18-month-old. He urges parents to lighten up and enjoy their children rather than fret over them. He says parents are too stressed and shouldn't feel bad if they park kids in front of the TV. "Kids really enjoy TV and it gives parents a break at times they really need it. There's no need to feel guilty about it."

Among those who also tend to favor larger broods are Orthodox Jews, such as Rachel and Barak Moore. At 39 and 43, respectively, they have six children, ages 3, 5, 8, 10 (twins) and 11. He also has a son, 17, from a previous marriage.

Their family has learned to find inexpensive ways to spend time together, Rachel says, such as going to the zoo or to the beach. They can't afford to take their kids to professional baseball games, she adds, but her kids do play baseball and have each other as friends. "They don't need a play date. They are an organized team," she says. "I get tremendous amounts of pleasure from seeing the relationships my children have with each other." She works 30 hours a week, mostly from home, doing public relations for a non-profit organization. Her husband, a computer projects manager who she says also largely works from home, is "unusually involved and available," which has made their choice of having a large family work. "If my husband commuted and was rarely home, I don't think we would make the same decision. I'm really not doing it alone," she says.

Another mother of many is Meagan Francis, of St. Joseph, Mich., who had her first child when she was 20. Now 33, she's the mother of five, including four sons, ages 13, 11, 7 and 5, and a daughter, age 2. "One consideration I've had is that five seems like enough for me — not because of the number of kids in the house but because of the length of time I'll be parenting," says Francis, author of Table for Eight: Raising a Large Family in a Small-Family World. Dunlevy says both she and her husband, Luke, wanted to have at least three children and maybe four. "The door is still open (for a fourth child), but it's more difficult financially and logistically," she says. "But we're still young."

Susan Newman, the social psychologist, says she has a particular perspective on family size, having raised four step children to adulthood from her first marriage and later remarrying and having a son, who was brought up as an only child. "I've done it both ways — with a houseful of children and with one," she says. "The bottom line is whether you have one or five or three, it's just different. One way is not better than another."