How Many Kids Should We Have?

by Jeannie Ralston

How Many Kids Should We Have?

Marie Kirkland* and her husband were having a romantic time at the beach, their first vacation in two years away from their kids, ages 4 and 7. As they walked along the shore, kicking through the surf, she turned introspective. “I know what the biggest regret of my life will be,” she announced. “What?” he asked. “Not having more kids,” she answered. “If anyone was meant to have more kids, it’s me. I just can’t believe I’m not going to have any more.” They continued their walk in silence, and for the next hour or two, a damper was thrown on the amorous mood as they separately mulled over her statement.

“I didn’t expect him to say, ‘Okay, let’s have one,'” Kirkland says. “I knew how he felt.” Indeed, for the past three years, they’d had “The Talk” every three to six months  — she advocating a third child passionately, he offering reasons that another child didn’t make sense, from his age (51) to the financial burden. “I’d never told him before that this was my biggest regret. I wanted him to understand how profound it was for me.”

For fortunate couples, family size isn’t a source of friction. When I hear of such couples, I feel a twinge of jealousy, for my husband and I are also in the middle of a quantity quandary. How nice it would be, I think, not to have to dream of a miracle conversion, in which my husband wakes up one morning suddenly longing to change a diaper. Certainly I love the two boys I have (ages 2 and 4), but for some reason we don’t feel complete as a family. At least not to me.

Many couples live in this same state of simmering uneasiness as they quibble over the size of the perfect family. Though it’s usually not a marriage breaker  — like the more critical disagreement of whether to have children in the first place  — it can still spark resentment, longing, and, as in Kirkland’s case, regret. “The reason this is so problematic is that there’s no way to compromise,” says Scott Stanley, a marriage therapist in Denver and coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage. “You can’t go halfway.” Agreeing to get a new puppy instead, for instance, just wouldn’t scratch my itch.

This period of unrest can loom over a marriage for years, until one parent is finally worn down, the other finds peace with what they have, or the woman’s advancing age makes the whole question moot. “It used to be automatic: You get married at twenty-three and start having kids at twenty-five or twenty-six,” says Stanley. “Now we tend to think about things a lot more. There are so many different paths, and for some couples, with their careers on the line, it raises the stakes of who gives up what.”

Size Matters

I’m the fourth child of six; I have memories of growing up in a rough-and-rowdy household, where there was always plenty of noise and fun. My husband is one of two boys. His house was quieter. He had his own room. His own toys. Our vastly different backgrounds are probably at the core of our disagreement over the number of children to have, and we’re not alone: The Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan found that people fix on an ideal family size based on how many kids were in their own home when they were growing up.

“If your childhood was pleasant, and you have a good relationship with your siblings, it may be something you want to emulate,” says Javier Aceves, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. If the experience wasn’t positive, that has an impact too. I know people who came from large families who want anything but, having felt lost in the crowd and seen the strain it put on their frazzled parents.

The gender of the children we already have also plays a part in how prolific we want to be. Until a decade or two ago, there was a societal preference for sons, and it wasn’t uncommon for families to keep going until they had a boy. Now the preference is for balance  — one of each. Would my husband feel happy with two if both were girls and he didn’t have a son? Would I feel such a burning desire for another child if I already had a daughter? I believe I would, but it’s hard to say. Mary Melissa Joye thinks that because she and her husband have a boy and a girl  — “a matched set”  — her husband feels less compelled to keep to the original number of three.

Mom vs. Dad

Though this hasn’t held true for me, researchers say that in family-size debates, it’s usually the woman who holds the power, since she’s the one who’ll do the heavy lifting of pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding. When a husband and wife are asked before they start having kids how many they want, research shows it’s usually the woman’s desire that matches the number the couple actually has in the end.

In general, it’s the mother who advocates for more children, and it seems to me that men who resist tend to do so for the same reason: money. “I think about things emotionally,” says Marie Kirkland. “To my husband, things are more black and white, and practical. I know why he doesn’t want another child, but it doesn’t change my heart. If I didn’t understand his thinking, it would probably cause more stress in our marriage than it does.”

Of course, a Y chromosome doesn’t preclude men from wanting multiple progeny. “My sense is that men who want more kids don’t necessarily long for infants as much as that grander sense of ‘family,'” says Hilory Wagner, author of And Baby Makes Four: Welcoming a Second Child Into the Family. But a man who wants to hear the pitter-patter of yet another set of feet in the house may face some stout obstacles: most notably, his wife’s fresh memories of an aching back and swinging hormones.

The persuasive can prevail, however, as Jennifer Proud Mearns of Shaker Heights, OH, discovered. “Our joke was that he wanted six and I wasn’t sure I wanted any,” she says. Both she and her husband grew up in large families (eight and nine kids, respectively). Though she had a happy childhood, Mearns remembered how strenuous it was for her mother. “My father traveled half of every week,” she says. “Raising kids took all of her.” Mearns, a sports marketing executive, wondered how she’d be able to have a large brood and still have a career and spend time with her husband.

Eventually, Mearns had three children, all of them girls. “I thought at that point, I’d convince my husband that this was it,” she says. “But before Clare was even eighteen months old, he said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time to have another?’ I thought he was kidding.”

Before they’d had a chance to discuss it, Mearns got pregnant. Though she was ambivalent, her husband was overjoyed. A few weeks later, during a sonogram, she got another jolt: She was having twins (one of whom turned out to be a boy). “I was in total shock. I said to the technician, ‘I can’t be having twins. I already have three kids under age five!'”

Her husband was staggered as well. “It’s the only time he’s ever been speechless,” Mearns says. “He got his way  — he got his big family. And, of course, now I wouldn’t want my family any other way.”

Bargaining Up

“When I was a girl, I always dreamed of having four children,” says Laura Jones*, a kindergarten teacher in North Carolina. But because her second pregnancy had been difficult  — she was on bed rest between 19 and 35 weeks  — her husband was reluctant to go through the ordeal again. When she kept pushing for another child, he offered her his terms. If she’d move out of the city into the country, he’d agree to number three.

Fortunately, this pregnancy went smoothly, and she gave birth to a healthy son. “Four weeks after the baby was born, we put the house on the market,” she says. For her, the chaos that followed  — moving with an infant and two small children, first into a trailer while the new place was being built  — never seemed like too much to live through for the much-wanted baby. Her husband is also pleased with the results. He got his country home, and he’s completely devoted to his new son.

Although so much of making a marriage work is a matter of negotiation, most experts think this isn’t the best way to come to a decision about another child. The ideal scenario, of course, is that all kids are wanted by both parents. “If the reluctant partner could truly go either way with the decision, that’s one thing,” says Wagner. “But if he or she is grudgingly giving in, resentment can surface later on. People underestimate the potential conflict involved in this particular decision.”

The “Oops” Approach

Some of my friends, when I’ve told them about my desire for a third child, offer an easy solution: “So, have an accident.” I’m amazed at how cavalier they are about hoodwinking my husband into another child. But Laura Jones says that this is how many of her friends got their second baby.

How easily can a relationship recover from such duplicity? “I’ve talked to several fathers  — now divorced  — who felt ‘tricked’ into having one more child,” says Joan Leonard, author of Twice Blessed: Everything You Need to Know About Having a Second Child. “Did that ‘trick’ lead them down the road to divorce? I tend to think so, although I have no statistics to support this. In fact, even in good marriages, I detected a resentment from fathers who were ‘surprised’ with their wife’s second pregnancy.” Leonard does note, however, that in strong marriages, the resentment usually goes away once the baby is born or at least grows out of the eat-sleep-poop stage.

A friend of mine in Newport News, VA, swears that her husband tricked her into her third pregnancy. “I wanted to stop at two. We had a girl and a boy  — it was just perfect. I was thinking about going back to school and getting my master’s,” she says. “But he wanted three; he’d been raised in a big family.”

The couple owned a small sailboat, and for his birthday, they took it out for an evening away from their children. All he had on board was some wine and cheese. No condoms  — the birth-control method they were using at the time.

“It was his job to remember, and he conveniently forgot,” she says. “I was worried  — I said, ‘I know I’m going to get pregnant.’ He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ And after several glasses of wine, I didn’t.”

A few weeks later, when she learned she’d indeed gotten pregnant, he was ecstatic. And she became depressed. “I loved my daughter as soon as she was born, but for a couple of years, it had a serious effect on our marriage. I was so irritated with him  — I was the one who was pregnant. I was the one who stayed home. I didn’t get to do the things I planned to do.”

Today the sailboat baby is 9 years old, and my friend  — who never got her master’s but works as a labor and delivery nurse  — has more than forgiven her husband. “I just can’t imagine life without my youngest child,” she says. “I consider her my blessed accident.”

I’m glad my friend’s story ended so happily, but that certainly doesn’t encourage me to go to great lengths for another child. I’m sure if I put my foot down, threw a tantrum, or made some absurd promise like paying all the college expenses myself, I could turn my husband around. But I realize I don’t have the strength or the will to go to the mat for a third, nor to take on all the extra work without my husband’s full support. He has to want it too.

And there are days, when one child’s being extra ornery or the other one is up all night, that I want to scream, “Don’t let me reproduce again!” All it takes, though, is one of those heart-squeezing moments  — when one of my little guys is laughing as he runs through a breeze with his arms spread like an airplane  — for me to start thinking again that this joy will only be multiplied with more kids and that the chaotic period of raising several small children is so short in the scheme of life.

In the meantime, I’ve adopted a Doris Day “que sera, sera” mind-set. What will be, will be  — and however many kids we end up having, our family will be absolutely perfect.

* Names have been changed.