Sunday, May 28, 2006

Are Big Families Making A Comeback?

In this morning’s Boston Sunday Globe, there was an article called:

Full House (Honey, Let’s Have a Third. And a Fourth. And…) The big family makes a comeback.

The article focuses on a trend in a tony Boston suburb where the size of the average family has been steadily increasing, and offers speculation on whether a big family has become a sort of status symbol for the wealthy, or if the motivations are healthier. Some excerpts…

…look at classroom No. 8 at the Wellesley Nursery School in the Hills. DeMatteo's daughter is the only one who comes from a family of six kids. But Laurel is one of five. So is Mark. Then there are Ryan, Jack, Andrew, and Adam, who each come from a family with four kids. Shane will join their ranks when his new sister arrives in a few months. Right now, he's in the three-kid camp with Lucy, Nicole, and Natalie. In fact, of the class's 20 preschoolers, 12 come from families with three or more kids. And let's not forget Owen. He is one of eight, and his father says a ninth is likely. Definitely don't want to forget Owen…
(Newton-Wellesley Pediatrician Dr. Jim) Goldston has his own theories about why so many families are getting bigger. A decade or two ago, couples watching college costs escalate figured they had no choice but to limit family size. However, as costs continued to rise to absurd levels, he says many decided, "It's so expensive having two kids, how much worse can it be with three?"
On the flip side are the wealthy parents in his practice "who can afford to do whatever they want." Some of these couples find that of all the luxuries their bank balances allow them, they get no greater satisfaction than from their kids, so they decide to have more. There's something rather reassuring about that. Other motivations are less reassuring. "For some people in Wellesley," says Goldston, "having four kids has become the new status symbol, like having a luxury SUV. It says you can afford it; you can have a nanny to help you out."

Traditionally, the third child has been a major barrier to both parents working full time, considering that the combined day-care costs can eat up an entire salary. So three kids are more common in families in which one parent -- usually the mother -- is at home full time or has flexible part-time work. For all the talk in recent years of women "opting out" of careers to stay at home, half of all mothers still return to the workforce before their child's first birthday, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University and board member of the Council on Contemporary Families. Not that there aren't lots of stay-at-home moms. It's just that they're mostly clustered at the top and bottom of the income scale. The poorer moms' job opportunities are so bleak that many don't feel they are giving up much to stay home. Many of the more affluent moms started out with the expectation that they could have it all, managing a successful career with one or two kids. But after experiencing the all-too-common work-family bind, they can walk away from the job without bringing financial pain to their families. In fact, Gerson says, "wealthy mothers are left without one of the major cultural rationales for choosing to work: that they need to."

Once these high-achieving women make the decision to stay home, the next one -- to have more kids -- is easier. After all, managing a bigger family can be a lot like managing an enterprise, with schedules and budgets and direct reports (of the offspring and household-help varieties).

Judy Heffernan left a good job in sales for the Four Seasons Hotel when she started having kids. She grew up in a family of six children, and she now has four of her own, ranging in age from 2 to 9. She wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, at 44, she says she would have had more kids had she not started so late. "It's like having a team."

Because affluent families can afford to hire nannies or au pairs (and don't have to fret about the prospect of another college tuition), the decision to go for the next child doesn't have to be as intimidating. "Every person I know who has four kids has full-time help," says Susan Morris, a 40-year-old former investment banker and current Wellesley mother of three. "People in this town like to have a lot of kids, but they don't necessarily like to raise them by themselves." Morris's husband would like to have a fourth, and seeing so many bigger families around her, she's felt some pressure to try to keep up. "If all your friends are having four, does that make you more likely to do it? Absolutely." But after having three kids in three years, she feels she is just starting to get her life back under control.

Here is where I have to stop the presses a bit. We live in the same town this article was written about. We have six. Our neighbors and good friends down the street have five. Our other friends down the street have four. Another family around the corner have four...

None of us have nannies. None of us live in huge houses. We all have modified Cape houses. My wife knows some of the people mentioned in the article. Curious that the Globe doesn’t want to talk to any of us, but it’s just as well. All of our back yards put together barely have 100 blades of grass between them. The dirt in our back yards is as hard and packed as the streets of Kabul. Kids can always get dirty when they play outside, but when they play at our place they get really dirty. Our place may have made a poor backdrop for a photo shoot. :-)


Steve Bogner said...

The article also mentions one mom saying she likes the positive dynamics of a large family. Large families do work different than smaller ones. We know an 8-child family here, and they are really just a wonderful family. Mom & dad are tuned-in to large-family dynamics, and that makes a big difference.

Paula said...

Jeff i think that you won´t mind if i add you at my blogs list.:-)

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

I love the dynamics of big families. I didn't happen to come from one. I was the youngest of three, with a significant gap (in my eyes) between myself and my sister and brother. When I was in college, I became acquainted with a large wonderful family (9 children) and it changed my life. Having a big family has been an adjustment for me, since I am quiet and shy by nature, and I had become accustomed to solitude and keeping my own company. My wife says I've come along in light years in terms of progress. I was used to not being noticed... to flying under the radar. When we go anywhere now, we are noticed. That took a lot of getting used to.

For my wife and I, a lot of it is life-affirmation. I lost both of my parents relatively young. My father at 49, my mother at 62. I lost my sister at 50. My wife lost her mother at 54. Both of us were weary of illness and death. We wanted to celebrate life, say "yes" to life, and to have it all around us. At the same time, we try to be sensitive to giving out the message that we are some kind of super "uber-Catholics", trumpeting some kind of superiority in Orthodoxy. People at Church see us and make all kinds of assumptions without getting to know us.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

I would be honored if you did. Thank you! To tell you the truth, I've wanted to redo my whole blog list and add everyone who's been posting frequently here, but I didn't want anyone to feel like I was fishing for reciprocation.


Paula said...

I just want to have all the blogs i read more often on my list because it is easier for me to visit people´s blogs.:-).

crystal said...

Jeff, this is an interesting post. I come from a small family - just my sister and me. I remember an episode from Stargate SG-1 about having a lot of kids :-) ....

WELLS: Sir, you have four kids.

DIXON: Yeah, why do you think I love my job so much? Don't get me wrong I love the little buggers to death but trust me, having four kids makes going through the Stargate and facing off alien bad guys look like nothing. This is relaxing.

WELLS: Then why'd you have four?

DIXON: Well, one's pretty bad but you figure you got to have two so the little guy can have a brother or sister right? Then you have two boys and the wife says she wants a girl, so you figure hell three can't be much worse than two right? But you don't realize your brain is fried from lack of sleep, and after three, four is no big deal so then you're so deep in that nothing seems to matter anymore. Its chaos. You just try to make it through each day alive. In the end you spend all the energy you have left trying to get them into bed, only to lay awake praying they don't get hooked on drugs, hurt, or worse, wind up dead in an alley some where.

WELLS: Can't wait, sir.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Glad to see you.

I think there is a lot of truth in what Dixon says. A lot of people have asked me what the "back-breaker" number is... I usually joke that the number was five, because at that point Anne and I had both run out of available hands, which meant we really were outnumbered. :-)

They make good company for each other. We find that our kids tend to keep each other from getting too bored. I've noticed that some people with only one child have a real hard time keeping thir child occupied and/or entertained.

They're good kids, but I don't want to give the impression that they are Stepford children and we are Stepford parents. We have some real challenges, and I mess up a lot. Parenting is the hardest thing I've ever done, and sometimes in spite of myself, I find myself falling into the same parenting style my own parents had, for better or worse.

Some people ask, "How do you do it? How do you cope?" The answer is, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we aren't managing at all. :-) Some days are out of control, but somehow the sun still comes up the next morning and you start all over again anyhow. :-)

That last line by Dixon really resonates with me. They are still pretty young, and no matter what problems we deal with in a day, they are still under my protection. At the end of the day, I know they're all upstairs safely in their beds. When they are out driving and making their own judgements out here... Those are going to be some long nights for us.

Paula said...

I come from a very small family: i am the only child. The economical and social situation of that time and place did not encouraged people to have large families. My parents are great ( I consider myself lucky to have them) but I was not spoiled at all despite the fact that I was the only child.I had a quite "spartan" education.:-).
Me, I have no kids.My marriage ended up in divorce after 4 years, exactly when me and my ex husband had enough money to afford kids (at the beginning our material resources were very limited)...If I will get married again I want kids, but giving the fact that I am likely to have them at around 40 I think that I will limit myself at 1 or 2 I am 36, I do not look like that true. :-).

Jeff said...


now I am 36, I do not look like that true. :-).

Oh, true, true.. So true. :-D

An only child? Did that suit you OK, or did you always wish for brothers and sisters? Some people like having had mom and dad all to themselves.

I'm sorry to hear about the divorce. I wasn't married until I was 33. If I had married in my 20's, I wouldn't have been in as sound a financial position. I probably would have had a real hard time making a marriage work.

I pray that God grants you what you are looking for. I trust in believing that he has a plan for us all. Listen to me going on and on about my family. I should get a clue sometimes... I probably need sensitivity training before I blog. :-)

Paula said...

Jeff,your sensitivity is OK.:-).
I am not unhappy that I am single. (I was for a while,after the divorce, naturally).I do not obsses on getting married again either. If this will happen, will happen. If no, then is no. When a door closes in one´s life, God opens a window or another door, or many other doors. This is the case with me, and I am grateful.:-).