The XX Factor

Is Four the New Two?

Affluent families are having more children. Some working moms have “six, seven, even 14 kids,” according to Forbes . Movie stars like Angelina Jolie? More children. Reality television stars: having more children. Actually, that’s why they’re reality television stars, but you can see the trend. More children. Bigger families. Four is the new two. Why? In the same Forbes piece, David Hacker of the State University of New York at Binghamton says kids are now ” ‘luxury goods’ which people believe fill their lives with joy and deep satisfaction.”

After all that we’ve said lately about whether kids make you happy , whether you should have them at all, and whether they’ll ruin your marriage if you do, it’s a little hard to know how to respond to this. Do kids, perhaps, make you happier only if you’re relatively wealthy? Or maybe they don’t decrease your happiness exponentially, but rather at a flat rate, so that having one kid is no less happiness-decreasing than having four or five. Or maybe this is one of those instances of a few writers and social scientists looking around and noting a number of highly visible incidents of what they’d previously considered to be a rare phenomena: the black swans of parenthood. Large families stand out. Working women with large families (like Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachmann) strike us as unusual, because what they do can seem impossible, or only achievable with snark-inducing levels of outside help.

There’s actually no demographic evidence to suggest an increase in fertility in the last few years. In fact, 2009 probably saw a slight recession-related downturn. The overall increase in large families is largely anecdotal. The statistic cited in the Forbes report isn’t one that even the cited resourse, the Council on Contemporary Families , considers particularly relevant: Any uptick affects only a “tiny sliver of the population” that might affect the “demographics in parts of Manhattan,” but scarcely supports any measurable shifts. Indeed, “Historians point out that the super rich have historically tended to have more children than the middle layers of society, so this is hardly as unprecedented as some observers have assumed.”

In other words, faux-trend alert. Four isn’t the new two. Rather, 2.05 is the new 2.1, and overall, we’re having about the same number of kids we’ve had over the last few decades. But are kids, or more particularly, lots of kids, truly a luxury good? The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average middle-class family will spend about $23,000 a year per kid; a luxury for sure. Then there are the associated losses: men with families tend to make more money; women make less. (Economist Ann Crittenden apparently puts the lifetime earnings loss for a college-educated woman at around $1 million.) If kids are costly nonhappiness generators, why have a whole pack, especially after experiencing the downer that follows the arrival of the first?

Babble’s Rufus Griscom may have the answer . If, as he asserts, “by having kids you are re-submitting your life to the turbulent intensity-the highs and lows-of earlier phases of life,” then certainly, more kids multiplies the turbulence. Call it extreme parenting, and it makes sense: A person with the drive and appetite for big success in other areas might see no reason not to take her family life as far as it can go as well. From the perspective of a parent of four (the lowest edge of the big family), I can say that once you’ve given in to that lifestyle, there’s something to be said for going at it balls-out.

And there are advantages. Kids from a large family are nearly impossible to spoil or hover over. The inclination, or even the money, to pursue every activity may be there, but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. With a larger family, some of what many parents struggle to achieve in fostering independence and resilience come naturally. Commenters on the Forbes piece gave chemist and working mother of 14 Shannah Godfrey much grief for her practices of dressing young children for school before bed (not actually uncommon) and having the older kids help with the younger, but consider the life lessons in that last one. The big kids learn responsibility, and the younger ones learn that some days, your underwear will be on inside out, and you’ve just got to learn to live with it. Not exactly a luxurious life.

Photograph of babies by AFP/Getty Images.