catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 17 :: 2008.09.26 — 2008.10.10


One kid, two kids, three kids, four?

Some people enter their childbearing years knowing exactly how big their family will be and how many years will separate their children. If you’re not one of them, you have some tough decisions to make.

While there are no absolute guidelines to the dilemmas of how many children to have, or how many years apart to have them, here are some issues to consider as you explore your own plans for your family.


How controlling are you?

If you have religious or philosophical reasons to oppose birth control of any kind, then go forth and multiply. I won’t get into those arguments here. If you are against medical birth control but allow natural family planning, then these planning issues will still apply.


Too much of a good thing?

For sheer amount of children, one thing to consider is the population of the world. How can one little baby help or hurt the world? There are some who argue: plenty. Western, industrialized nations use far more resources than other parts of the world, and pollute a lot more as well. No matter how eco-friendly you try to raise your tots, kidlets in North America or western Europe will grow up to be consumers who use more resources than your average non-industrialized person. Those who fear overpopulation (notably Paul and Anne Ehrlich: here’s a Wikipedia entry on their theories and the criticisms surrounding them) recommend having no more than two children. They cite the detrimental effects of overpopulation on the planet’s environment as a whole and on the poorest people who live on it-who are less able to move to a non-polluted location or buy expensive and increasingly rare resources. Two children will “replace” their parents and keep the population steady.

On the other side of the coin, critics say that claims of overpopulation are exaggerated and misrepresented, and that the overpopulation fear-mongering through the decades has so far not proven accurate-they point to places like western Europe and Japan, where populations are actually declining as older folks die off and new babies aren’t being born fast enough to replace them. One of my fears about the arguments there, though, is that while it’s true that some countries are facing population decline, the earth as a whole is definitely not, and arguments to up the number of western, white, Christian, [insert your group here] children smacks of racist scare tactics that value one type of child over another. On the other hand, critics of the Ehrlichs and their ilk point to family planning that disproportionately targets minorities and the poor, and to missions to drastically curtail immigration, presumably of less desirable groups. Obviously this is a sensitive and loaded topic, regardless of which position on population one takes, and it’s hard to divorce one part of the discussion from another.

In the end, whether or not the threats of overpopulation are real and immediate, it’s not easy to use it as a cut-and-dried issue that dictates how many children are ideal for each family. There is a valid reasoning that each human is as much an asset to the globe as a burden, and that perhaps we each bring more than we take away. It’s common especially in the West to consider children an economic burden, but traditionally children have been seen as useful-to help in the family business or in raising siblings when younger, and then to take care of their elders as the older generations age. And that’s not even delving into the spiritual and creative benefits each person brings to the world. Still, if you’re ecologically and globally minded, it’s worth considering what the costs are to the world of how many children you bring into it.


Spread out or right in a row?

Once you’ve decided on how many children, it’s time to decide when to have them. I’ll leave the timing of the first up to you and concentrate on the issues surrounding subsequent births. There are advantages and disadvantages to spacing children far apart or close together, so there are, again, no easy answers.

From the children’s perspective, having a sibling close in age might mean an ever-present playmate-or enemy. Having a sibling far apart in age might mean having one’s own space and interests-or feeling alienated from this new rival disrupting the flow that had been established. An older child might be more independent and even able to help with the new arrival, but many parents have dreams of their children being playmates rather than babysitter and charge. There are many research studies that analyze the benefits and drawbacks of different spacing’s-here’s an article with food for thought on relative intelligence, adult success and familial bonding depending on the amount and spacing of children (for what it’s worth, five years is recommended as an ideal). Although each individual child and each set of children will be unique, research suggests that children born within a year of each other or spaced over four years apart view each other less as rivals and have fewer negative feelings toward each other and their parents. Children born far apart have their own lives and spheres and have a chance to connect with their parents at each stage without interference, and children born very closely together act almost as multiples, with no awareness of a time when they weren’t together.

For the mother’s health, though, spacing children very closely together can be detrimental. Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding take a lot of nutrients and energy, and the body needs time to recover before attempting another go. Babies, too, do better when the spacing is greater than 18 months-earlier than that puts them at risk of low birth weight and premature birth. And pregnancy itself can be made that much more challenging when a toddler is around. There’s no lying around to wait out the morning sickness, and no matter how ungainly and sore you become, a young child won’t understand why you can’t pick him or her up.

However, the research (cited above) also suggests that there are more adverse outcomes for babies spaced farther apart than five years, which presumably brings the age of the mother into play at that point, another good issue to consider. As women are choosing to have children later in their childbearing years, child spacing ideals might have to give way to fertility realities. Mothers having their first child in their mid-thirties or after might justifiably feel pressure to have any subsequent children sooner rather than later.

Other parent-centric reasons to space children one way or the other include the parents’ attitude toward babyhood. Is it something you want to savor for each child, or is it something you want to get over with as soon as possible? Mothers of children spaced farther apart can concentrate on one toilet-training session at a time, whereas mothers with children close together can theoretically clump together such tasks and get them out of the way all at once. Parents can also consider what their visions are of empty nesting-how old do you want to be when the last child leaves home?

One other important issue to consider (one that I think gets short shrift in a society that places such value on early independence) is the ingrained expectation of each baby for a full measure of babyhood. One area that baby spacing affects strongly is breastfeeding. Kathy Dettwyler has researched this topic extensively from an anthropological perspective, and she’s found that biological and anthropological evidence suggests that, in the absence of cultural cues, the natural weaning age for humans would be at minimum 2.5 years old, up to as old as 7 years. Since breast milk often diminishes or dries up completely for some months during pregnancy (though some toddlers, if offered, will return to tandem nurse after a new baby is born), this natural weaning age suggests that mothers put off the next pregnancy until the current baby is completely finished with the milk he or she needs. Of course, since we don’t live in a cultural vacuum, I can’t see the average western mother waiting seven years until the next kid, but 2.5 would be doable for most. Breastfeeding itself helps with child spacing, because frequent, night-and-day suckling induces in many women a state of infertility or diminished fertility that can naturally space out pregnancies by two to three years. Read more about this topic if you’re planning to rely on that as your only form of birth control, though!

Other thoughts are how needy your current child is-can you handle it if the next one is just as demanding? And if you’re just at a stage where you’re becoming more independent yourself-going back to work, resuming hobbies, showering regularly-it might be nice just to enjoy that time for awhile before plunging back into newborn-induced sleep deprivation.

No matter what your theories and dreams about child spacing, though, be prepared to be surprised by your individual and unique kids. Gender and personality differences can prevent even closely spaced kids from being fast friends, whereas largely spaced siblings might find more in common than you’d expected. And as children grow into adulthood, even gaping age differences might fade into triviality.


How much family can you afford?

The issue of finances bears a mention. Babies are fairly cheap. I’ve heard older kids are less so. It depends in part on how extravagantly you intend to raise them, but keep your economic situation in mind. If you’re adopting children, expenses associated with that can be mitigated by choosing local or special-needs adoption, if that would be right for your family. But, regardless, you’ll have a higher upfront cost when adding to your family.

If you intend to pay for higher (or lower) education, kids spaced closely together will also space your college bills closely together. Kids spaced farther apart and born into your later childbearing years might delay your retirement if you need to keep working to pay off those loans. Or you can always do what we intend-let your kids take their time and pay their own way through college, if they choose to go at all, through scholarships and jobs along with loans, and by attending a cheaper school.

Well before the college years, there are budgetary concerns to consider. The bigger the family, the more the impact on transportation and housing, as basics. Then there are more shoes to buy, more tickets for going somewhere fun, more healthcare costs, and multiple fees for daycare, school and extracurriculars. We can make do with a lot less than we think, but ask yourself honestly if you will. If having another child will strap you financially, consider the stress of that. Frugality and simplicity don’t have to mean sadness, though-we’re big fans of sharing bedrooms and wearing hand-me-downs, and we have just the one kid so far!


Can you keep the two one flesh?

Assuming you’re having these kids inside of a marriage relationship and want to keep said relationship going, when deciding on another child, it’s fair to ask some questions about the state of the union. How stable is your relationship? How will adding a child stress or benefit it? Are you and your partner in agreement that another child is right for you, right now? For some couples, it’s the more the merrier; but for others, parenting adds stress and detracts from the closeness of the former twosome. Even though the early days of childrearing are supposedly fleeting, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the middle of them, so ask each other the tough questions and listen to the answers.

If you’re blending a family because of divorce or death, there are even more considerations and balances in store. An only child might suddenly have several siblings, or the other way around. In any case, an old dynamic will have to change to a new one, and it takes time and tolerance to smooth out the rough edges of a more impromptu family unit. As you add to a blended family, keep in mind the needs of the current children, who have experienced upheaval in their family lives.


Can you hear that inner voice?

Finally, what does your heart tell you about how many children to have or how to space them? For many parents, after all the pondering and questioning and researching, it really comes down to instinct. Many parents have a set vision of their family around a table, and anything fewer than the number of kids in their dream feels incomplete. Some yearn for a distant time when everyone lived in a close-knit and multi-generational community and seek to recreate a tribe of their own within their nuclear family. From mothers of big families, I’ll offer this bit of folk wisdom, though I can’t guarantee its accuracy. They say that adding the first and the second kids is hard; after that, it’s easier each time. The first kid is a toughy by being the first, and the second is difficult because it changes the triad dynamics, but by the time the third rolls around, the system’s up and running. Or so I’ve been told-I’m not sure I want to test it.


The best-laid plans

Let me end with a nice little quote from Scripture. Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps” (New Living Translation). Whether it’s unplanned children, or unplanned infertility, we don’t always get to decide what happens to us. If there’s one thing children teach us, though, it’s to go with the flow and enjoy the moment.

Have a happy family, no matter what it looks like.

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