Is there such a thing as too many kids?

By Lauren Apfel

When Tori Spelling announced she was pregnant with her fifth child, it was news I met with an unabashed: Wow, is she crazy??

Given that large families often get a bad rap, I doubt I am alone in this reaction. But at the same time I feel in a unique position to make such a comment because, as a mother of four kids myself (the last two of whom are twins), I have a pretty good sense of where she is starting from—and that place is bloody hard work. The classic line about expanding your family at my stage, the terrifying image those in the know like to roll out, is this one: imagine yourself treading water, using every ounce of energy simply to stay afloat, your head only just breaking the surface, and then…being handed a baby.

Today we tend to view big broods as a result of some kind of lack: a lack of sense, a lack of money, a lack of planning, a lack of information about, or access to, birth control. Or, not unrelated, we see them as the byproduct of religious affiliation. Consequently, for the middle classes and the non-religious, having more than two or three children can induce a sort of shame—or, if not that, a negative public perception. Most people would agree, and many parents report, as they shepherd their multiple offspring down the aisles of Target, that there is a palpable bias against sprawling families. According to one study, the middle classes have indeed, in recent years, been made “to feel guilty about the impact on the environment and the damage to their careers if they have large numbers of babies.”

And yet, there are certain circles in which this harsh impression of bigger families is changing. It’s already changing, I would argue, as between two and three kids. Consider whether anyone really looks askance at families with three children anymore. But where’s the cut-off, I wonder? And who decides? I remember telling somebody I was pregnant with twins, that they would be my third and fourth children, and this woman looked at me, sipping her cappuccino, and said quite matter-of-factly: “Oh, but you do know that four is the new three.”

This observation is not far from a recent argument making the rounds that, for wealthier families, cranking out babies—or adding to the litter via adoption, a la the Jolie-Pitts—is yet another act of oneupmanship in the rat race of modern-day parenting. More proof that we are living in a climate where the prevailing childrearing philosophy is “more is more”  and where mothers are supposed to be limitless in their ability to parent multiple children, and to do intensively. I’ve been referred to as “supermom” on numerous occasions, based solely on the fact that I have a quartet of kids.

On this view, the fourth child, or even the fifth, can become a symbol of parenting success in and of itself. When the Beckhams announced baby number four, for example, one article asked the question outright—Is the fourth child a status symbol?—and declared that the only people who would embrace such madness in this day and age are those “who can afford not to be bothered about the fact that children are extremely expensive and time-consuming.”

Another article, citing Wednesday Martin’s provocative book, The Primates of Park Place, makes a similar point about rich parents living in uber-expensive cities. The “ultimate status symbol” for millionaire moms on New York’s Upper East Side, it proclaims, is not what you’d expect. Not a ski home in Aspen or a private jet, that is, or a closet full of Birkin bags. But rather “a whole mess of kids.”

While the concept that a gaggle of kids is a mark of social standing sounds ludicrous to the majority of us, the fact that people are influenced in their reproductive choices by what they see around them is less so. According to the economist Bryan Caplan, author of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids, people do tend to be conformist in their fertility behavior. This can simply mean acknowledging that if larger families are being normalized (or seen as the province of the rich), other couples are more likely to set their sights on having them. If three children can become the new two, in other words, four might very well become as socially acceptable as three. And so on.

Inevitably, though, the decision of how many kids to have is based on a whole host of factors, some of which are out of one’s control—the family structure you grew up with, your age and fertility upon trying to conceive, your initial reaction to parenthood, your resources. And it’s not uncommon, especially for women I would say, for a gap to open up between the brute desire to keep reproducing and the reality of having to get pregnant with, and then care, and pay, for the ensuing children. There are no doubt many women who end up with fewer kids than they would theoretically like.

Every mother has her own internal gauge of “done,” that gauzy term women employ when they know, through some uncanny, hard-to-pin-down combination of elements, that their family is “complete.” But I do wonder where it comes from, this idea of being done, this idea of the “right” size for a given family. How each set of parents, when it really boils down to it, navigates such a profound decision. How they balance, that is, the raw impulse to create another life, to expand the amount of love in their house—which, to be honest, can be as addictive for some women as a class A drug—with the more mundane practicalities that necessarily play into such a choice: age, health and, very prominently for many couples, finances.

Bigger families might be taking on a new sheen, especially in the celebrity world and among the financially fortunate. But I suspect it’s not that the parents, in these crowds, are having four (or five or six) kids to put another notch on their belt, as much as it is a reflection of the fact that they are lucky enough to be able to comfortably actualize their desire for that many children. And yet, for celebrity and layperson alike, opting to have “one more” is always an exercise in guesswork—and a blind faith that the result won’t break you, in any number of ways.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. There are still days she is surprised to discover she has four children. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Get Motherwell straight to your inbox.