A hairy old hippie of a photojournalist from a rival newspaper once gave me a powerful piece of family planning advice.
It was spring 2003, I was working as a reporter, and my wife had just given birth to our first child. After five days at home I returned to the newsroom where my assignment that day was to cover a roaring house fire. I raced to the fire and scribbled down the facts, then milled around on the hose-soaked road in front of the smoldering timbers, looking for one final quote.
The old photojournalist wandered over and we struck up a conversation.
“So you just had a kid,” he said. “Good for you.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and asked, “You know what to do now?”
I shook my head.
“Have another kid as soon as possible.” He tossed his cigarette and ground it underfoot. “If a man chooses to have one kid, then a man chooses to start a family. That’s how it works, amigo.”
Years later I know there’s much wisdom in the photojournalist’s advice.
Statistics say the average North American family wants 2.5 kids but winds up with only 1.86. Many factors may prompt this, including financial stress, cultural pressures, and fertility issues.
The ultimate question is sometimes decided by choice, sometimes by chance. Yet it’s a question every man needs to wrestle with some time in life, even if the answer is zero.
So, how might you plan (or not plan) for how many children to have? Consider the following factors:
1. Your wishes as a couple.
Having any child is a monumental decision, and if both partners aren’t sold on the same number, then tension and resentment can arise.
Talk it out with your spouse. In fact, let the discussion play out over a number of years. Let this decision roll around on your table for awhile with nowhere convenient to land.
Each new baby brought into the home will mean an adjustment. Sometimes couples want fewer children because it’s more convenient. It’s much easier, for instance, to fly in an airplane or eat at a restaurant when a couple has two children compared to, say, eight.
But sometimes couples want more — and that’s fine too. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of fathering your own baseball team. Or maybe you want to start your own family rock band. It worked nicely for Hanson.
Never make this decision immediately after giving birth. With a new baby in the house, most of your Bingo balls are still floating around in the draw-tank, and this decision must be made when you and your spouse’s collective minds are at their absolute clearest.
2. Your wife’s age and health.
Experts say the best age for a woman to bear children is between ages 20 and 35. Bearing children beyond that is possible but more difficult.
Even the best of pregnancies take their toll on a woman’s body. While expecting, she may be plagued with morning sickness, body aches, sleep problems, leg cramps, numb or tingling hands, indigestion, dizziness, and more.
After giving birth, she may contend with stretch marks, varicose veins, hip soreness, a leaky bladder, possible postpartum depression, and permanently wrinkled stomach skin.
Your wife is strong, but each birth packs a wallop. Think of her first.
3. Your age and health.
Men are biologically able to produce offspring well into their senior years. Yet experts note that when it comes to a man’s all-important fluid, the necessary child-producing counts decline with each year of a man’s life. Babies fathered by older men also carry an increased risk of genetic disorders.
Beyond the potential for complications, being a good dad simply requires a truckload of energy — both physical and emotional. So if you’re 30 and have always dreamed of fathering a party of five, then get cracking, buddy. If you’re 50 and want one more, bear in mind you’ll be in the retirement zone by the time your new kid graduates from high school.
4. Your finances.
Having a baby isn’t cheap, but when your baby arrives, you find the financial picture isn’t quite as bad as it first appeared either. It’s surprising how you can make ends meet when you put your mind to it.
Still, having each kid will cost you. Every child needs diapers and wipes and clothes and toys and strollers and medicine and food and health insurance. You might need to buy a bigger car or house.
Part of the larger cost analysis involves the matter of who takes care of the child. Will you be a stay-home dad? Will one of your parents help? Will your wife quit her job — if so, for how many years? Or will you both go back to work and pay for childcare?
Daycare, particularly for a baby, can vary greatly depending on where you live. According to the National Association of Childcare Resource & Referral Agencies, prices range from about $300 to $1,500 per month.
If you want another child, be prepared to dig.
5. The temperament of your marriage.
Having more kids usually results in a louder house, a more chaotic house, and a house that’s not as tidy.
Some describe that as fun.
Some describe that as purgatory.
You and your wife might be energetic, easygoing folks unfazed by a crowd. If so, then procreate to your hearts’ content.
But if you and your wife enjoy abundant peace and quiet, lingering over leisurely dinners, and whisking away for weekend trips to Aspen, then having a smaller family may be the wiser decision.
The temperament and stability of a marriage comes into play, too. Good parenting takes a lot of patience, love, and flexibility. If a marriage is on the rocks, then the children will feel that storm.
6. The individual attention question.
If your family is bigger, then your time with each child is necessarily spread thinner.
It’s a trade-off. Parents of larger families have less time and money to spend on each child individually, yet they note that their children seldom feel lonely. Parents of smaller families can invest more resources into each child, yet the children receive less sibling interaction.
Thinking positively, at Christmastime you either have one happy kid with a load of presents all to himself, or you have a brood of happy kids all playing with oranges and wrapping paper.
Either way it’s happy, happy, happy.
7. The unknown factor.
Sometimes you make your list and take into account all the pragmatic factors, yet your decision still comes down to what can’t be put on paper.
It might be a gut feeling. It might be faith. It might be articulated simply as “you know when you know.”
This is what happened with my wife and me. We had two children and were fairly sure we were finished. But now, thanks to Providence, we have three — and we’re having a great time, thank you very much.
What will you and your wife do?
Some folks insist that having a large family is the only way to go. Others insist the world’s already got too many people.
I like the way Stephen King described how he and his wife, Tabitha, settled on the number of children in their family. In On Writing, King wrote,
“We had two kids by the time we’d been married three years. They were neither planned nor unplanned; they came when they came, and we were glad to have them.”
I say let the decision be yours as a couple, and yours alone. When the time for decision-making arrives, you’ll know what to do.
Here’s what a number of men said about how their decisions were made, and about what the best and most challenging things are about having a particular number of children.
Ricky Clark, 52, Air Force Reserve recruiter
My wife has some medical disabilities, so originally we weren’t expecting to be able to have any children. Fortunately, she was able to give birth to a very healthy daughter. After that, my wife and I tried to have more children, but we suffered many miscarriages, so that alone determined the number of children for us.
The best thing about having only one child is that you’re able to concentrate all of your parenting attention on the one child. A good type of triangular bond emerges when there’s only three making up a family unit. And vacations didn’t cost as much, so we were able to travel more often!
The most challenging part of having only one child is that there is limited peer-level companionship for the child. I’d say this resulted in our daughter having too much adult companionship and not enough childhood influence as she grew up.
Jon Eddy, 38, airline pilot
Since I travel a lot and my wife is often home alone with the children, we set out to have two children, but we also acknowledge that these decisions are not fully under our control.
The best thing about two children is that my wife and I can give each child a high amount of attention and focus on raising them versus simply managing a household. Traveling is also easier.
The most challenging thing probably is that since our kids are very close friends, I think it prevents them from going out and making friends within their school, church, and neighborhood.
Geoffrey Baron, 35, web developer
I don’t remember ever having a discussion with my wife about the number of kids we would have. I came from a family of three and she from four, so I think we always had it in our minds that we would have three to four. After the third was born we just realized we were done.
On a purely practical level it’s nice filling out a normal-sized car perfectly, but we still have a little pack that loves to hang out together.
Sadly, my son has recently been asking if we would be willing to provide him a little brother (he has two sisters). That is definitely the hardest part of there just being three.
John Cook, 45, university professor
We were agreed when we married that we wanted several children at least. The final number of four and the spacing of them was somewhat due to “heat of the moment” decisions, as well as due to weariness in trying for a girl (we have four boys). More seriously though, our life situation and transitions had a lot to do with our decisions (e.g., I started graduate school in between the two pairs of boys being born), and when we reached four children, my wife Kathy simply felt “done,” and I tend to trust her intuition.
Our four are spaced in pairs (each with an 18-month gap, but with four years between the pairs), somewhat intentionally so. The result is that the older and younger pair were each the other’s “best friend” growing up. At the same time, the gap between the two pairs of boys meant that they were forced to get along with siblings at very different life stages (e.g., high schoolers and elementary age children look at the world quite differently!).
One of the challenging aspects about having four children is vehicles, since front bench seats are a thing of the past. Our classic Volkswagen Bus has served us well, with seating for nine!
Perhaps the greatest challenge though is the “starting over” feeling with spacing our pairs of boys four years apart: just about the time the older ones could buckle themselves into the car, a new infant and car seat had to be dealt with. Same situation for eating, potty training, etc.
John Berdan, 32, journeyman millwright
My wife and I married when we were both 19, and our first baby came along when we were 21. We’ve left the decision of how many children to have up to God — meaning we haven’t specifically tried to get pregnant, and we haven’t specifically not tried either. My wife and I are both relatively young yet, so in the future when age factors into things and if pregnancy becomes dangerous for my wife, then we’ll evaluate what to do then.
I’m an extrovert and like crowds and activity, so the best thing about having five children is there’s always something to do. There’s never a dull moment. My wife is more an introvert, yet she loves children, so it works well for her too.
The biggest challenge about having five children is giving each child enough one-on-one time. We find that we purposely need to spend time with each child to draw him or her out, or else they will get overlooked.
Eric Anderson, 55, building contractor
There were four children in my family growing up, and six in my wife’s, so we both came into our marriage thinking we’d have a larger family experience — at least four children. After four were born, my wife and I asked each other if we were done, and we weren’t. So we had five, and then six. At first we wondered if we were being irresponsible for having more children, but you can’t let society pressure you. After our sixth was born, we had a few medical complications, so that’s why we stopped.
Our children range in age from 17 to 29 now, and we’ve all become best friends in a way. We’re more a peer group. They love each other and they love us as parents. Whenever we hang out we always have a lot of fun.
The hardest part of having six children was the finances. When you’re a contractor, you can’t count on a steady paycheck. But we’ve always made out okay.
Paul Anderson 49, director and cofounder of Skatechurch Inc.
Originally we were planning to have two kids but we heard a sermon from a man that changed our perspective. He had four kids and he talked about God’s perspective of children being a blessing and not a burden. We now have four boys and three girls and wouldn’t have it any other way. My wife’s age and pregnancy-related health risks made it wise for us to stop.
The best thing about having seven kids is that every day our house is happy, lively, and full of interaction and built-in entertainment.
The most challenging thing about having seven kids is that they drink five gallons of milk a week. In other words food, clothes, etc. are three times what someone with two kids has to pay.
We wouldn’t trade our kids for the world!
Question: How many children do you have (or hope to have someday), and why?
Marcus Brotherton is a regular contributor to Art of Manliness.
Read his blog, Men Who Lead Well, at www.marcusbrotherton.com