Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

With affluent parents, ‘four is the new three’

For parents who have one child, feelings of gratitude mingle with the occasional twinge of defensiveness

Kyle Donovan blows bubbles in her backyard with her 2-year-old son Matthew. She says she is often conflicted about wanting her son to have a sibling.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Kyle Donovan blows bubbles in her backyard with her 2-year-old son Matthew. She says she is often conflicted about wanting her son to have a sibling.

Last month, I was talking to a friend who resides in an affluent suburb among families with large broods. “You didn’t know?” she asked. “If you’re wealthy enough, four is the new three, and three is the new two.”

I should have realized: Posh procreation has been covered by Forbes, The New Yorker, and in these pages, when Neil Swidey chronicled the uptick of large families in wealthy Boston suburbs like Wellesley, which are “teeming with families managed by highly educated stay-at-home moms” and where “three is far from the end point.”

Continue reading below

Less examined are the families with neither the economic resources nor the reproductive capacity to have more than one — a reality enforced by the recession, expensive day-care tuition and housing costs in Massachusetts, and the increase in women trying to get pregnant later in life.

If having multiple children is a status symbol in some circles, do mothers of only children feel somehow inadequate or self-conscious?

“Another parent said it to me: ‘Four is the new three,’” says Cambridge’s AJ Hodgson, 43, whose 7-year-old daughter attends Buckingham Browne & Nichols. “There’s a pocket of people who are fertile and can have as many as they want. But for most of us, how many kids you have isn’t always up to you.”

Continue reading it below

It’s a strange sensation for educated, ambitious women. Unlike other major life events, parenthood is often out of people’s control, a wild card that reflects biology and necessary economic pragmatism.

Discuss: Feeling pressure to have more than one child?

I asked whether mothers of only children feel stigmatized on the website GardenMoms, a popular Boston-area parenting forum where queries cover everything from trilingual nannies to commentary on root canals. Countless women e-mailed expressing the same thing: a sense of gratitude about having one child tempered by a twinge of defensiveness.

One parent messaged me immediately, requesting anonymity. “My one daughter . . . is fortunate enough to go to a very nice private school. The wealthiest families have four to five children. There is no question in my mind that there is some sort of connection between affluence and multiple children, perhaps if only those are the folks who can afford many children. Weird trends as our country moves to greater income inequality,” she wrote.

Why the sensitivity? For one thing, the number of children in a family can reflect finances. Massachusetts has the highest daycare costs nationwide, according to a recent study by Child Care Aware America, averaging $15,000 statewide (though in Greater Boston they can be much higher). Paying multiple tuitions can be daunting, even for well-off families. Nationwide, the fertility rate has dipped considerably since the recession, according to CDC data. Call it birth control by bank account.

“When day care costs $25,000 for one child or $50,000 for two, it’s push-shove to get a nanny. If you want a nanny, you need space. At this point, how much do you need to make? It begs a certain economic status,” says Jessica Foster, 41, a Brookline lawyer who shares a condo with her husband and toddler daughter.

“I didn’t get maternity leave,” says Beacon Hill’s Shayne Gilbert, 48, who runs a boutique media company. “If I wasn’t there, I wasn’t doing the business, so I didn’t get paid.” With one child, balancing parenthood with a career was easier. Still, despite feeling like she “won the lottery” with her child, who is now 9, Gilbert says she encountered skepticism.

“People would ask: ‘Where’s the next one?’ I wanted to say, ‘We got it right the first time,’ ” she jokes.

Cambridge native Lauren Sandler’s highly researched, acclaimed book, “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One” (Simon & Schuster, 2013), explores the guilt many families feel over having one child. (It’s out in paperback this month.)

“There’s a trend among the affluent to have more kids, which used to be sort of a throwback,” Sandler says. “Now that motherhood has become such an industry, it’s interesting to see what’s happened to it among the maternal elite. Now here’s this advent of motherhood as a vocation.”

Jacob Thomas for The Boston Globe

According to Sandler, “There’s an interesting trend afoot here of opting into motherhood all the way or opting out completely. In the middle are people who have just one. You’d think that’d be synonymous in the eyes of the public, but it’s not, because of the incredible judgment that we carry around about only children.”

This includes stereotypes of loneliness and bossiness among kids and selfishness on the part of parents who fail to provide a sibling companion.

“When many people think of a family, they tend to think of at least two children,” says Alice Domar, who runs the Domar Center for Mind-Body Health at Boston IVF.

Yet other families simply don’t have the yen to go bigger, preferring the comfortable lifestyle that having just one provides. The decision isn’t without external judgment, though. Arlington’s Jennifer Rego, 39, has a 3-year-old son.

“For my husband and me, the decision to have only one child is the right balance for us. We’re slowly moving back to having a life. For example, we can stay on a regular gym routine and travel,” she says.

Despite this contentment, “I get the sense that [people think] we’re choosing to have one child because we don’t love our son as much as people with multiple children, and it drives me nuts,” she says. “One woman came up to me at Trader Joe’s and, ‘Oh, how could you deprive him? You’ll change your mind.’”

Nicole DuFauchard, 38, head of the Advent School in Beacon Hill, has been married almost 13 years and has a 6-year old son. “We always thought two, because we assumed our kid should have siblings,” she says. “But the reality of having children feels different. As we got older, and our careers set into motion, having one felt good and manageable. We’re comfortable with who we are as a three- unit.”

Still, people ask her whether it’s time to get pregnant with a girl. “It’s such a personal issue, especially how much has come out about fertility. I’m shocked it’s a question,” she says.

Fertility is a subject even touchier than finances and lifestyle. As more women try to get pregnant later in life, many struggle. Some deal with expensive treatments that drain bank accounts, even in a state where many infertility treatments are covered by insurance. Having one child at all seems miraculous.

Kyle Donovan, 42, splits time between the South End and Marblehead, where her circle includes several families with three children. After difficulty conceiving during her first marriage, she and her second husband became pregnant with Matthew, now 2. Due to trouble conceiving the first time and a difficult pregnancy with their son, the couple has decided not to try again — but not without some lingering doubts.

“I’m fulfilled. His birth was a blessing. But I have a sort of emptiness in my heart for him. Would it be better for him to have a sibling?” she wonders. “But I don’t want to go through that again, because it could end up detracting from what so many people are blessed with: the natural occurrence of pregnancy. We got lucky with Matthew.”

More coverage:

• Map: The average cost for child care by state

When fertility comments leave a pregnant pause

Comparing house brands at local supermarkets

In Narragansett R.I., life is suited to relaxation

Devra First: Batali serving up a boon to Boston

Lobsters on the grill, then curried in a salad with naan

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.
Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week