THE “CAR LINE” OUTSIDE THE WELLESLEY NURSERY SCHOOL IN the Hills on this brilliant spring day is pretty much what you’d expect for one of the most well-regarded preschools in one of Boston’s most sought-after suburbs. Attractive, fit moms wearing designer jeans stand in front of a train of tricked-out SUVs, chitchatting about play dates, the sunshine, and converting their closet inventories to warm-weather clothing. * “Cute pants,” one mom says to Kristine DeMatteo, who is 41, has blond shoulder-length hair, and is wearing knit slacks rather than Lucky Brand denim. * Looking out over her sunglasses, DeMatteo replies, “I wanted to wear them one more time before putting them in the dry-cleaning bag and packing them away for the season.” * Many of the moms hold small white placards with large red numbers, which they flash when the preschool’s staffers lead the children outside. That way, the staffers know which child belongs to which car pool. It’s a pleasant, orderly, slightly Stepfordian scene. This pickup could have played out the same way in Wellesley 10 or 20 years ago, except for changes in fashion. And family size. * When DeMatteo buckles her 4-year-old daughter into her car seat, it is not in a Volvo station wagon or a Mercedes SUV but rather a gray Chevy Suburban. That once down-market beast of a machine, more West Texas than west-of-Boston suburb, is becoming a common sight in the driveways that curve through Wellesley’s rolling lawns. DeMatteo was drawn to the Suburban because it comfortably seats eight, with plenty of room left over for three or four hockey bags. She needs every inch of space. She and her husband have six kids, ranging in age from 13 to 2, each spaced roughly two years apart. * Her family would appear to be a throwback to a different time and a different place, when bands of brothers would make their way through working-class neighborhoods like Dorchester or Charlestown, and people would look up and say, “Oh, here come the Sullivan boys.” After three decades of declining birthrates, oversize families should be gone by now. For reasons of finance or ecology or lifestyle or just plain fatigue, smaller families represent a more prudent path for most people. That path would logically be favored by the many parents today who begin obsessing about their children’s college prospects while videotaping their first halting steps across their hardwood floor. After all, researchers have found that children from larger families generally don’t go as far academically as those from smaller ones.
But prudence can be overrated. National birth statistics show a small but steady uptick in the number of American women having three children in recent years, leading parents and pediatricians alike to talk about how “three is the new two.” In 2004, 28 percent of all American births were to mothers who already had at least two children, up from 26 percent in 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Specifically for women having their third child, the rate was nearly 10 percent higher in 2004 than it was in 1995. More surprising, in many affluent towns teeming with families managed by highly educated stay-at-home moms, three is far from the end point. Around Wellesley these days, four feels like the new three.
Just look at classroom No. 8 at the Wellesley Nursery School in the Hills. DeMatteo’s daughter is the only one who comes from a family of six kids. But Laurel is one of five. So is Mark. Then there are Ryan, Jack, Andrew, and Adam, who each come from a family with four kids. Shane will join their ranks when his new sister arrives in a few months. Right now, he’s in the three-kid camp with Lucy, Nicole, and Natalie. In fact, of the class’s 20 preschoolers, 12 come from families with three or more kids. And let’s not forget Owen. He is one of eight, and his father says a ninth is likely. Definitely don’t want to forget Owen.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom,” says DeMatteo, who put aside plans for a law career after having her first child. “You tend to have more kids because you’re here, this is what you do, you’re in that groove. So why not keep going?”
IN 1790, NOTES DEMOGRAPHICS SCHOLAR BEN WATTENBERG, the average American woman had 7.7 children - enough that Ben Franklin had reported seeing children swarming the countryside like locusts. Turns out, he had little to worry about. Apart from the post-World War II baby boom during the nation’s prosperity-fueled march to the suburbs, family size in American history has been a story of steady decline. Then again, with infant mortality rates dropping by more than one order of magnitude in the last century, there’s been far less of a need for large broods. Like the pandas and white pelicans of the present day, the parents of our agricultural, pre-vaccine past deliberately had more offspring than they expected to end up with.
Still, the baby boom was quite a detour. In Massachusetts, the nexus of religion and politics helped keep the boom years going. The Catholic Church’s prohibition on any birth control that didn’t involve counting and calendars got backing from Beacon Hill. In fact, it wasn’t until 1966 that the Legislature amended the state’s 19th century ban on contraceptive devices. Even then, the Massachusetts ban was lifted only for married couples; it remained in place for unmarried people until 1972, when the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.
By the early 1970s, everything was beginning to change. Inflation, recession, and the energy crisis put the squeeze on family finances. More women were pursuing higher education and entering the workforce. Liberalized views on birth control among Catholics (if not the Vatican) and even Roe v. Wade gave mothers more options. The environmental movement’s drumbeat to conserve global resources grew louder. And family sizes shrunk accordingly. In 1957, the national birthrate for third children hit its peak of 23.9 per 1,000 births. By 1975, it had sunk to its nadir of 9.4. Those numbers stayed relatively low through the mid-1980s, when record numbers of women became working moms. And since there has traditionally been such a robust connection between high female education and low fertility, Massachusetts, with its extremely educated workforce, has had particularly low birthrates. Even today, the state’s birthrate is below both the national average and what’s referred to as the “replacement rate” - the point at which the new babies coming into the world compensate for the old souls departing it. This latest blip of bigger families is still too new and too modest to threaten to reverse that in any meaningful way. (Or to compensate for the tens of thousands of people moving out of Massachusetts every year.)
Yet something interesting began happening in the mid-1990s, across the nation and particularly around here. More older women - educated and established in their careers - began having children. In 1996, for the first time in Massachusetts history, more babies were born to moms over the age of 30 than to those under 30. The spread has only widened in the years since. In 2004, some 44,000 babies in this state were born to moms age 30 and older, while 34,000 were born to those under 30. Since biology is basically indifferent to societal trends, a lot more of those older moms have needed help getting pregnant. In the age of fertility treatments, a lot more twins and triplets are being born - almost 50 percent more just in the last 10 years. These multiple births have contributed to the uptick in families with three or more kids. So has the growth of the Hispanic population, where family sizes are typically higher. And then there are the affluent families in places like Wellesley who can afford to supersize, if that’s what feels right.
DR. JIM GOLDSTON SITS AT THE NURSE’S STATION ON THE FIFTH-floor maternity ward of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, returning calls, his pager in one hand and a telephone receiver resting on his shoulder. Behind him in room 507, 31-year-old Suzanne Wakefield of Newton has just delivered her third child (and second son). In the room next to her, 34-year-old Kim Daly of Westwood is cradling her fourth girl.
Goldston, a friendly, round-faced 45-year-old pediatrician, says these family sizes were aberrations when he began practicing in 1990. In the last couple of years, they have become more typical, particularly in family-focused towns like Needham, Holliston, and Wellesley. Standing beside him, nurse manager Mary Ellen Olsson nods in agreement. She’s even seen it in her own family, as two of her daughters now have three children, and another is expecting her third. But you’ll have to forgive Olsson for not getting too excited. She herself had nine kids, the first seven popping out in nine years.
A day after delivering her fourth, Kim Daly says she and her husband, Jack, are such believers in the positive dynamics of big families that they will probably keep going. They know most people assume they’re just holding out for a boy, but they insist that’s not really the case. “If God wants us to have all girls, we’ll have them,” Jack says, adding with a laugh, “but I think the next one will be a boy.” In fact, Census figures show that couples whose first two children are the same sex are about 20 percent more likely to go for a third than those who have one of each.
Goldston has his own theories about why so many families are getting bigger. A decade or two ago, couples watching college costs escalate figured they had no choice but to limit family size. However, as costs continued to rise to absurd levels, he says many decided, “It’s so expensive having two kids, how much worse can it be with three?”
On the flip side are the wealthy parents in his practice “who can afford to do whatever they want.” Some of these couples find that of all the luxuries their bank balances allow them, they get no greater satisfaction than from their kids, so they decide to have more. There’s something rather reassuring about that. Other motivations are less reassuring. “For some people in Wellesley,” says Goldston, “having four kids has become the new status symbol, like having a luxury SUV. It says you can afford it; you can have a nanny to help you out.”
Traditionally, the third child has been a major barrier to both parents working full time, considering that the combined day-care costs can eat up an entire salary. So three kids are more common in families in which one parent - usually the mother - is at home full time or has flexible part-time work. For all the talk in recent years of women “opting out” of careers to stay at home, half of all mothers still return to the workforce before their child’s first birthday, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University and board member of the Council on Contemporary Families. Not that there aren’t lots of stay-at-home moms. It’s just that they’re mostly clustered at the top and bottom of the income scale. The poorer moms’ job opportunities are so bleak that many don’t feel they are giving up much to stay home. Many of the more affluent moms started out with the expectation that they could have it all, managing a successful career with one or two kids. But after experiencing the all-too-common work-family bind, they can walk away from the job without bringing financial pain to their families. In fact, Gerson says, “wealthy mothers are left without one of the major cultural rationales for choosing to work: that they need to.”
Once these high-achieving women make the decision to stay home, the next one - to have more kids - is easier. After all, managing a bigger family can be a lot like managing an enterprise, with schedules and budgets and direct reports (of the offspring and household-help varieties).
Judy Heffernan left a good job in sales for the Four Seasons Hotel when she started having kids. She grew up in a family of six children, and she now has four of her own, ranging in age from 2 to 9. She wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, at 44, she says she would have had more kids had she not started so late. “It’s like having a team.”
Because affluent families can afford to hire nannies or au pairs (and don’t have to fret about the prospect of another college tuition), the decision to go for the next child doesn’t have to be as intimidating. “Every person I know who has four kids has full-time help,” says Susan Morris, a 40-year-old former investment banker and current Wellesley mother of three. “People in this town like to have a lot of kids, but they don’t necessarily like to raise them by themselves.” Morris’s husband would like to have a fourth, and seeing so many bigger families around her, she’s felt some pressure to try to keep up. “If all your friends are having four, does that make you more likely to do it? Absolutely.” But after having three kids in three years, she feels she is just starting to get her life back under control.
If she thinks she’s feeling the heat, she should talk to Anna Lomes. The 33-year-old moved to Wellesley from Los Angeles three years ago. “Around here, we’re the weird people on the street that just have one,” she says. She once overheard a couple of 6-year-old girls from the neighborhood telling her 4-year-old son that they felt bad for him because he’s an only child. Anna says she has long felt that one child was the right call for her and her husband, Scott, yet the relentless questions about “when are you going for number two?” have begun to wear her down.
“But my husband keeps me honest,” she says, before adding: “Even he’s cracking a little, though.”
Scott sighs. “We talk about it on a daily basis.”
I WAS THE FOURTH OF FIVE KIDS BORN IN ABOUT SIX YEARS. THAT piece of my personal history often gets a rise out of nice, sensible people. But when I was growing up in Somerset, a small Massachusetts town bordering the faded factory city of Fall River, there was nothing outlandish about my mother’s pattern of rapid-fire delivery, and certainly not her overall output. Of the nine families in our neighborhood, one had two kids, two had three kids, two had four kids, and four had five kids. All these families were Catholic, so the church’s prohibition on birth control probably played a role. Still, I would not underestimate the influence of the neighborhood’s large-family profile. As is the case in Wellesley today, if big families are all around you, you’re more likely to consider going that way.
I still marvel at my parents’ ability to raise a big, close-knit family with aplomb. But they would be the first to admit that it was easier to swing back in the 1960s and ‘70s, when parents had more control over what their kids were exposed to and fewer demands to ferry them individually from one scheduled activity to another. When my two brothers, two sisters, and I weren’t in school, we were out “playing,” an all-encompassing category in those blissful pre-play-date days that consisted of packs of kids roaming the neighborhood for most of the day until the dinner bells started ringing or, in the case of our less inhibited neighbors, the fathers started bellowing for their kids to get their butts home. As a family, we didn’t travel far, but when we did, it was pretty easy to get going. There were no five-point harness car seats to contend with. All seven of my family members could quickly pile into our 1964 Ford Falcon sedan that was built for five. My assigned seat? Lying along the back window ledge, next to the tissue box.
Sure, we sometimes drove one another nuts. But the positives vastly outweighed the negatives, and we all remain close.
Psychologists report that couples often try to approximate the family size they grew up with - if they had a positive experience, that is. If not, they tend to go in the opposite direction. Of course, husbands and wives bring their own family backgrounds to the decision. My wife was one of two kids. When it came to deciding on the size of our family, we split the difference at three, which, I have to confess, feels like the five-kid scene I grew up in, adjusted for inflation.
People always ask us which was the tougher transition: going from one to two, or two to three? The answer is clearest when one of us is working solo to get all three of our daughters bathed and in bed. Take this recent night: Our 6-year-old insisted on a “stand-up tubby,” only to complain how cold she was, and our 3-year-old resisted getting into the bath at all, hiding under every bed in the house until I could corral her. Then our 1-year-old stood at the edge of the tub, making my heart stop as she tried to dive in whenever I so much as turned my head. (My wife is much better at this dance, since she’s at home with our kids while running a part-time business.)
We probably could have been just as happy - and less sleepy - if we’d stopped after one or two children. And by now there’s ample research to rebut all those old myths about only children being misfits. But we just love the vibe you get in a house with lots of kids. As crazy as the switch from man-to-man to zone defense can be, there’s not much we find as satisfying as catching a glimpse of all three girls sharing with one another, unprompted by us. Or seeing the entirely different routes they each take to make us laugh. We like the idea of our daughters learning, early on, how to work things out with one another, and being able, later on, to lean on one another. With more kids, the lessons usually start sooner. Staffers at the Wellesley Nursery School in the Hills say the most consistently polite kids to have gone through the school are the eight in Owen’s family.
The thing about family size is it’s all relative. My wife and I often hear, “Wow, you’re brave!” from strangers who see us juggling life with three young children. But how can what we do possibly constitute juggling when there are people out there like Owen’s parents, David and Kerry Morton, who have five girls and three boys between the ages of 12 years and 16 months? David, a 44-year-old equities trader, says he often talks to clients on Monday mornings who are exhausted from a weekend spent carting around their two kids from soccer to ballet to swimming. “We just consolidate things more,” he says. They have several baby sitters they rely on but no full-time help. David grew up one of six. His wife, a trim 39-year-old stay-at-home mom, lost her only brother to illness when he was a child and her only sister to illness when she was an adult. “The psychology of regeneration has landed us with eight kids,” he says. “The other part is we’ve just enjoyed having kids.” Every night at dinner, he doles out beverages while his wife dishes out the food. Then they go into the next room and catch up while the kids manage their own dinner-table dynamic. He and his wife try to supply each child with one-on-one time, even if that’s just giving one of them a ride somewhere. “Nobody gets lost in the shuffle,” he says, “but they do have to wait their turn.”
SO WHAT DO THESE LARGER FAMILY SIZES MEAN FOR THE KIDS? The parents? The planet? There’s no shortage of researchers working to answer these questions.
More families of three mean more middle children. And they are at higher risk for being shortchanged, says Frank Sulloway, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of a best-selling book on birth order called Born to Rebel. His research suggests that the risk to middle children is actually exacerbated by the parental desire to be scrupulous in dividing their attention equally among their children. That’s because, unlike the oldest or the youngest, the middle child will never have a chance to be the only kid in the family home. The best way to compensate for this is for parents to get over their compunction to cut up the parental-attention pie evenly and instead give their middle children a slightly larger piece. In an e-mail from the Galapagos Islands, where he is doing field research, Sulloway wrote me: “If parents invest less in middle children, and there are more of them, that means more inequity.”
In terms of academics, people complete an average of one-fifth of a grade less in education for every sibling they have. That could be partly attributed to a concept known as “dilution of parental resources,” which holds that as parents have more children, their per-child dollop of attention and money is reduced. But in his fascinating research, Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University, has found that the sex composition of the siblings can play a pivotal role in education. In a family with, say, four kids, if three are girls and one is a boy, the boy doesn’t do as well academically. If you reverse that, with a girl and three boys, the girl doesn’t do as well. He speculates that parents set the standards for achievement based on the gender they have the most experience with and may make more allowances for the gender minority.
What is the ideal spacing between children, to minimize rivalry and resource deprivation? Conley, author of The Pecking Order, says generally the wider the spacing, the better. But he admits his recommendations are based solely on measurable outcomes like education and not emotional considerations like happiness. Stephen Bank, a Connecticut psychologist and coauthor of The Sibling Bond, says that while having children close together will tend to produce more rivalry, more fighting, and less parental availability, it also allows for more peership, bonding, and laughter. Those ingredients can be helpful for keeping the sibling connections strong as the children get older. Across the average life, he says, “you will know your sibling longer than your children, longer than your parents, and longer than your spouse.”
Then again, if the strains of raising a bigger brood contribute to the dissolution of the marriage, chances are that a lot of those experiences shared by siblings will be painful ones. The UC-Berkeley husband-and-wife researcher team of Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan has been tracking the marital satisfaction of 100 northern California couples for about 20 years. Troublingly, the Cowans have found that satisfaction goes down steadily for most couples over the years, but the decline is faster and steeper for those with children. (However, those without children, if they divorce, divorce earlier.) Yet, about 20 percent showed no downward slope in satisfaction, helped by being in synch about their parenting decisions and feeling competent as parents. The Cowans’ research should lay to rest any hope that introducing another baby into an already strained marriage will bring the couple closer together. It’s the equivalent of pouring a gallon of lemon juice on an open wound.
Finally, there are ecological and economic considerations. Even if parents stay satisfied after having more kids, does the planet get a vote in the matter? In his 1998 book Maybe One, Vermont environmentalist Bill McKibben made an impassioned plea for American couples to stop after having one child. He presented all the damning evidence about the United States’ lopsided resource consumption - for example, how the average American uses 70 times the energy of the average Bangladeshi - and its outsize role in accelerating the ravaging of the planet. The most effective path to meaningful change, he argued, would be to bring fewer incorrigible resource gluttons (i.e. Americans) into the world. In a refreshing money-where-your-mouth-is moment, McKibben’s offspring-producing days end where his book does, with him in the doctor’s office getting that tube in his scrotum snipped after having had his one child.
When I asked McKibben what he makes of the rise in family size, particularly among affluent families, he replied, “In a sense, there’s something good happening here: That people have, after a period of fixation on career, rediscovered the wonderfulness of families. But as with so many things, we confuse ‘more’ and ‘better.’“
Of course, given the requirements of keeping the American economy humming, a big drop in birthrates, as Western Europe has seen, would no doubt introduce new problems. We would see a greater strain on keeping the Social Security system afloat and probably a greater flow of immigrants across our borders, creating new American resource gluttons addicted to their air conditioners and automobiles.
IT’S 11:30 A.M., AND MOTHER-OF-SIX Kristine DeMatteo is easing her Suburban out of the Wellesley preschool parking lot. “What do you want to hear?” she asks her 4-year-old daughter wearing pink corduroys and a floppy pink bow in her hair. “Annie!” As DeMatteo slides the soundtrack into the CD player, she reminds her daughter that at the next stop, the fierce lobbying will begin for a soundtrack change to The Lord of the Rings.
DeMatteo had spent the morning running errands - today she chose Star Market, because it has cases of the Propel sports waters that her sons like - while her baby sitter brought her 2-year-old son to the park. She was now en route to the Dexter School, the private boys school in Brookline where her oldest four go, the youngest in kindergarten. She would be picking up him and two of his classmates (her older boys stay at school all day), dropping them off at a play date, dropping her daughter off at home with the baby sitter, and then trying to line up a playmate for her while DeMatteo went to a doctor’s appointment.
In the early 1990s, DeMatteo could never have predicted this would be her life or how much fulfillment she would get from it. She grew up with just one sibling, and her husband, John, whom she met when they were both students at Duke University, came from a family with three kids. She envisioned having no more than one or two children of her own. While she was in law school, she became pregnant with twin girls. Midway through her pregnancy, she miscarried. “It was devastating,” DeMatteo says. “It was then that I realized everything that made me happy didn’t make me happy anymore.” Travel, restaurants, flipping through fashion magazines, or spending lazy Sunday afternoons poring over the entire newspaper - it all seemed trivial. “I just wanted a baby.”
After her first son was born, she had another miscarriage. Every pregnancy after that seemed like a gift, so she just didn’t stop. The heartache changed her priorities, she says, “and made me a better mother.” She found that she had no desire to return to law school or the fashion-magazine industry where she had once worked. She and her husband, who is in real estate, knew they were fortunate enough to be able to afford a big family on one salary. Now, even with five sons and a daughter, she is trying to get pregnant again.
Back in the Suburban, where she often spends up to half her day, she fumbles to put in her earpiece as her cellphone rings. It’s John. With their cellphones and e-mail, they remain in contact all day long. Her daughter is singing along to “Tomorrow” as DeMatteo pulls up to the entrance of the Dexter School. Three young boys, each wearing maroon baseball caps emblazoned with the letter “D,” are led to the idling Suburban. The boys jump in, climbing over the second row of bench-style seating, and begin pressing for the CD change. “Wait, wait!” DeMatteo says, holding out a bottle of Purell sanitizer. She insists on clean hands for anyone who passes through her car, knowing that the same cold or flu that might be an inconvenience in a small family can shut down her complicated operation like an assembly-line kill switch. The only time she’s ever questioned having six kids was when a 24-hour stomach bug once sailed through her whole family. “There were no towels left in the house,” she says. “It felt like the lowest rung of hell.”
You’ll be tired after just reading this log from one recent Saturday in the lives of Kerry and David Morton of Wellesley and their eight children.
6:30 A.M. Mom and Dad get up
7 Mom leaves for gym
8 Mom returns, Dad leaves for golf
8 TO 9 Kids get up, eat breakfast
9:15 Erin picked up by soccer coach
11 Mom drops Connor and Patrick at baseball
11:30 Mom drops Caitlin at soccer
NOON Mom feeds Casey, Owen, Devon, and Rory
12:30 P.M. Erin returns from soccer
1:30 Mom picks up Connor and Patrick (same time, different fields - and has Connor wait with an adult for five minutes)
1:45 Mom drops off Owen at soccer in Needham (15 minutes late)
1:45 A friend brings Caitlin home from soccer (is home alone for 10 minutes while Mom is en route from other pickups)
2 Dad returns from golf to take Casey to soccer in Needham and then pick up Owen
2:45 Mom takes Connor to soccer
3 Mom drops Erin at softball
3:45 Dad brings Casey home and goes to watch Erin’s softball game
4 Mom picks up Connor and drops him and Patrick at friend’s house
5 Mom makes dinner for the kids who are home
5:30 Mom brings Caitlin to soccer tryout
5:45 Dad and Erin return from softball, eat dinner
7:30 Mom picks up Caitlin
7:45 Casey, Owen, Devon, and Rory all go into an oversize bathtub together
8:15 Bottle and bed for Rory
8:45-9:15 Smaller children put to bed
10 Remaining kids go to bed; Mom and Dad catch up; Mom organizes clothing, schedule for next day
11 Mom and Dad briefly fall asleep in front of TV before crawling up to bed
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org