Why We’re Having a Big Family, Even as US Birth Rates Hit an All-Time Low
It's not for everyone, but having four kids is a dream come true for me
Well this is a deja-vu moment. I just read a surprising statistic about the U.S. that has been true in Italy, where we lived for the last few years, for quite some time. “U.S. birth rates have been on a steady decline since 2007, but our procreation has reached a historic low: Birth rates are the lowest they’ve been since the government began tracking the data in 1909.”
I didn’t realize this was happening, possibly because I haven’t actually lived here for four years–the same years when I started being a parent myself–but I think the fact that we have a big family has more to do with it. As my husband says, you see the world from where you sit. (And if you think that’s an annoying saying, maybe we should have coffee together some time. Nevertheless, it applies…)
We have three small children with another on the way, and that makes ours one of the biggest families of anyone I know. The first three were born in Rome and my husband and I used to joke that we were personally helping boost the Italian birth rate, which is low for reasons that people are now considering true for the U.S. as well. These range from a prolonged poor economy to one of the first times in history when it’s acceptable for women to opt out of having children.
I have another thought about life at home though. The U.S. is so powerfully driven by capitalism, consumerism and the freedom to do what we want to, that kids can be a liability. When you have more than one baby it’s hard to fly and even trickier to pay for the plane tickets, so any ideas about fancy vacations fade away. Sporty cars? Not if they can’t hold car seats. Even childcare becomes ridiculously expensive, and if you can swing it, the logistics of dropping multiple kids off, picking them up, packing snacks, diapers, bottles and the myriad organizational components involved practically require a weekly spreadsheet. It’s exhausting when you think of it this way.
But what if you shift the lens? For me, having between three and four kids is a dream come true. I grew up with one brother who is five years younger than me. We never got along for all sorts of reasons, but at least one of them was the gap in age, in interests. I love having a big family with everyone about a year and a half apart because I never have to schedule play dates and there’s still always someone to play dress up with, join a tea party or sing, “Ring Around the Rosie”–and that person doesn’t always have to be me. Surprisingly, it’s even easier to get a pack of kids to eat dinner together than it was to cajole one toddler into trying her peas. It’s also hectic, but you knew that.
Now let’s talk turkey because people will probably read this and say something involving the words “rich” and “luxury,” neither of which apply to my family, but I understand. We are indeed older parents who worked for many years, saved and made changes to our lives when we had kids. I only work part-time now, earning a fraction of what I once did as an executive in Manhattan. We shop for clothes or toys on sale, always, and more often than not, I’m buying one thing that will last through three girls and sometimes our son too. Ours is admittedly a good setup though, from the playhouse in our ample backyard to a car big enough for everyone and bunk beds where we need them. We’re blessed and I can’t deny that.
But this is all small potatoes. The biggest issue at stake, in my opinion, is about the life we want to live. It’s more important to me to be surrounded by love, by interesting personalities, by people who with any luck will contribute to the world in at least one special way, than it is to spring for things like a cable TV package at $149 a month. A lot of little–and big–things have gone by the wayside as our brood expands. Neither of us have the car we always wanted and thought we “deserved” by this age. We left New York City for Rome, and now a small town outside of Durham, North Carolina, because it offers the right blend of career opportunity, cost of living and family-friendly lifestyle. No more 80-hour workweeks. No more custom-made suits.
Admittedly I’m a Type A person who really goes for it, so when it came to having kids, I jumped right in. Stephen Covey, who wrote one of the bestselling self-help books of all time, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“ had nine kids. Nine. It takes moxie to think that your brood is going to leave the world a better place, rather than drain it of resources, but here we are. Me, and Stephen Covey.
Speaking of resources, some people might consider a lower birth rate a blessing to the country’s economics, and while I’m no expert I’d argue that it’s actually not. You need more people to be paying into plans like Medicare and Social Security than are drawing from it. Otherwise you get into trouble. You need a robust working class, young people with big dreams and middle-aged people hitting their career prime too. It’s not about having your own kids take care of you in your old age, as my parents used to only half-joke through my entire childhood. This is all on a bigger scale.
And speaking of big, the loftiest thing I’ll ever do is set my sights on raising these kids to be amazing. Yes, amazing. I can’t promise they will be, but that’s the dream. That’s the goal. That’s what my husband and I are working overtime toward. The kids aren’t just our priority right now, they are our life right now. We do other things sometimes, but this is our season for mentoring these little lives. Eventually they’ll be grown and gone and we’ll move on to the kinds of things we did when we were dating–going on fancy trips, buying nice clothes, eating at candlelit restaurants–or maybe not. I never understand the idea of parents who lament, “I just want my life back,” because this IS my life. And while it’s tiring, sometimes lonely and definitely messy, I feel like this is the luckiest time in my life.
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