How many kids to have? Couples find one size doesn't fit all

MIAMI — Joan Robinson didn't want any children growing up, but now she has six. Kacie Rodriguez, an only child, planned on a big family until her son taught her how much work and money a baby requires.

Jaclyn Castell, mother of two boys, wants to try for a girl. And Rosa Fernandez, with one of each, feels her two children plus a stepdaughter comprise the complete family.

In this era of blended households, single parents, same-sex couples and the infamous Octomom, is there an optimal family size?

No, say experts. The ideal is in the eye of the beholder.

"There is no perfect family size," says New Jersey family therapist Alan Singer, whose book "Creating Your Perfect Family Size: How to Make an Informed Decision About Having a Baby," was released this summer. "The questions parents should be asking is, 'Is now the best time?' Don't have a child for external pressures but for internal reasons."

Deciding when and how many kids to have is no easy task for parents trying to establish careers who must juggle work demands with a ticking biological clock. A stagnant economy with high unemployment and lagging wages does them no favors, either.

Kacie Rodriguez, 27, and her husband, Michael, 29, of Cutler Ridge, Fla., talked about having at least three kids, probably four, when they were dating. Kacie liked the idea of a large family because her mother, one of six siblings, always had somebody to lean on. Michael had two brothers he palled around with. But 2-year-old Dominick has been a reality check.

"It's a lot of money in diapers, formula and day care," says Kacie Rodriguez, a legal assistant. "It comes down to an economic decision." She now says they may settle for two children.

Growing up as one of four children, Rosa Fernandez, 40, of Kendall, Fla., wanted a large family. When she met her husband, Joe, also one of four, he had a daughter from a previous marriage whom Rosa welcomed as her own. They had two children together and now, with a blended family of three kids, "it's enough," she says. "If we were planning on another child, we would really have to ask, 'Can I afford day care?' "

But having children is about more than just money, adds Fernandez, who works part-time in a law office. "Children take up a lot of time, and the more you have, the less time you have with each one."

The fact that couples are questioning how many kids to have — or whether to have them at all — is a sign of the times. Men and women are marrying later, often postponing children to launch careers. And when they do start a family, they generally opt for fewer kids than previous generations.

Large families are increasingly rare, and only children have become the fastest growing family unit in America, according to U.S. Census figures. The number of women who have had only one child by the age of 44 has almost doubled in 35 years, comprising 18.5 percent of all women who have children.

Only 0.8 percent of mothers in that age group have had seven or more children, compared with 6.2 percent in 1976.

Women who have had two children is the only other category that's inched up since 1976, from 21.7 percent to 33.3 percent. The two-child family has remained the most popular size in Gallup polls since the 1970s, when it supplanted three or more children as Americans' top choice.

"Five decades ago, we couldn't have had this discussion," family therapist Singer says. "The creation of safe and easy-to-use birth control changed everything."

Along with the introduction of oral contraceptives, personal factors and societal pressures have influenced prospective parents' decision-making process.

"The pill gave women more choices, but that wasn't the major influence," says Susan Newman, a New Jersey social psychologist and author of several books on family and parenting.

"In the end, it's been about women staying in school longer and getting married later and having babies later. It's also about how many children you can afford to take care of in the way you want."

The cost of raising a child born in 2009 is pegged at $286,050 for middle-income, two-parent families, according to the Department of Agriculture. That estimate, however, only covers expenses up to age 18, omitting the cost of post-secondary schooling.

Experts say parental expectations have been rising steadily, and with them the expense of child-rearing. And because family resources for violin lessons or private tutoring are limited, fewer kids may make more economic sense.

"A generation ago you had whatever the school provided and that was fine," Newman says. "Now many parents feel they have to give their children more. Everyone wants to give their child an advantage."

Singer, the family therapist, says that too often couples have a child for the wrong reasons — pressure from grandparents, to improve a faltering relationship or because friends have started families.

"This isn't a one-size-fits-all decision," he says. "My advice is always that a child doesn't need another sibling as much as he or she needs parents to have a strong relationship."