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How many children should I have?

How many children should I have?

Kindara | December 26, 2020 | trying to conceive
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Deciding on expanding your family is a curious process. You won’t really know what having another child feels like until you actually do it, but once you do, there’s no turning back. Parenthood doesn’t really offer test drives. According to Gallup polls, about half of American adults consider 2 to be the “ideal” number of children. A quarter think that 3 is the perfect number, and 15% prefer 4 or more (1). The bottom line? There’s no one right answer when it comes to choosing how many children to have. In the hopes of making this decision easier, we’ve broken down the dynamics and adventures you can expect at every family size.

What does the research say?

Family planning is complicated, and researching the effects of family size isn’t exactly easy. The variables that determine your quality of life are too many to count, making it nearly impossible to directly compare different people’s experiences. However, that doesn’t mean that researchers haven’t tried. The following studies take a look at the relationship between family size and parents’ happiness.

A 2006 study from the University of Pennsylvania surveyed a large sample of identical twins (comparing identical twins helps cut down on the variables). The study’s authors found that having a child increases a person’s happiness, but having a second child doesn’t have the same effect. In fact, for women, having additional children decreased their happiness — though they were still happier overall than women who didn’t have children — while male happiness stayed the same from 1 to 2 children (2, 3).

A different study, this one from 2014, looked at data sets from Britain and Germany and found that a couple’s happiness increases with their first 2 children, but having more children after that point doesn’t equal additional happiness. They also found that people who had children later in life also tended to be happier (4). 

It’s important to remember that these study conclusions are overall trends found in large groups of people. Ideal family size is deeply personal, and it depends on many things, such as your childhood experiences, financial situation, career goals, culture and location, and plain ol’ personal preferences. 

Pros and cons of having an only child 

There aren’t many who’d argue with the idea that having 1 child is easier than having more. Schedules are less complicated, vacations are a little simpler (you can almost always sit 3 across on an airplane, for example), and you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a 2 to 1 parent-to-child ratio. 

Plus, parents of a single child are more likely to get some adult-only time now and then. When they’re busy at school or with friends, the house becomes a kid-free zone for a little bit. But, without siblings in the house, the child may end up participating in more events with their parents and spending less time just being a kid (5).

Of course, having 1 child is going to be less expensive than having more. But focusing all of your time, energy, and resources on an only child can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s great for parent-child bonding and staying in tune with your kid’s emotional needs. On the other, all that focused attention can end up putting a lot of pressure on a child (5).

One of the biggest concerns about having an only child is whether they will miss out by not having a sibling. The relationship between siblings is one of the strongest bonds there is, and it comes with bonus practice in conflict resolution and interpersonal skills that can help children socialize later in life (5).

In fact, it’s possible that being an only child may actually affect brain development. One study found that only children were less agreeable than children with siblings, which could be a sign of decreased empathy, sociability, and connection to others. On a more positive note, the study found that only children tend to be more flexible, which is a measure of creativity. And on most other psychological factors (think: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness), there was no difference between the 2 groups (6, 7).

Deciding to have a second child

Adding another member to your family comes with a huge financial and time commitment, but giving your child a sibling may help them out in the long run. As we mentioned before, having siblings can help develop a child’s social skills by giving them experience navigating the ups and downs of close relationships as they grow up (5, 8). 

The benefits of having siblings carry through well into adulthood too. There’s evidence that good relationships between adult siblings can lead to better overall health (9). Plus, having siblings may even make your child less likely to get a divorce when they’re older, thanks to the experience they get fighting and making up with their siblings countless times when they’re young (10).

However, splitting your time and income between more than one child can be difficult, and some parents worry about having enough energy and resources to give to each individual child. Fortunately, having a second child doesn’t mean you’re halving the care and attention you give to your first child (11). For example, you can read a bedtime story to 2 children at the same time, most recipes are made to serve 4 people anyway, and hand-me-downs are a beautiful way to cut down on the added costs of a second child. Your capacity to love will grow to accommodate your family, whatever size.

Deciding to have 3 or more children: Pros + cons of having 3 or more

There’s no getting around it. Having 3 or more kids means that things will get a little bit crazy from time to time in your large (but loving) household. There will always be something going on, which could get overwhelming if you’re not from a big family. According to a TODAY Parents survey of over 7,000 U.S. mothers in 2013, the most stressful number of children for mothers is 3 — even more stressful than 4 or more (12)! 

With 3 or more kids, the children will officially outnumber the adults in your household. You’ll have to deal with older, middle, and youngest sibling dynamics, and you’ll worry about whether you’re giving each child the same experiences and opportunities as they age. Taking a vacation (and getting around in general) is also trickier — road trips in a five-seater sedan aren’t ideal, or even possible, and most hotel rooms are made for 4 people, not 5. However, those added complications may seem like a small price to pay if you’re someone who dreams of the bustle and chaos of a full house.

How can having more children impact the mother’s career? 

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the disparity between how men and women feel the burden of caring for children. As schools and daycares across the country closed, families were forced to find alternative childcare for their kids. For many mothers, this meant making career sacrifices, such as cutting down on work or leaving entirely — a decision with consequences that may last far beyond the end of the pandemic (13).

When you’re thinking about having a child, you should consider how it may impact your career, as well as how big of a deal this potential impact is to you. Even when times were more “normal,” research found that, on average, women with children tended to make less money than women without children (14).

But, that wage gap isn’t necessarily permanent. By the time they reach their 40s and 50s, mothers with 1 or 2 children typically make the same amount as their counterparts without kids. On the other hand, mothers of 3 or more children are more likely to experience a slight wage gap throughout their entire careers (14).

How will having more children affect the environment?

A 2017 study made big waves in the environmental community by suggesting that the biggest single action an individual can take to decrease carbon emissions is to have 1 less child than planned. The study’s authors calculated that choosing not to have an additional child could cut emissions by 58.6 tons per year. To put this into perspective, consider that going completely car-free would only reduce emissions by 2.4 tons each year (15).

However, not everyone’s on board with the results of that study. Other researchers have pointed out that the estimations don’t account for future policy changes that could restrict emissions. They argue that, after taking potential policy changes into consideration, choosing to have fewer children will have about the same impact on the environment as choosing not to have a car (16).

Can having more siblings affect a child’s education?

Having more kids means that your time, energy, attention, and money will be pulled in more directions. This is how researchers explain why children with many siblings tend to have less education than children with fewer or no siblings. For example, someone with 3 or more siblings is likely to have 1 year less education than someone with no siblings (17). Fortunately, there’s evidence that having a strong support system can help close the education gap experienced by children from bigger families (18).

Making the decision: the bottom line

Ultimately, you and your partner are the ones who decide how many kids are right for your family. Do you have the time and energy for another child? What does your support system look like? How stable is your financial situation? Do you have family in the area who are willing and able to help out when you need it? A lot of times, these questions can be a good indicator of what size family is right for you, but they’re not the only deciding factors (19, 20). 

The relationship between family size and overall wellbeing is pretty complicated. No matter what size your family is, things like financial problems, lack of sleep, and issues with your partner are going to be stressful. Likewise, having purpose in life through your family and having meaningful social roles may make you happier too. The trick is to figure out what number of kids strikes the right balance in your family (21).

One thing’s for sure: you’re going to love your family, no matter how big or small it is. Whether you have 1 kid or 5, things will get crazy, stressful, and messy at times, but the love-filled memories that you create together will be worth everything.

About the author

Catherine Poslusny is a writer and content marketing strategist based out of Norman, Oklahoma. She's written for healthcare companies since 2016, and she's most passionate about her work in women’s health, fertility, and reproductive rights. You can find her at catherinerosewrites.com.

References +
How Not to Waste Another Month When Trying to Conceive
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