Three Kids? You Showoffs.

By Pamela Paul
Sunday, April 6, 2008

My husband and I are getting ready to do what many couples in these brink-of-recessionary times would consider unthinkable. No, we're not buying a Martha's Vineyard retreat or planning a month in St. Bart's or eco-decorating our house.

We're planning to have a third child.

What shocks people, when we tell them, isn't the thought of hauling three kids onto a place for a vacation, or even the idea of coming home every night to a houseful of runny noses and homework assignments. What gets them is the sheer financial audacity. Raising kids today costs a fortune. Last month, the Department of Agriculture estimated that each American child costs an average of $204,060 to house, clothe, educate and entertain until the age of 18.

But to me, a family with just two kids seems minimalist, and even a bit sad. Back in the 1970s, when my husband and I were born, sprawling families were more common. My husband had two sisters and, following a Brady-Bunchy set of remarriages in my family, I wound up with seven brothers, real and step. I've always fantasized about creating a "Meet Me in St. Louis"-style household of my own, with children constantly underfoot and enough relatives around to skip to my lou en masse.

And yet nowadays, people seem aghast if a couple wants more than two children. When Elana Sigall, a 43-year-old attorney in Brooklyn, was pregnant with her third, people came up to her constantly, she said, to admonish her: "You've got a boy and a girl already. Why don't you just leave it alone?"

What's worse, the desire to have another child opens one up to charges of elitism and status consciousness. In many major U.S. cities and their suburbs -- especially New York, where I live -- having three or more children has now come to seem like an ostentatious display of good fortune, akin to owning a pied-à-terre in Paris. The family of five has become "deluxe." Last year, novelist Molly Jong-Fast mused in the New York Observer, "Are people having four or five children just because they can? Because they feel that it shows their wealth and status? In a world where the young rich use their $13,000 Birkin bags as diaper bags, one has to wonder."

We not only wonder, we marvel, we get jealous, we gawk. "Having three kids in the city is a way of showing off, absolutely," says Elisabeth Egan, who, like many families she knows, moved out of New York to the suburbs of Montclair, N.J., to manage the feat. "A third child in the city is definitely a luxury good."

It's true that, following in the designer maternity clothes of such fecund celebrities as Posh Spice (three kids) and Angelina Jolie (speculatively six), most of the people going for a third baby are well-heeled moms and their high-salaried husbands. A February analysis of Current Population Survey data by the Council on Contemporary Families found that in the past 10 years, the top-earning 1.3 percent of the population has seen an uptick in families with three or more children. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 12 percent of upper-income women had three children or more in 2002, compared with only 3 percent in 1995.

There's no question that it takes a lot more money to bring up baby nowadays. Many parents would scoff at the Agriculture Department's humble figures. When you get into the nitty-gritty, the price of kids feels more like a million dollars a pop.

Consider raising a single "luxury" child. By luxury, mind you, we're not necessarily talking hedge-fund rich, merely able to afford and "raise right." And the pressure to do that, even if you're not uber-wealthy, has become overwhelming. From the moment the heartbeat blinks across the sonogram screen, Big Baby starts in with its pleading and conniving: I'm your child! How can you spare any expense? Don't you care?

For a couple's every conceivable wish or worry, the parenting industry knows the precise formula of guilt, fear, hope, love and desire that will empty the parental wallet. Rather than fret about spending too much money, most parents these days are consumed by the anxiety of underspending -- the fear that somewhere, some other parent is offering her baby an educational toy or child-development class that will propel the toddler ahead, and that if you skimp, your child risks losing out and falling behind.

So parents quickly adjust to the demanding realities of the child-rearing industry. Baby showers have replaced bridal showers as the blowout du jour; American women today have an average of three. The accompanying baby registries have mushroomed into a $240 million business, according to research firm Mintel International Group. Between diapers and bouncy seats, parents can count on spending at least $6,500 on the first year of baby gear alone. "You walk into Babies R Us, and you're just overwhelmed," recalls Brooke Houghton, a 35-year-old mom from Chicago who said she ran out of the store in panic after 15 minutes. "There was just so much equipment I hadn't even considered."

Once a new mom's maternity leave (if she's lucky enough to get it) is up, a nanny or quality day care is in order. In upscale urban areas and tony suburban enclaves, where luxury families are flourishing, that can translate to $800 a week for child care alone. So-called high-end nannies -- those who hail from licensed agencies and come equipped with working papers and even driver's licenses -- can cost more than $50,000 a year on the books. And to think, some deluxe families hire two. After all, how can one nanny juggle a set of twin infants and a 3-year-old, or ferry three kids under 6 to their various play dates, preschool programs and lessons?

For parents who both work full-time -- or those otherwise occupied with family, charitable and social obligations -- child care doesn't end when the children enter school. If you calculate nanny pay on top of $26,000 annual private school tuition (eventually multiplied by three), you're talking $140,000 just to keep your children safe and reasonably occupied while the sun's up. Once children are a bit older, there's the battery of ballet, piano, squash (offbeat sports viewed as an inroad to Harvard), and the vehicles needed to get there. Hyper-vigilant child safety laws mean that up to the age of 7, children are boxed into full-size or booster car seats. Try jamming three of those into the back seat of a compact car.

Most families simply can't afford all this. And surely it can't all be necessary. Didn't Benjamin Franklin grow up to be a statesman, inventor, printer, author and political theorist without having his vision enhanced by a Stim-Mobile or his sense of spatial relations improved by Baby Einstein Numbers? Somehow young Ben managed to thrive and prosper even though the Teddy bear had yet to be invented.

Today's American children, by contrast, get an average of 70 new toys a year, yet child development experts agree that the best toys are simple playthings such as blocks, balls and figurines that a child can play with over and over, in new ways. When I was growing up, a sticker was something precious that a stationery store owner would carefully cut off a roll and sell for 25 cents. Today, a made-in-China jumbo book of 600 stickers can be bought at CVS for $6.99. Something has been lost in this ostensibly positive development.

Far from inducing feelings of inadequacy, saying no to the parenting consumer culture should make parents feel all the wiser. And conversely, no one should have to feel that they should refrain from having a child for fear of being accused of snobbery.

Since her own pokes at deluxe families last year, Molly Jong-Fast has become a mother of three herself, having recently given birth to twins. "I don't blame people for having more, if they can," she told me. "If we had unlimited resources, I think we'd have more children, too."

As for my husband and me, we hardly have unlimited resources, but we're still planning to go forth and multiply in the big city. The way we figure it, one day our children will be grateful for what we didn't give them -- and what we did for them instead.

Some may call this rationalization or flat-out denial. Perhaps we mere mortals of the upper middle class, preparing to haul out the bassinet and the Exersaucer for a third go-round, should question our sanity. But we're banking on proving the naysayers wrong.

Pamela Paul is the author of "Parenting Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers -- and What It Means for Our Children."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company