"When you have your first two children, people congratulate you," says Cheri Loveless, 34, of Vienna. "When you have your third, people think that everyone's allowed one accident. The fourth they think you're having to give the third someone to play with.

"But with the fifth child," she says, "you get a whole different set of comments. Suddenly, people see that you're serious about this."

Loveless should know: She had her sixth child in 10 years this summer, and is still bargaining with her husband, Scott, 33, for more. "When we were dating," says Scott, a lawyer with the Department of the Interior, "I mentioned that I wanted six, and Cheri said, 'Oh, I want at least a dozen.' "

Families this large are a shrinking minority. In March 1984, only 3.2 percent of all American families (6.3 percent of those families with children) had four or more children under 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Less than 10 percent of women of childbearing age are choosing to take on four or more kids -- compared to 37 percent of their baby boom mothers, those born between 1931 and 1935.

Reasons for smaller families are many. Medical innovations have made birth control a more exact science. Cheaper by the dozen is no longer a credible notion. And with more than a decade of media attention on buzzwords like "zero-population growth" and other reasons to restrict family size -- or even have no children at all -- the atmosphere isn't exactly supportive of raising kids by the bulk.

Yet in recent interviews with five large families (containing from six to 15 children), the parents who chose this life style expressed both deep commitment and joy over the decision. The interviews, conducted while children crawled into their parents' laps, threw shoes out the window, moaned about dinner and practiced gymnastics with brothers and sisters, gave insight into what most of these parents called "their most important career."

It's a career that's frowned upon by many in Washington, where 1980 census data show the average household of 2.4 people to be smaller than the national average (2.71). "You get a lot of comments," says Jamilah Muhammad, 31, a Silver Spring mother of six children, aged 10 months to 10 years. "I went out the door the other night, and there were some teen-agers on the steps of her apartment building talking about having children. As we went by, they said, 'And some people just keep on having them.' "

"Some people just don't know what to make of us," says Joyce Daniel, 38, an Alexandria mother of seven children, aged 15 to newborn. "We sat in front of some new people at church once, and I could hear them whispering, 'Do you think it's a scout troop?' "

Mary Lou Koehl, 40, of Arlington, says her husband, Richard, 53, a computer specialist at the Agency for International Development, takes a lot of grief for their six children (aged 7 to 13). "Dick gets a lot of comments at work," she says. "They'll ask him if he hasn't heard of vasectomies."

The Koehls, who are Catholic, say they believe in their church's admonition to use natural birth control and have no regrets about bringing any of their children into the world.

Besides having her own children, Joyce Daniel often assists as midwife at births in other large families. "Some of them are doing it for religious reasons," she says, "and some of them are just using natural birth-control methods . . . and winding up with large families."

Says Jamilah Muhammad, a Black Muslim: "We didn't sit down and plan these children, but we consider each of them to be a blessing from Allah. And if another comes, we will accept the blessing."

The eldest child of a family of nine, Cheri Loveless says that family history influences family size as much as religion. Both Loveless and Scott, one of three, grew up in neighborhoods with families as large as 22 children. "Religion doesn't have anything to do with it in the sense that the church is telling us to have large families -- it's not," she says. "But we both grew up in Mormon families, and are used to being around large families."

Cultural differences also can determine family dimensions. Sompheth and Bouth Ngamsanith of Reston are middle-aged immigrants from Laos, where neither birth control nor abortion were practiced. "We don't kill babies," says Bouth, who has 12 children.

For other parents, family planning means playing it by ear. Joyce and Royal (Scoop) Daniel, who use "various forms of contraceptives, infrequently," belong to a religion which neither encourages nor discourages large families. So far, they have seven children. "I told the family that this one newborn Hugh would be the caboose," says Joyce, "but he's so wonderful, I'd hate to think of him as being my last baby."

The cliche' "there's always room for one more" seems to be the motto in these households, which tend to become the play centers for their neighborhoods ("One night I came home and found somebody's else's kid in my bathtub," says Farraquan Muhammad). And many agreed with Cheri Loveless that "after three children, it doesn't matter how many you have -- you've already run out of hands."

But the logistics of juggling four or more children can be horrendous: Imagine mittens for five, laundry for seven, or finding lost shoes for six.

Scott Loveless shows off his garage where, on one wall, he's built six open lockers. "When they come home," he explains, "they hang their coats here, put their shoes there, and put their homework up here," he says pointing to each locker's three partitions. The other wall is stacked, floor to ceiling, with boxes marked "Layette," "Snowsuits," "Boys size 4," "Girls size 6." Says Cheri Loveless: "I don't mind the noise, but I have to have an underlying sense of order for it to function."

Joyce Daniel tries to achieve order by making weekend schedules "that rival the major networks' sports schedule," says her husband. With up to five soccer games each weekend during the season, it sometimes takes all three drivers (the Daniels have live-in help) to make it.

"I'm very unpleasant about chauffeuring," says Cheri Loveless, "to the point where I probably hamper my kids. I don't do the Brownie troop or volunteer at school either," she says, explaining that she prefers to take her children to museums, parks and on daytrips.

But she does get them involved in her projects -- most recently a national newsletter for women raising their children at home, called Welcome Home, which landed her on "Donahue," and had her testifying before Congress and disclosing big-family secrets in numerous interviews. Loveless brings her children along when feasible, has them color in places on a U.S. map where her newsletter subscribers live, and says she tries to "turn everything into an educational experience."

With large numbers of children, these families say, some of life's luxuries get cut out. "We don't go to movies," says Richard Koehl. "Even at the $2.50 matinee price, that's $20 for our family. So we'll rent a movie for $2 -- that's 25 cents apiece."

All the families interviewed said they rarely went out to dinner or bought what they considered to be frills. The Muhammads, whose income depends upon veteran's benefits and unemployment compensation, say sheer economic realities greatly limit their lives. When asked if she thought others should have large families, Bouth Ngamsanith, who sacrificed housing and schooling for the children in Laos, replied, "Only if they think they can afford it."

While the larger family makes it difficult for both parents to work, some spouses, like Mary Lou Koehl, often contribute substantially to the income by becoming super shoppers. "I think a guardian angel stands over me when I shop," she says. "I've gotten some incredible bargains."

Koehl follows the ads carefully, waiting for stores to mark down items she wants, and then buys in bulk, bargaining with the stores. "We'll pick up a dozen shoes at the right price -- somebody will fit them," she says. She also gives the family haircuts and crochets mittens and booties. Others, like Jamilah Muhammad, frequent thrift stores. And most have a family member, church or neighbor handing down clothes regularly.

Predictably, food can be a real problem, too. Some bigger-than-life families, like the Koehls, have large gardens ("I've already got 15 quarts of tomatoes in the freezer," says Mary Lou). Most go to two or three grocery stores each week ("We're something of an institution at the Safeway," says Scoop Daniel), and buy in bulk from co-ops. Cheri Loveless, who co-authored Cut Your Grocery Bills In Half, started a 100-family co-op when she moved to Vienna.

Finding time for onself can be a problem. "I just wish I could go to the bathroom once without someone opening the door and saying, 'Whatcha doing, Mom?' " says Koehl. Joyce Daniel says: "We've long since given up on closing the bathroom door. The things you do are your priorities. And if something's important to you, you'll do it." Until the birth of her seventh child, she adds, she took an hour each day to swim.

Time alone as a couple, these parents say, is even more sacred -- and sometimes unobtainable. Cheri and Scott Loveless have a standing date every Friday night ("We take the baby, of course, but that's like being alone"), and the Koehls have pizza together Saturday night after the kids go to bed. "The romance has to stay alive," says Scott Loveless, "or there's no point in doing this."

The children also complain about the same lack of privacy: "It's hard to share, and hard to stand in line," says Robert Daniel, 6.

His brother Justin, 9, agrees: "I have a room to go to," he says, "and sometimes I hide in my closet."

Making friends outside the family can seem both a little difficult and irrelevant to these children. "It's hard to bring a girl home here," says Michelle Koehl, 13, who has five younger brothers.

The Muhammads see this as a plus: "One of the things that tears up a family is peer relationships, when the children go off with other friends," says Farraquan Muhammad, 52. "Our children's best friends and most long-term friendships are within the family."

And all the families interviewed found the time spent together rewarding. "It's the relationships that make life rich," Cheri Loveless says. "There's nothing more rich than coming home to people who care about you and accept you."

Other parents take a philosophical view of the hordes at home: "My children have been necessary to my growth as a person," says Jamilah Muhammad. "They've taught me to be selfless, patient, humane . . ."

"Sometimes when I sit alone," says Bouth Ngamsanith, "I think of my children as tiny babies. Then I look around and see them as grownups, and I'm so proud of myself." All but two of her 12 children live either with her or in apartments in the same complex, she says, and still come to see her every day -- even those in their thirties.

"You can live your life, and miss all the meaning," says Scott Loveless. "These children make the meaning clear."