- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2001

Louise Megargee says she knows her limit, and she has reached it. She has an intense career as a lawyer handling child-abuse and neglect cases, an old house to maintain and a happy marriage to sustain. Most important, she is the mother of 4-year-old Madeleine, a preschooler who loves trains, dinosaur bones, ballet and visits to the Smithsonian museums.

Mrs. Megargee, 36, and her husband, Mike, 41, a defense technology consultant, do not plan to expand their nuclear family of three.

"What´s been wonderful about having Madeleine is that the dynamics just seem right," Mrs. Megargee says. "We have a terrific time and are able to have time together. That´s part of why we enjoy the status quo."

The Megargees, who live in Arlington, reflect a growing trend in this country toward smaller families. Sociologists and demographers point to many reasons for the reduction in family size. Topping the list are the high divorce rate, the advent of the two-worker family and the expense of raising a child to adulthood.

To Mrs. Megargee, a small family just makes sense.

"I know my limitations," she says. "I just can´t do any more."

Counting carefully

Sarah Barton, 35, and her husband Stan, 42, have provided lots of siblings for their children five in all. Their children range in age from 2 to 8 and keep Mrs. Barton, a stay-at-home mother, and Mr. Barton, a Web-site developer, "very, very busy" at their home in Centreville, she says.

"The more you have, the more you have to divide, whether it´s time, money or attention, so each one gets a little less in all those areas," she says. "But you adjust. We didn´t get all five kids at once, so you learn to balance."

She adds, "I wouldn´t have it any other way. I´m the oldest of eight myself. I can´t imagine not having lots of kids."

Years ago, people were much less likely to express their reproduction preferences, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist who teaches about family and parenting at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Actually, the topic was not open to debate.

"It was just automatic," Ms. Newman says. "You got married and had the requisite three or four children. Women didn´t think, 'What do I want to do with my life?´"

She continues, "Parents go into parenting wanting to do the best job they can, and now many feel they can do a better job with just one or two."

The numbers underscore Ms. Newman´s contentions.

Women born between 1932 and 1936 reached the end of their childbearing years in 1976, reports Martin O´Connell, who has studied fertility trends for the U.S. Census Bureau for a quarter-century. That year, the proportion of women who bore three or more children during their childbearing years was 58.6 percent.

Twenty-two years later in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available the proportion of women who bore three or more babies had declined to 27.8 percent, a drop Mr. O´Connell calls "pretty dramatic."

"Those born between the Great Depression and the mid- to late-1950s exhibited a sharp drop in completed family size," he says. "Between the mother and child generation, the proportion fell by half. That´s pretty interesting."

Work and family

Gay Young, an American University sociologist, says she believes strongly in the link between women´s paid employment and the decline in fertility rates.

"Given that women are the caregivers, it means you can´t just stretch your time forever," she says. "Fewer children become a choice. Once in the labor force, women say, 'I see what my time is like now, and I´m not having any more.´"

Ms. Newman, author of "Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only," agrees.

"There´s no such thing as supermom. People are realizing it´s very difficult to handle a job or career and more than one or two children."

Mrs. Megargee notes, "Maybe I´m trying to strive for too much, but I want to do everything I can for Maddie and for my job and for my relationship with Mike. If that means I have reached my max with one child, I guess that´s it, but I view it more that I´m able to do more in more areas of my life including being a mom, which is the most important thing."

It is clear that she and her husband have thought long and hard about their decision.

"We love living in a place like Arlington," Mr. Megargee says. "We like the location and the lifestyle. You don´t absolutely have to have two salaries to live here, but if you don´t, the one who works may have greater career-related demands.

"We didn´t want either of us to sacrifice a happy, well-rounded home life for a 70-hour-a-week grind … so we opted to both work. Our decision was made much easier by having a good day care option and loving grandparents who spend a lot of time with Maddie."

His daughter, he notes, spends three days per workweek at a day care center and the other two with her maternal grandparents.

"But that two-career situation makes it very difficult to go beyond one kid," Mr. Megargee says. "We have a few friends who have done so, and my hat´s off to them. Most of them have found ways of altering the traditional two-career setup: working from home, three-quarter-time work, 10 hours a day for four days, etc. But those options didn´t appear to be open to us."

He concludes: "So we like the lifestyle and location. That requires money, and two jobs let us accomplish that without seriously eroding our leisure time. But that starts to put a hard limit on how much love and attention you can lavish on multiple children at the end of the day."

In short supply

That finite supply of resources tangible and otherwise motivated Kerry Joseph and her husband, Jim, of upper Northwest, to limit their family. The Josephs, both 38, are parents to Madeleine, 10, and Lily, 5.

Mrs. Joseph is a former elementary school teacher who last year quit her job to be a stay-at-home mother; Mr. Joseph is a tax lawyer. Mrs. Joseph says the couple´s decision to stop at two children was an evolution of several years of parenthood.

"We didn´t start out with a plan in mind," Mrs. Joseph says, "but after I had Lily, I felt settled, like two was enough. Given that there are limits to the time and money and attention and energy we have as parents, I´d rather not spread it too thin."

"Know thyself" also was a maxim.

"I like things to be a certain way," she admits. "I don´t like chaos or disorder, and I like to focus on one thing. There are some things you really can´t change … that´s a part of me that I have to work around."

With two children, she says, "I can get everyone looking pretty nice, cook the meals, attend to their activities and not go crazy."

Those are all good points in a world in which the pressures on parents are huge, says Ms. Newman, the Rutgers psychologist.

She points to time demands as one hot button. "Twenty or 30 years ago, kids came home after school, and their mothers entertained them or they went outside to play. Now there is an endless array of activities, and all parents want to give their child as many opportunities as they can. This is a time issue."

Then there is the money. Ms. Newman reports that it requires a minimum of $228,000 to get a middle-class child to college age, a conservative figure based on an annual family income of $60,000 before taxes.

Even so, Mrs. Joseph says finances did not factor into her decision to limit her family size.

"With regards to college sure, I have thought about it, but it was not a reason. However, it would be nicer and easier to go to college if it´s easier for your parents. As the girls get older, I would like to be able to help them financially maybe help them get a house, for example," she says.

But all in all, Mrs. Joseph says, a small family just works for her and her husband.

"I am a calm, saner, nicer person and enjoy the kids more. It works, and to add another to the mix" … her voice trails off, and she shrugs.

Chance or choice

Although many people choose to contain the mix, others have no choice in the matter.

Charles S. White and his wife, Carolyn Noren White,of Los Angeles, found themselves suffering from secondary infertility when they attempted to conceive a brother or sister for their daughter, Alexis, now a senior at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Although both were busy with careers he as a commercial photographer and she as a private-school administrator the Whites decided five years ago to begin publishing Only Child, a quarterly publication devoted to only children of all ages.

"We are literally the Dear Abby of only children," Mr. White says. "We are not advocates of only-children families. We say your choice is your choice, and how does that play out?"

Mr. White says the number of single-child families is growing in leaps.

"There are a lot of numbers bandied about, but the estimate is that about 20 percent of U.S. families will be single-child families," he says. "It just goes back to the fact that people are starting households later. They are waiting for the financial time to be right. It sometimes is hard to conceive a second or third child."

He says parents of only children frequently are unwitting recipients of the opinions well-meaning or otherwise of people who have firm ideas about what makes up a family.

"I can´t stand the thought that because I have an only child, I have to suffer the slings and arrows of those who criticize," he says.

"And even if the parents are loving, caring and conscientious, they will feel guilty because they´re not providing a sibling for their child."

In the game of parenting, family size does not determine who will be a winner, says Carl Pickhardt, a practicing psychologist in Austin, Texas, and author of "Keys to Parenting an Only Child."

"Look, small is not simple," he says. "Even if you just have two kids, you know you won´t be able to give to No. 1 what you were giving to him before No. 2 came along. Fairness will be contested, and guilt will set in early on. And an only child can also be the first child or the last child the only one left, or a special-needs child who gets a disproportionate amount of the attention."

Large families come with issues as well, Mr. Pickhardt says.

"If you grow up in a family of five, six or seven kids, they will report getting lost in the shuffle. The up side, though, is that the other children in the family become very important to each other. Also, the kids can get more freedom" because the parents can´t track them as easily, he says.

In addition, Mr. Pickhardt says, resources often are more strained in larger families.

"There are stresses associated with that that you don´t have in a smaller family," he says. "And in a larger family, everyone has to pitch in, but in smaller families, sometimes kids just don´t do that."

The last word, Mr. Pickhardt says, is that parents cannot do it all or be it all.

"I tell parents that parenting is just one small thread of how kids will turn out," he says. "The others are choices that the kids make, the cultural world and all its influences, genetic characteristics such as intelligence and temperament, circumstances a kid gets into and peer influences. The reality is that parents have to keep what they can do in perspective."

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