- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

NEW YORK — Laura Bennett isn’t bound by convention. Professionally, at 42, she’s pursuing a midcareer switch into big-time fashion design. At home, she’s a mother of five — with No. 6 due next month.

“It was nothing that we planned ahead of time,” Mrs. Bennett says. “It’s more that we were enjoying all the kids. We have a happy home. Why not have as many children as we can?”

It’s barely a blip on the nation’s demographic radar — 11 percent of U.S. births in 2004 were to women who already had three children, up from 10 percent in 1995. But there seems to be a growing openness to having more than two children, in some case more than four.

The reasons are diverse — from religious to, as Mrs. Bennett reasons, “Why not?”

These families cut across economic lines, though a sizable part of the increase is attributed to a baby boom in affluent suburbs, with more upper-middle-class couples deciding that a three- or four-child household can be both affordable and fun.

The Bennetts still stand out. Among other well-off families in Manhattan, three children is generally the maximum — one or two is much more common as parents contemplate private-school tuition of $25,000 a year even for kindergarten, and a real estate market that is far from family-friendly.

Mrs. Bennett’s husband, Peter Shelton, is a successful architect, and the family can afford child-care help while Mrs. Bennett — also an architect by training — pursues her fashion-design aspirations as a finalist on the TV reality show “Project Runway.” But their motives sound similar to those of other, less wealthy parents nationwide who have opted for five or more children.

Dr. Jeff Brown, a pediatrician affiliated with Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut’s wealthy southwestern suburbs, has noticed a clear trend in recent years.

“I don’t hear people say, ‘We’ll have two and then we’re done,’ where I used to hear that before,” he said. “People are much more open to three-children families than they were 10 years ago.”

However, really big families remain rare, Dr. Brown said, in part because many women are giving birth at older ages — they may not have their third child until their 40s, when the prospect of a fourth might seem too daunting.

The Census Department says it has no national data specifying which demographic sectors are having more kids these days. But a leading authority on family size, Duke University sociologist Philip Morgan, says it makes sense that some well-off couples are opting for more children as concern about global overcrowding eases because of lowering birth rates overall.

“The population explosion — fears about that are over,” he said. “People used to think that having more than two kids was not only expensive but immoral. Now, people say if you can afford three kids, four kids, that’s great.”

Yet Mr. Morgan, who has three children of his own, doubts there will be a boom in extra-large families.

“No matter how much money the parents have, most think each of their kids should have their own place and time,” he said. “More than four — that’s when people start thinking you’re crazy, that you’re shortchanging the ones you already have.”

Bonny Clark, a mother of five from the Minneapolis suburb of Circle Pines, has encountered such skepticism. When pregnant with twins four year ago — with three other children already — even some of her friends were dismayed.

“There were a lot of unwelcome comments, like, ‘If I had three kids and was having twins, I’d kill myself,’” Mrs. Clark said.

Mrs. Clark, 38, is aware of the buzz that large families — in the suburbs, at least — are a new status symbol.

“I thought it was kind of funny,” she said “Most people who have a lot of kids don’t have the time or energy to care what others think.”

From far-flung communities, many parents of large families enjoy comparing notes. Several Web sites have surfaced to accommodate such exchanges, including LargerFamilies.com, founded this year by Meagan Francis of Williamston, Mich.

Mrs. Francis, 29, has four children — fewer than many of her site’s regular bloggers but enough to raise eyebrows in her suburb outside Lansing. “People thought I was insane,” she said.

Mrs. Bennett says the main reaction she gets from mothers with fewer children is, “How do you do it?”

“My answer is I don’t think about it too much,” she said. “You do what you need to do, and you have to just let go of a few things. Don’t expect things to be perfect every day.”

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