Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Leslie Leyland Fields is a business owner and writer, but what sets her apart from many of her peers is that she is a self-described “six-time breeder.”With six children ages 3 to 18, Mrs. Fields knows

she is a rarity at a time when the average American woman has only two children — or, to be more precise, 2.034 children, a fact she discovered while researching her latest book, “Surprise Child: Finding Hope in Unexpected Pregnancy.”

Family size has a cultural significance, she says.

“My defense of the larger family is more of a question,” says Mrs. Fields, who lives on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. “What do our cultures lose when our families shrink to one or no children or 2.034 children?”

Large families offer social and interpersonal benefits, such as teaching children to be more tolerant, conserve resources and work as part of a group, practicing good citizenship on a daily basis, she says.

However, Mrs. Fields explained in a recent issue of Christianity Today, mothers of large broods in contemporary America face a stereotype.

“The smart, ambitious, fully realized 21st-century woman chooses career. The ambitionless woman has children.”

This stereotype is specially true in a society that celebrates “individualism, the pursuit of ‘unfettered time,’ and the freedoms of self-fulfillment and self-actualization,” she says.

Large families were relatively common until the mid-1960s. At the peak of the baby boom in 1957, the average American woman had 3.7 children in her lifetime. That changed with the advent of the birth-control pill in the 1960s, said Steven Mintz, co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

“For the most part, there is a consensus among parents about how many children they want, and what has happened is people are now able to realize that,” said Mr. Mintz, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, Calif. He lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and has two children.

Parents now want to have “high-quality kids rather than quantity of kids,” said Mr. Mintz, adding that each child requires emotional, financial and psychological investment.

Mr. Mintz notes that in the past, it was considered “pathological” to have only one child, because it was felt that the child would grow up spoiled, lonely and unable to make friends.

However, says author Deborah Siegel, only children often have intense friendships and have to learn to turn friends into “family.”

“Only children often are very comfortable at an early age relating to adults,” says Ms. Siegel, co-editor with Daphne Uviller of “Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo,” which will be published in December.

“Being the sole focus of your parents’ attention is both good and bad,” says Ms. Siegel, a fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership in New York. “It’s good in that children feel so much love shining on them. They grow up with a strong sense of self-esteem.”

Ms. Siegel, who is an only child, said that when she was growing up, mothers of only children were perceived as selfish.

“There was a sense if you only have one child, you’re spending too much time on your career,” she said.

Yet, single-child units are the fastest-growing type of family in the nation, Ms. Siegel said, attributing the increase to late marriages and the increasing cost of raising children.

“There’s an argument to be made for getting on your feet, getting it together and having kids later,” she said.

Mrs. Fields’ defense of large families in “Surprise Child” was prompted by a personal crisis: She discovered in 2002 that she was pregnant with her sixth child — her second unexpected pregnancy.

“I started that book because it was so difficult to go through another unplanned pregnancy,” she said. “I recognized how huge the crisis is when you’re pregnant at a difficult time in your life.”

The author of five books, Mrs. Fields teaches creative nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University and operates the Northern Pen, a professional writing service. She also works with her family’s commercial salmon fishing business every summer.

In researching her latest book, Mrs. Fields found that 60 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, according to the National Institutes of Health, and that nearly half of the 3 million women a year who have unplanned pregnancies choose abortion.

She wrote “Surprise Child,” she said, to help women make room in their lives for the unexpected child and to give them hope at a time when they might feel alone and desperate for help and answers. The book tells the stories of 30 other women who have experienced unplanned pregnancies.

The turning point for Mrs. Fields during her 2002 pregnancy was hearing her son’s heartbeat 12 weeks after conception.

“It was so strong, purposeful and so fast, my eyes widened,” she said. “This is not a complication. There is a real child there, a child with its own heartbeat.”

Charmaine Yoest, vice president for communications at the Family Research Council, calls Mrs. Fields “brave” for writing “Surprise Child.”

“We don’t always have to be in complete control over what happens to us — the flip side of choice is control,” says Mrs. Yoest, a mother of five children. “That is the negative message sent to the post-feminist generation: If something isn’t planned, it can’t be welcomed.”

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Mrs. Yoest says, concerns about overpopulation created a stigma about large families, but Mrs. Fields says the trend toward smaller families has created new worries.

“Many demographers are no longer concerned about overpopulation but about ‘birth dearth’ — so few workers can’t fuel a viable economy to support a growing number of elderly,” Mrs. Fields says.

“That’s the bitter irony of it,” Mrs. Yoest says. “Now, there’s not enough children.”

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