Can too many children ruin a marriage?

During a recent family fun day, hundreds of children scampered happily across the grounds of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield — some romped in giant bounce houses, others shrieked with joy on carnival rides. Attentive parents chased little ones from the food tent to various attractions. Moms and dads stood in line with their children, snapped photos, pushed baby strollers, carried cranky toddlers, took kids on potty breaks and even managed a few meltdowns.

Randi Manson of West Bloomfield was a real trouper, running alongside her 4-year-old daughter, Ava. Manson, 31, is eight months pregnant with her second child, a boy. “I want to have three children,” she says. “We’ll see what happens after this one, though, realistically. I’ve heard it’s harder to go from one to two — so, we’ll see.”

To some, it may seem “the more the merrier” should be the rule-of-thumb when it comes to having children. But Dr. Alan Singer, a New Jersey-based researcher, family therapist and author of the self-help book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size: How to Make An Informed Decision About Having a Baby, says, “Not so fast!”

He’s made it his life’s work to study, treat and advise couples deciding how many children to have and when — keeping in mind our country’s 50 percent divorce rate.

“On average, marital satisfaction tends to decrease with each child,” he says. “Most couples believe just the opposite is true, but having too many children can cripple an already weak relationship and drive a couple to divorce. Or it could lead to constant stress in the home, which also is bad for the parents and the children.”

The book takes readers through a series ofquestions like, “Why do you want to have children? When is the best time? How many children can your relationship hold?” It also includes “reality checks,” self-tests and exercises designed to help each reader find the right answers.

“Start by asking yourself why you want to have a first, second or third baby,” Dr. Singer says. “Don’t have a second child because your in-laws or neighbors tell you to give [the child] a baby brother or sister. The perspective that “only children” are lonely children has been disproved by numerous research studies. It simply is not true.”

Dr. Singer is Orthodox, he’s been married for 33 years and he has four children of his own, ages 21-31. So he does speak from experience. He says having a large family worked out well for him and his wife, Shanie, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
Gallup polls, which have asked people about ideal family size since 1936, show more Americans preferred three or more children until the late 1960s. In the ’70s, “two” became the magic number. The most recent survey, completed in June 2011, found 53 percent still believe two children would be ideal; 4 percent said one child, 23 percent said three. Only 1 percent answered either “zero” or “six or more.”

But experts say the fastest-growing family unit in the United States is a one-child household. While that may appear to be a contradiction because only 4 percent of those polled said they’d prefer a single child family, Dr. Singer says it just illustrates the difference between opinion and fact.

“When you ask random people what the ideal family size is, more people might say “two” or “three.” But in reality, the people being polled may be single and may not have children at all. They’re just picking a number they think sounds ideal,” he said.

“The number of children the census shows people actually having is a fact and is much more reliable.”

So, why are more families having just one child? Factors include the current state of the economy, the rising cost of raising children and cultural trends like couples marrying later in life. (According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of women having babies at age 35 tripled between 1980 and 2004 and quadrupled for women over 40.)

“The good news is there is no one-size-fits-all family,” Dr. Singer assures his readers. “There’s only the family that fits you and your partner and whose size you agree on together, one child at a time. As many or as few — as long as you think it through.”

He goes on to say there’s only one reason to increase your family size: You love the child you have, you love parenting and you want to have another child regardless of gender. Not because of social pressures, to give your child a sibling, to give yourself a best friend or because you’ve planned the perfect family size from childhood.

He also offers this word of caution for later-in-life parents: “Couples who delay childbirth may think it’s logical to have several children as fast as possible and as close together as possible. That can be a recipe for marital disaster.”

He recommends a two- to five-year age difference between children.

Carol Berg, 48, and her husband, Fred, 48, of Bloomfield Township, have just one child by choice, their 10-year-old daughter, Rachel.

The Bergs were married in 1988. Fred ran a family plastics manufacturing business at the time, and Carol owned and operated a point-of-purchase sign and display business. They took 13 years to enjoy their marriage, establish their careers and travel before having a child.

“We had a very tough pregnancy, seven months straight of morning sickness 24/7,” Carol says. “After that, the decision was easy. We did not want to do that again. We had a great baby, and we both totally agreed with one and done! We are completely satisfied with one child and still feel it was the right decision for our family.”

Once Rachel was born, there was another twist. Fred decided to go back to school and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. At one point, he even rented an apartment and moved to East Lansing for two years to complete his classes at Michigan State University. He’d come home on weekends. Carol sold her business and became a stay-at-home mom.

“We never had a nanny or a babysitter,” she says. “As soon as Rachel started kindergarten at Hillel Day School, I was able to return to the workforce almost full time. I started a distribution/marketing company called Simon Marketing Group. I work from home, I’m my own boss and I can plan my work day around her school schedule and extracurricular activities.”

Fred is now in his second year of residency in urology surgery. By the time he completes the program, his daughter will be a sophomore in high school.

“We had to put a strict spending budget in place before Fred even considered applying for medical school. We wanted to make sure we could afford this kind of decision,” Carol recalls. “We’re not sure if he would have ever been able to change careers if we had more children and a larger financial burden.”

Carol believes having one child has other benefits; her daughter gets plenty of one-on-one time and undivided attention from her parents.
“She always comes first,” Carol says. “If Rachel decides to try something new, like a sport or an activity, we’re usually able to make a quick and easy decision about it. We don’t have to look at a bunch of different calendars to see if we can fit it in.”

When she sees large families juggling schedules and rushing around with multiple children, Carol says she often has the same thought: “How do they do it?”

“When I have a stressful or hectic day, I wonder what that day would be like multiplied by three or four,” she says. “I love my life. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Karen Rosenberg, 43, and her husband, Howard, 53, of West Bloomfield know what it’s like to have everything multiplied by four. They’re raising four children: Jeremy, 12, Benji, 10, Maya, 6, and Elan, 4, on a single income. Howard is a lawyer; Karen is a geriatric social worker. Right now, she’s not working outside the home. She says she always wanted a large family and hoped to have four children from the start.

“As far back as I can remember, I always had the dream of having four children,” she says. “As a young child, I remember thinking that if I had another sibling, I’d have someone to play with when my younger brother wasn’t available. When I was young, I used to fantasize about having lots of siblings.”

Now that she has four children of her own, Rosenberg describes watching them interact as one of her biggest joys. But, as Dr. Singer suggests, she agrees adding each child did change the dynamics of her marriage.

“While I appreciate my husband for being a smart, kind, loving, fun father, we don’t always see eye-to-eye,” she says. “My husband and I rarely raise our voices to each other and never name-call.  That’s just not who we are, and that’s something I’m proud of. But, our hope was to always show the kids our ‘unified front.’ It’s a great theory and it works well if you can stick to it, but it’s not so easy.”

Then, there’s the economy. Without going into too much personal detail, Rosenberg made it clear — it has taken a toll.

“I love our family more than words can say. I would not change it for anything in the world. But having a big family is financially stressful,” she admits. “We’ve struggled more than I could ever have imagined I would struggle to provide for our family. All I can say is that when I find myself thinking of what we don’t have, I look at my children and realize I have it all. Every day is an adventure with milestones and memories to be shared for a lifetime.”

So, what’s the bottom line when it comes to growing a family in a tough economy at a time when many parents may be up against a ticking biological clock?

“The question parents should be asking is, ‘Is now the best time?’” Dr. Singer advises. “Having a child does not repair problematic marriages and does not increase marital satisfaction. Each child is a unique and precious gift. Think about whether this is the ideal time for your family to grow, rather than the ideal family size.”