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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

One Too Many

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Bonnie Auslander weighs in on the trend in increasing family size.


GELLERMAN: Well, whether you decide to have children using the latest technology, or the old fashion way, you also have to decide how many children to have. Commentator Bonnie Auslander has been crunching the numbers.

AUSLANDER: My husband and I met in Asheville, NC, where writer Bill McKibben was giving a reading. So it was fitting that after our daughter was born a friend gave us a copy of “Maybe One,” McKibben’s book, in which he argues that having only one child is the soundest environmental choice those of us in the developed world can make.

At least I think that’s what he wrote. I didn’t read it: I hid it. It had been difficult enough convincing my husband that we should have one child. I knew getting him to father two would be harder than making him take me to the latest Jane Austin film adaptation. I didn’t want any persuasive tracts lying around that he could use to bolster his position. So I took McKibben’s book and shoved it behind some old bank statements at the bottom of a filing cabinet.

Having two kids has always been my goal. It’s practically a family tradition. I’m one of two, so is my father, and so are all of his cousins. And I’ve always believed producing two kids who would eventually replace their parents was okay, even if it meant that for an overlapping time we would be planting a larger environmental footprint on the planet.

So while intellectually I agreed with McKibben that producing one child was best, I couldn’t imagine intentionally raising a single child. They might turn out too bossy or too lonely, and who would they compare notes with later on about their nutty parents? If I had read McKibben’s book I would have learned that only children aren’t any more likely than those with siblings to be overbearing or friendless, but I waited until after our second child was born to see what he had to say.

Now, eight years after McKibben’s book was published, I find myself surrounded by friends and acquaintances who aren’t stopping at one, or hanging at two, but who are having three or four or even more. A conversation with a demographer confirmed my hunch: family size in the U.S. is on the rise.

So what’s going on here? Are these couples hoping for a girl at long last after having two boys? Is it a desire to advertise their fertility? Or could it be as it was for one couple I read about, a marker of affluence that boasts “I can afford to have more kids than you?”

Then I remembered what Amir, a newly married Palestinian man I knew when I lived in Germany, said to me. “If I stay here, two kids is enough,” he told me, “but if I move back to Palestine and stop at two, my friends will say, ‘What’s the matter with you? Are you sterile?’ ”

The pressure, Amir described, to have a big family is about who he is and where he’s from, but as the planet’s crisis worsens, there’s pressure, or there should be, pushing us all in the opposite direction. In that sense we’re all Amir, standing at the cross-roads as we weigh how many kids we want against how many kids the planet can bear.

GELLERMAN: Commentator Bonnie Auslander, her husband, and two children – just two – live in Bethesda, Maryland.



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