Letter From New Jersey: Filling Every Seat In The

Not everyone was as overjoyed as my husband and I when we conceived our third child. My mother, for one, thought we were insane: "You already have a healthy girl and boy; why do you need another baby?" My New York City colleagues--living in cramped apartments and paying private-school tuition--were similarly flummoxed: "But where will you put it?"

But in the New Jersey suburb where I live, nobody batted an eye. We live in a family-friendly town, where crossing guards watch over kids on their way to and from the excellent public schools. Our house, a rambling Victorian, had a spare bedroom, and we already owned a minivan. Even the swing set in the backyard had space for three swings. So why not fill them all?

Out in the leafy land of the Ford Expedition and the McMansion, it seems like hardly anyone has just two kids anymore. A quick scan of my friends and neighbors reveals too many families to count with three kids, at least five with four kids, two with five and the odd few with a half dozen or more.

Statistics do not bear me out. According to the latest U.S. Census, the average number of children per family has been dropping for decades, down now to about 1.83. But you'd never know it where I live. Everyone drives an SUV or minivan, which makes parking hazardous but carpooling a dream. The elementary-school population is growing so fast that they keep hiring teachers. And competition for spots in some YMCA swim classes is so fierce that parents line up hours in advance on sign-up day.

Why are we having so many kids? Some couples are eager to replicate their own happy childhoods; many of my peers grew up with four or even five siblings, and by those standards are actually having smaller families. A few admit to the morbid notion of having more than two as an insurance policy: God forbid something happens to one, you still have a couple left. And many people in our upper-middle-class area can simply afford multiple pairs of ice skates--not to mention college tuitions.

But in these achievement-oriented parts, there may be another reason. "Kids are the new status symbol," says my friend Linda, who has three children. Once you have the big house and the nine-seat vehicle, what else is there? Many of the moms I know are extremely talented and well educated. Whether they work or stay home full time, having more children allows them to feel--and demonstrate--a huge sense of accomplishment: they can juggle a marriage, a house and four kids' sports and homework schedules, too!

Is that why we decided to have a third? Of course not--or at least not outwardly. I was 38, we had a 6- and a 3-year-old, and it was a rather impulsive now-or-never decision. My husband is one of three; I have one brother, but always fantasized about having a large "Brady Bunch" kind of family. Our household was running fairly smoothly, but it felt incomplete--a little boring, even. So we decided to shake it up.

Carly was conceived a month after 9/11. She is not, technically, a 9/11 baby, since we decided we wanted her well before that terrible day. But her conception did in the end feel like an act of defiance, a vote of confidence in the world. On top of that, we now have the most cheerful, engaging toddler on earth. And, naturally, we can't imagine life without her. She makes our family whole. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit there is a part of me that takes great pride in the fact that I can more or less manage a husband, a full-time job, a house and three kids. And a dog. Even if the library books are always overdue.