When to stop having children?

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with my older kids (we have lots of interesting conversations, actually!), ages 10, 12.5, 14, and 15.5.  I always have thoughts on something percolating in my brain, so these conversations get started when I share my thoughts or ask them for their opinions.  In this case, I asked them if they thought people should continue having children if the parents were unable to pay full tuition for the children they already had.   Since we homeschool, tuition isn’t an issue I have to deal with, and this was a non-personal starting point for a conversation about the value of having children and the choices we make in providing for them.

This isn’t something we’ve ever discussed before, and my kids really wanted to hear my take on it.  But I want my kids to learn to think things through for themselves, not to just adopt whatever I say as the right position, so they each had their say before I made any comments.  One child surprised me by saying no, people shouldn’t have any more kids if they can’t pay full tuition, and when I asked her why, she said that they would have so much financial pressure that they wouldn’t be happy to have more children.  And if they weren’t happy, they shouldn’t have more children.  So their happiness was the defining value, not the tuition.  The others argued that school is only one way to educate a child, and isn’t a necessity, educating your children is what parents are responsible to take care of.  So they said if people wanted to have more children, they should look for other ways to educate their children that would meet everyone’s needs, and that tuition alone wasn’t a good yardstick to use to make that decision.

I then asked what if someone couldn’t afford full tuition for more than one child, should they stop having children at that point?  What if they could afford full tuition, but couldn’t afford for the mother to stay at home with the children when they were young?  What about if the children had to share bedrooms, couldn’t afford sleep away (or even day camp), had to have very simple food, couldn’t afford extra curricular activities, wouldn’t have weddings/college tuitions fully funded by parents?  What about if they had to drive old cars, live in a tiny house in not so great neighborhood, buy used clothes, and never had vacations?  What if they could afford full tuition, overseas vacations, and an otherwise high material standard, but the kids came home to an empty house every day, or spent more time with a nanny or housekeeper than their parents?

To me, these questions have to be asked to get to the heart of the issue.  We have to ask ourselves these questions to define what our foremost values are, to determine what is worthwhile to spend money on, and where children fit into that picture.  What are the necessities in raising children?  This is so individual, yet there are so many judgements of those who make different choices than we do.  But because the core values behind the decisions are so widely varying, it’s not likely there’s going to be a consensus from the different sides.

Fortunately, everyone doesn’t have to agree with the choices we make.  It does matter if we’ve taken the time to think about the choices we make. As you know, we so far have eight children (soon to be nine).  Having each and every one of our children is a value for us.  It’s a conscious value, meaning that we don’t go on  having kids because we don’t know how to prevent it, or because we feel social pressure (none of that actually – few of our peers have large families), or because we feel it’s a religious obligation.  It’s because we have so much joy in raising children, in putting our time and efforts into growing people who are making the world a better place and who bring so much light into our lives and the lives of one another, that the material ‘sacrifices’ some might see us as having made pale in comparison.

Having a larger family means our kids share rooms.  We have a modest house in a working class neighborhood.  We drive an eight year old van that comfortably seats us all, go on yearly camping vacations, and don’t consider summer camp a necessity for anyone (though a number of the kids have gone).  Our extra curricular activities are limited, though the kids have been fortunate to have music lessons and sports when desired, and though we do get to have some nice day trips and outings.  We see paid work for teens as a positive value, and encourage good financial management from a young age (all of them from the age of six and up have their own savings accounts).  There is no college fund for any of them – we expect our kids to find ways to fund college, if that’s the route they take (though we’ll pay for any college expenses while they are still in high school, if they choose to do dual enrollment), and have told them that when they get married, it means that they’re taking on adult responsibilities, including paying their own way and providing for themselves.  We are very supportive of teaching our children skills that will help them as they enter adult life, but not very supportive of giving children money just because they want something.

We see learning to get along with others in your family as a very positive value.  Learning to think about others and look out for younger siblings is a positive value to us.  Learning to delay gratification, share, and make choices because you can’t have it all builds inner character, in our minds.  So are we depriving our children? Should we have stopped long ago so that the older children could have more materially as they are growing up?  We don’t think so.

On the flip side, we’ve been told how lucky we are that we can afford to have one parent at home full time.  (‘Lucky’ is the subject of another long overdue post….)  Our children enjoy knowing that one of their parents is always available to them, something that many people will say is a luxury.   A family member who once told me that every generation is responsible to make sure the next has it better materially than them clearly would say we’ve failed in our basic parental responsibilities.  Most others have looked at them and commented that they are happy and well adjusted – and told us to have more, that the world needs more children like ours!  For us, we take it one child at a time, being mindful of our emotional and physical ability to meet what we consider to be the crucial needs of each of the children we already have.

This is a topic that is now being discussed in wider circles, as the mother of the octoplets gains fame.  I don’t support choosing to have a child when there isn’t a stable family structure in place, as I see that as purposely denying a child what should be a basic right.  But it seems that very few people are bothered by this, and that the real concern is financial.

Most people would probably agree that having more children when you can’t take care of those you have already have is neglectful and not something to be supportive of.  The question is, how do you define taking care of your children, and where do you personally draw the line?


5 thoughts on “When to stop having children?

  1. Hi Aviva –
    Thank You so much for bringing this topic out in the open. I think more people need to discuss these things with their kids. I hope more people will realize that being a mother is the most important job that any women can be privaleged to do. That it’s not a burden or I have to. It’s a trmendously precious gift that Hashem gives us and we should never take it for granted. Whether you send your kids to school or not no child should ever have to pay the price for that decision and be left to be raised with a babysitter. Thanks for all your great ideas. Have a great day

  2. What a thought-provoking post! This hits me at a very deep level, and actually helps me understand my husband a bit better. I had always wanted 12 (more or less) children; my husband said he wanted 2, and as naive young people talking about marriage, we each believed the other would change their mind. Anyway, we’ve had a good marriage, and he welcomed four more babies, while my heart has never stopped longing for more. This post makes me realize, though, the impact our differing expectations had on our desires. He grew up without a father’s support either financially or emotionally, and while he insists that our children learn to be good workers and good stewards, he expected of himself that he would provide certain things, most notably no more than two children to a bedroom, and help (we pay half) with a college education (private), which he expects of each of them. I think, as a young man, he thought it was his job to make sure his children were better off financially than he had been growing up. For my part, I grew up with a mom that I only saw on weekends, because she left for work before I got home from school, she got home around midnight, and didn’t get up before I left for school. When I was a young teen I asked her why she worked, and she said that although we could get by on my dad’s income, she worked because extras, “like potato chips,” were important. Wow. I guess she thought I really liked potato chips. So my expectation was that our relational involvement with our children far outweighed any benefits of material extras.

    Thanks, Avivah, for such practical insights into how we make important decisions. I remember you made a comment once about not understanding why people didn’t comment about the more important posts. I think it is because, if you aren’t ready to think about it, you don’t really let it sink in. And if you are ready to think about it, most people have to process awhile before responding, at which point everyone is talking about something else! My point is that I think more people are processing the important stuff than you know. Good job.

    1. I’m so glad to hear you found this post helpful, Janet. I also appreciated hearing your thoughts on why people stay quiet on the more thought provoking posts; I think you’re right. It’s easy to ask for a recipe or for a clarification about an ingredient, but major topics don’t lend themselves to one line comments.

      I relate to where you’re coming from as far as your priorities. I grew up with a single mother who left the house before I woke up in the morning and came home late, exhausted. On Shabbos she was so tired she slept alot. We didn’t have much money, either; she was working so we could survive and I didn’t begrudge her in any way.

      When I was a teenager I used to think that what was most important would be that my future children wouldn’t feel different or lacking anything, like I did. But then I had a couple of kids and started thinking about what kind of mother I wanted to be. And that led me to conclude that it was more important to me that my kids had a relationship and time with me than material things. (And materially while we aren’t wealthy, G-d has been very good to us and provided amply for all of our needs and even some of our wants!)

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