Small Families Are Becoming the Rule Instead of the Exception


The likes of Bill Cosby’s television family is anathema to the likes of Esther Mechler.

Mechler, 47, of Trumbull, Conn., is a board member of Zero Population Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based educational foundation. She cringes at the popular show’s subtle encouragement to have large families.

She speaks from experience. As a girl, Mechler, who has no children, planned to have three children, based on her love of the television show “Father Knows Best,” which featured a family that had two girls and a boy.

Despite such cultural prodding in favor of larger families, the organization and others are getting their message across: Big families are big consumers of the world’s depleted natural resources. Somewhere, they say, someone is going to have to start being responsible.


And from statistics compiled in a recent Zero Population Growth study, someone is. Studying family sizes of women aged 40 to 44, from the years 1920 to 1988, the study found:

* The large family is a rarity. The percentage of women with four or more children declined from 42% in 1920 to 15% in 1988.

* In the same period, the percentage of two-child families rose from 13% to 35%.

* With the exception of those born during the baby boom, the number of women with one child or no children has remained fairly constant.

“Women today who choose to stop at one or remain child-free often feel like pioneers,” said Pamela Wasserman, author of the study. “But they are obviously not the first generation of women to do so.”

Kim Friedman, 27, and her husband, Tom Redden, 34, have been married 7 1/2 years. Friedman said they have talked about limiting the size of their family to two children.

“I think the overriding concern has to do with limited global resources,” said Friedman, who works at the Connecticut Assn. for Human Services and whose husband teaches political science at the University of Connecticut.

“I don’t want to bring in so many children that I felt we as a family would be over-consumers,” she added.

According to the study, Americans consume more energy, food and water, and produce more solid waste, than any other nation in the world. By the time an American reaches age 75, the study shows, he or she will have produced 52 tons of garbage, consumed 43 million gallons of water and used 3,375 barrels of oil.

“India can handle hundreds of millions of people, but their people are very poor,” Mechler said. “If they all had cars the way we do, half the planet would be a parking lot. You start spreading that kind of standard of living and expectation, and there really wouldn’t be enough green space left to provide the oxygen we all need.”

And then there are the financial concerns of raising children. Hank and Julie Moore of Hartford, Conn., have a 2-year-old daughter, Trina. When the Moores married in 1984, they discussed having two children. Now they are reconsidering.

“We are finding that the financial responsibility of one child is pretty overwhelming,” said Hank Moore, an electrical technician. “With one, Julie can still stay at home if she chooses. With two, I’m not so sure.”

According to the study, it will cost the Moores--and other parents living in the Northeast who had children in 1988--$164,663 to raise their daughter to age 18. Only in the West does it cost more--$168,899--to raise a child.

Neither figure includes the cost of college, which can add up to $160,000.

But societal mores are difficult to hurdle, and influences that all marriages should produce children are subtle but powerful. Even the decisions of celebrity women to bear children later in life--Bette Midler and Priscilla Presley, for example, had children while in their 40s--simply tells American women that they can extend their fertile years a decade past what was thought possible even five years ago.

And people--particularly women--who say they don’t want children are looked upon as inferior or strange. Doesn’t everyone want children?

When friends worry that Mechler, who is divorced, will be lonely or bored without offspring, she responds with a recitation of her schedule.

“If you’re interested in the environment, you are busy, and that really takes up a lot of your time,” Mechler said. “I felt I needed the time to do these things. The phone is always ringing.”

Instead of raising a child, Mechler has focused on fighting animal abuse and exploitation.

Holidays aren’t a problem, either. Mechler says she gathers close friends around, people she wants to have near her. Family doesn’t have to be blood relation, Mechler said. To fill a desire for a close bond with a woman, Mechler said she has “adopted” a sister, becoming close friends with a woman who’s 20 years younger.

“I think we really need to loosen up a little bit” about the way people define family, Mechler said. “I don’t know why everybody has to reproduce and have your own.”