There's an odd phenomenon being reported in tony enclaves across the country: highly educated, highly compensated couples popping out four or more children--happily and by choice. In Loudoun County, a suburb of Washington, four-packs of siblings rule the playgrounds. In New York City, real estate agents tell of families buying two or three adjacent apartments to create giant spaces for their giant broods. Oradell, N.J., is home to so many sprawling clans that residents call it Fouradell. In a suburb of Chicago, the sibling boomlet is called the Wheaton Four.
Of course, big families never really disappeared. Immigrants tend to have more kids, as do Mormons, some Catholics and a growing cadre of fundamentalist Christians. But in the U.S. today, the average number of children per mom is about 2, compared with 2.5 in the 1970s. While 34.3% of married women ages 40 to 44 had four or more children in 1976, only 11.5% did in 2004, according to the Current Population Survey. Though factoring in affluence can be statistically tricky, an analysis by Steven Martin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, shows that the proportion of affluent families with four or more kids increased from 7% in 1991-96 to 11% in 1998-2004. Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, speculates, "For most people, two is enough because there are so many other competing ways to spend your time and money. People prefer to have fewer kids and invest more in them. My guess is the wealthy are having more because they enjoy children, and they have the time and resources to raise them well. They don't have to make those trade-offs."
What most outsiders want to know, though, is how in heck these parents keep straight who's got Taekwondo class and who needs new sneakers and who's desperate for some quality time alone with Mom or Dad. For Laura Bennett, 44, and Peter Shelton, 62, raising five young boys in Manhattan requires a daily battle plan. (Bennett also has a daughter, 19, from a previous marriage, who does not live with them.) A babysitter arrives early at the family's loft-style apartment to help manage the morning scrum. Then Shelton, an architect, and Bennett, a clothing designer whose career was launched on the Bravo reality show Project Runway, hit their offices, although she usually leaves hers around 3 p.m. After school, it takes one or both parents plus two sitters to get all the kids--Peik, 12; Truman, 9; Pierson, 6; Larson, 4; and Finn, 1--to and from their various activities. And it's all hands on deck until the boys are tucked into beds lined side by side in a room Bennett likens to military barracks.
Bennett doesn't sweat the small stuff, like missing a kindergarten stage debut. "A lot of mothers are frantic because they don't want to miss a thing," she says. "I get to do everything six times. And you know, those musical revues can get a little old."
Raising a passel of kids is an enormous financial undertaking even for the affluent. An oft quoted 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that families earning at least $70,200 a year spent $269,520 raising one child--and that's just until the age of 17. Tack on four years of college, and you're looking at a nearly half-million-dollar tab for each, or almost $3 million for six. "If you sit down and write out the numbers, nobody would have children," scoffs Jen Reid, 37, a stay-at-home mom in Berwyn, Pa. "You would scare yourself out of it every single time." She and her husband Charlie, 43, apparently don't scare easily; they've produced Charlie, 10; Lizzie, 8; Michael, 7; twins Mary Grace and Marta, 5--and Baby No. 6, due in February. Charlie's work as a real estate lawyer covers expenses, but "we spend what we make," says Jen.
Marketers largely ignore large packs: minivans comfortably seat no more than six, and few houses offer more than four bedrooms. When Matthew Franck, 37, travels with his wife Christine, 35, and their four children--Sadie, 11; Maxwell, 8; Lily, 5; and Jackson, 1--he hunts far and wide for lodgings that will accommodate them all together at a reasonable cost. Franck, who lives in Jefferson City, Mo., and covers state government for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has taken to sneaking everyone into one motel room, where they sleep three to a bed and partake of the complimentary breakfast in shifts.
So why do it? Why, in this day and age, would any American adult--rich or not--have so many kids? Because they love them. Because professional achievement and money are something, but, asks Kellie Weiss, 37, a mother of five in Oradell, "What does it mean without family?"