Million-dollar babies

Among the rich, having lots of children is all the rage.

Published August 6, 2007 8:16PM (EDT)

Oh. Broadsheet readers. Run, do not walk, over to the NPR Web site and click on the current most e-mailed story, from Sunday's "Weekend Edition," titled "In Some Circles, Four Kids Is the New Standard." Just make sure your stomach is empty.

The story is about how, among a minuscule, affluent, mind-bogglingly wealthy segment of the privileged United States, accepted socioeconomic reality is being turned on its head. According to the piece, "in certain circles, a big family is now the hottest fashion trend," and "in the world of the wealthy, four has become the new two."

Join me, won't you, on this radio odyssey of horror!!

NPR reporter Tovia Smith interviews Annette Madden-Kline, a mom of two kids who didn't know she needed more until she moved to posh Darien, Conn. "When everyone you see had ... the baby on the hip, I did feel like I was a little short," confesses Madden-Kline. That's right! They may be moms, but they're not immune to lemming-level popular-girl bullshit: the kind of peer pressure that pushes you to buy that pricey pair of jeans that all the other girls are wearing or, you know, to create more human lives.

To stay cool, Madden-Kline had a third little bundle of social status. But then a biking buddy told her she was pregnant with her fourth. Madden-Kline tells NPR, "I was like, 'I'm so jealous of you.' And sure enough, within the month, we're biking again, and I'm like, 'Guess what? I'm pregnant with No. 4 too!'"

Omigod, yay!!! I love it when people who have excellent values and priorities get to pass them along to a gigantic broods of kids! It's like eugenics, but more about wealth than race!

While this is precisely the kind of "three people I know in Darien have a bunch of kids" trend story that can be dangerous, NPR's data seems to indicate that Madden-Kline isn't the only megamama out there. According to the piece, census data confirms that the number of higher-income families having three or more kids has increased by 30 percent in the past 10 years.

Since it's not tied to other traditional reasons for having big families -- say, because you need hands for the farm, or because you assume a certain number of them will die as children, or because of your religious beliefs, or because you don't have access to birth control or reproductive healthcare -- this shift must be because of how safe and stable and prosperous the world has become in the past decade. (Cough, cough.)

Oddly, no. According to demographic analyst Peter Francese, this trend is "completely counter to a hundred years of history," during which poorer broods were bigger broods, and wealthy, educated populations kept their family trees neatly pruned. This, Francese told NPR, is mostly about the fact that between the daunting costs of the healthcare, baby-sitting, education (that means preschool to grad school in these lofty climes) and myriad lessons today's hothouse seedlings require, "it is possibly the ultimate luxury in America today to have three or more kids."

"Momzillas" author Jill Kargman, herself working on baby No. 3, tells NPR that birthing overdrive is a byproduct of women who have left the workforce and are applying their former professional ambition to their maternal lives. "It's that Newtonian law of energy where all of that drive doesn't just cease to exist," she says. "The second you quit your job it gets channeled into the children. So there's this mentality of 'I'm going to stay at home but I'm going to do it the best. I'm going to be super mom.'"

Interestingly, no one in this piece even questions the idea that all wealthy women with lots of kids quit their jobs. It is simply assumed in the story, as in Kargman's statements, that while these mothers are certainly among the best educated in the country, they naturally stop working once they have kids. Which is insane. Not only because back here on planet Earth, many moms -- even rich ones -- have to work in order to send the rug rats to harpsichord camp, but also because many of them -- whether mothers to one kid or five -- enjoy getting out of their houses, care about what they do professionally, like having a life outside their family, and value their economic independence, not to mention an identity not directly linked to their ovaries. The basic assumption, unquestioned by any of the women interviewed or by NPR itself, that if they had the money, all women would choose not to work is offensive and also simply not true.

But I digress. Back at the swim club, Madden-Kline was backing up Kargman's physics analysis of what happens to the energy of former high-achieving professionals when they start lactating.

"We are compelled to be successful and to be achievers," says Madden-Kline. "And if you are an Ivy League graduate, who's always balanced all of the things in your life and done it well, you don't decide to be a mom and have one kid." Right. Got that? Having one kid is weak. It's for community college graduates.

Hey, here's another idea for moms of one or two tykes who still have some leftover ambition they're dying to burn off: Go back to work!

But no, according to the women interviewed by NPR, part of the point of having multiple offspring is to secure approval for their choices from their peers without actually punching a clock. "You do kind of pat yourself on the back when people compliment you, 'Oh, my gosh, look at all these kids and they're so well behaved,'" explains Madden-Kline. "You're kind of proud of that because I'm not working. This is what I do."

And then there's the part about how having more kids justifies the choice to stay home. As former attorney Linda Ramsen says, "To some extent I feel more validated saying, 'I'm a mother of four.' You know: 'Of course I'm not working right now. What are you thinking? You know, how I could possibly do anything else? This is a full-time job.'"

Well, actually, many women and men with many fewer resources than these specimens do find ways to do other things while raising four or more children. Granted, it's possible that they don't have the time, as Ramsen does, to get her 2-year-old daughter into an institution as fine as the Wellesley Nursery School in the Hills, where things are getting tense, since in the dog-eat-dog world of preschool admissions, preference is given to siblings and these days there are just too many siblings!

The Wellesley school's director, Virginia Smith, tells NPR that over half her applicants now come from families of three or more, and that many moms drop the tots off every morning "all dressed and looking fabulous ... and they still go to the gym, still have time to do whatever they need to do." Why? Because they have employed a militia of potty-training consultants and bike-riding coaches to perfect their children while they work out.

So are we all clear on this? All those women you may or may not know, women who have lots of kids but no money for potty-training consultation, women who have to keep jobs (as lawyers or as checkout clerks at the supermarket) because feeding their five children is expensive, women who may or may not have planned to have such a big brood but who nonetheless love them and care for them without much help because they can't afford lots of babysitters: so last decade. Moms who reproduce because their neighbors are doing it and because it won't interfere with their gym and me time and because they can garner accolades for their high achievement in the field of hiring other people to teach their children how to do stuff: hot, hot, hot.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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