What is the correct number of children to have?

Twin Girls, baby, babies

What is the correct number of children to have in order to avoid judgment or scrutiny from strangers? Is such a thing even possible?

Children. Brilliant, aren’t they? Everyone says so. I’ve got two children myself, and I love them more than anything and would do anything for them.

I don’t expect anyone else to feel the same, though. Not anyone outside of my immediate family anyway. They’re MY children; why would I expect complete strangers to give a damn about how I and my wife reproduce?

Except they DO care. Sometimes, quite a lot. Speak to anyone (well, any woman) of child-bearing age and they’ll regularly have been asked about their intentions regarding having children, with the emphasis firmly on “when”, not “if”. Asking people you barely know about their plans to procreate is completely normal, like asking about the weather or where they got your hair cut.

It isn’t always friendly chit-chat. For saying she didn’t want children in a recent BBC article, Gadgette editor Holly Brockwell received ridiculous amounts of hostile abuse. Whatever your position on the matter, it’s clear that people care a great deal about other people having children (or that insecure men can’t deal with a woman making decisions about her own body – can’t rule that out).

Just like how pregnant women, despite all they’re going through, receive constant scrutiny and criticism, your reproductive intentions are apparently fair game for public scrutiny. However, it’s not a simple yes/no situation; the number of children you have/want matters too. So, what is the ideal number of children to have so that people will leave you alone? Well, let’s find out.

No children = wrong

As we’ve seen, people (meaning women) saying they don’t want children is a big no-no. This may be due to the fundamental urge to procreate being intertwined with much of human society, so someone saying they don’t want children strikes others as “wrong” or “unnatural”.

Not that this excuses anything; wearing clothes is similarly “unnatural” but nobody gets grief for that unless their fashion sense is horrifically bad.

This assumption that having children is “the done thing” means many couples are also regularly questioned about their procreation plans. Thing is, having children is a big deal, most obviously for women. The intense strain on the female body is just the beginning. Once pregnancy is over, you’ve got a small human that you’re responsible for 24/7, for nearly 2 decades. Many are overjoyed by this prospect, which is great, but that doesn’t mean everyone is.

However, people still regularly ask “when do you plan on having children?” “Any kids on the way?” etc.

If you do this to childless people, two things; one, it’s none of your business. Two, you have no idea if they are trying to have children, and haven’t succeeded yet. Fertility problems are very common, as are miscarriages, but society has decreed that we don’t talk about these things. If someone has no children, it may be a conscious choice, or it may be due to upsetting/traumatic health issues. The last thing they want is a casual acquaintance bluntly asking why you’ve no offspring, as if the only thing stopping them is laziness. And for something as mundane as small talk?

As we can see, having zero children is no defence against scrutiny and judgment from others.

One child = wrong

OK, so you’ve got one child. You’ve reproduced. Surely people will be satisfied now?

No, of course not. The “only child” stereotype is largely a negative one, as detailed excellently in Taylor Glenn’s recent guest post. Having only one is also seen as unfair to the child. Many people will say the child “needs” a sibling, or they’ll get lonely, which unless they’re kept in a sterile room all day is quite unlikely.

Typical questions change from “when are you having kids?” to “When are you having another?” However, the same rules regarding fertility and miscarriages apply as in the previous example. Just because someone has given birth once is no guarantee they’ll be able to do so again; bodies change over time, particularly after a process as difficult as creating and giving birth to a child.

As we can see, having one child is no defence against scrutiny and judgment from others.

Two children = wrong

Technically, this is the most acceptable option, but you have to go about it in very specific ways. The acceptance may come from the clichéd 2.4 children statistic, making it seem like two children is “normal”. There’s also a pleasing mathematical aspect too; two parents, two children. Nicely balanced.

However, if you have two children of the same sex, expect questions like “don’t you want another, to try for a son/daughter?” because children are like sticker books; they’re not as good if you don’t have a full set. There’s also a growing belief that three is the ideal number of children, not two.

Twins also throw a spanner into the equation; many people are concerned about the ideal age gap between siblings, and twins don’t really have one. Also, do twins count as two children? It’s only one “birth”, so some people may question your commitment to parenting (cue the sound of exploding heads from anyone who’s actually raised twins).

As we can see, having two children is no defence against scrutiny and judgment from others.

Three or more children = wrong

Despite the growing trends mentioned above, two children still seems to the ideal number. An actual study revealed one to two children is the ideal number for “happiness”, but with two you don’t have to deal with the aforementioned only child issues.

Plus, with many people thinking two children is the acceptable average number of children, three or more is clearly above average, and this pushes you into “big family” territory. Having a supposed big family makes you a target for much criticism, with accusations ranging from being irresponsible to self-indulgent and more.

As we can see, having three or more children is no defence against scrutiny and judgment from others.

Other variables

As if all of the above didn’t make it hard enough to avoid the judgement of strangers, don’t forget these other factors.

  • Don’t be single: single mothers are, as we know, the worst sort of people and fair game for political and media attacks. No matter how many children you have, if you’re single you are doing something bad (apparently).
  • Don’t be too young: If you have children at too young an age you are clearly irresponsible and aren’t capable of knowing what you’re doing. You should wait until you turn at least 25 when an in-depth knowledge of parenting is beamed directly into your brain by the government while you sleep.
  • Don’t be too old: If you have children in your forties or, god forbid, fifties, this is just wrong on so many levels. Admittedly the risks are greater with having children later in life (not that it’s ever a 100% safe procedure), but the assumption from others that because you can have children you should have children comes to a screeching halt around middle age.
  • Don’t be poor: If you are not financially secure, you shouldn’t have any number of children, lest you be accused of being a sponger or reckless scrounger. It doesn’t even count if you became poor after having children. You should really only reproduce when you can confirm that sufficient finances are guaranteed for the rest of your life, like everyone else does.
  • Don’t be disabled/gay/Trans etc.: Your very existence seems to upset people, so reproducing is just going to exacerbate things.

Overall, there’s clearly no combination of variables that will protect you from criticism or judgement when deciding to start a family (or not). Given how so many people have such strong views on children and parenting, someone’s going to find fault in your decisions no matter what they are, no matter how irrelevant their arguments may be. All you can really do is put up with it, even though it’s hard to think of something that is so fundamentally “your business”.

Dean Burnett promises he has experienced, heard or been told about all of the things mentioned here, often via Twitter. @garwboy

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dean Burnett, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th November 2015 07.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010