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The Baby Binge : Orange County Families Are Part of a Trend Toward Having Three, Even More, Children


Christy Shahnazarian starts each day with apricot lipstick, black mascara and a surge of energy. But by 7 each night, after dealing with three young children, her face is etched with fatigue.

"When I had two (children), I used to be able to sit down every once in a while, and maybe watch a soap," says the 34-year-old Seal Beach woman. "But with three, forget it."

Despite the economic uncertainties and numerous concerns about raising children in the '90s, the Shahnazarians have joined an increasing number of Orange County households who have taken the plunge to larger families.

"Everyone I know is going to three," she says. "It didn't seem like a lot until I did it."

It stands to reason that during the boom years of the '80s, Americans started having larger families--trading their BMWs for kid-friendly minivans, and adding another bedroom to the house. After all, it's easier to make more babies when you're making more money.

Statistics from 1980 to 1990 show the number of third births in the United States climbed 26%, with a 22% increase in births of four or more children. The trend was even more pronounced in Orange County, where the number of third births climbed 84% during the same period, and there was a 62% increase in families with more than three children.

Although statistics on family size are unavailable for the first few years of the '90s, baby doctors, psychologists and neighborhood moms say the trend shows no sign of abating, despite the recession.

"It's almost to the point where people say, 'We have two, three won't make that much difference,' " says Newport Beach obstetrician Mark Vuchinich. "People just don't have that stereotype anymore that two is perfect, so they go ahead for the third one."

National statisticians say it's impossible to forecast how long the trend will continue, because it hinges on many factors, including the rising number of older women having their first baby.

"The trend has been going up," says Stephanie Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics. "It's very hard to predict in this area, because things change without notice. You've got the recession, you've got immigration. . .there are so many things to consider."

The fact that we would continue to burden family finances with three and four children seems to be a contradiction, yet history established a similar pattern during the Great Depression, when large families huddled through tough times.

"In the Depression, families were very large," says family therapist Toni Aquino. "It wasn't uncommon to see families with eight, 10 or 12 kids."

Aquino notices that clients in her Brea practice are spending more time with their children these days, and seem to be placing a great deal more importance on the family.

"I think people are enjoying their children more," Aquino says, "more so than I've seen in the past 10 years. I also see people organizing their work so that they can spend more time with their children."

Msgr. Jaime Soto of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Ana says the strong emphasis on family remains a focal point of his congregation, despite the economic downturn.

"There's a quality of life that no amount of money or financial security will buy," says Soto. "There's still a value in larger families."

While scrubbing breakfast dishes late one afternoon, Shahnazarian says she is the first to admit that having son Stephen 11 months ago wasn't the simple route to take. But she loves babies, and with Megan, 7, and David, 4, she and her husband, Bob, were ready for an infant.

"When you get down to it in this short life, it's family that's important," she says, "And we didn't think two was enough."

Even without economic restraints, the choice to go beyond the two-child family can be confronted with it's share of social opposition. Total strangers ask if they are all yours, waitresses fake adoring smiles, and your hair salon posts a sign that says "Children by Appointment Only."

"When I go to the grocery store . . . the way people look at me . . . it's like my three kids don't fit into other people's plans," she says.

For Bob Shahnazarian, the drawback of adding another little one to the roster is twofold.

"Economics is part of it. Having a life is the other part," says the 38-year-old marine contractor. "I've even entertained the thought of having a fourth, but after seeing how much work it is, I don't know."

Whether it's one, two or six, Shahnazarian maintains that children are a gift that parents should work hard for.

"You have to earn that privilege in society," he says. "If you can't afford it, you don't bring children into this world."

Tom Kim, president of the Korean-American Assn. of Orange County and father of two, agrees that a large family plus the recession equals hardship, not prosperity, for many Americans. He and his wife, Heiwon, say Western views 20 years ago played a role in the size of their family.

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