Amy Choate-Nielsen: Grandma's advice on family planning may be old, but it's timeless

Published: Tuesday, June 25 2013 4:02 p.m. MDT

Reading one of my grandmother's old term papers from 1964 gave me a surprising discovery about her thoughts on my own family plans.

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I started imagining having babies as early as I learned how to play "pretend."

I was probably 7 or 8 years old, I can't even remember. But I do recall fretting about figuring out the optimal number of kids I should have long before I ever hit puberty.

"I'm going to have four kids," I thought as I brushed my hair and stared into the mirror before going to bed at night in my purple flannel nightgown. There were four kids in my family, and with two parents, we added up to a family of six, which seemed like a nice even number to me.

But as I got a little older, I started to notice that people thought our family of six was pretty big. I remember hearing comments when we went out to eat and asked the waitress for a table of six, like it was bizarre that we were all in the same family and we all wanted to eat at the same table. I was embarrassed (everything in my pre-teens embarrassed me), so I figured maybe I should just have one child.

But then I worried that if I only had one child, he or she would be spoiled or lonely, so I thought maybe I should have two.

But the problem with having two meant that I would need to buy two of everything, and that just didn't feel right.

I didn't like the idea that if I had three children our family would be an odd number, either.

I thought about it for years. Then at some point, I dropped the subject. When friends asked how many kids I wanted to have, I never had an answer. When we played MASH on the back of a piece of scrap paper, I had no idea when I "won." And when my first and second babies were born, I wondered if I would have more.

When I got pregnant with my third, I declared I was finished.

I said it from the first day until the last.

"This is it," I said. "I'm done."

But even as I said the words, I wondered if it was true. I wondered, if I love my children — and more children bring more love into my heart — how do I decide when to stop having more kids?

And I thought about my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, who would have given anything to have more kids. I felt guilty at the prospect of taking the gift of having healthy babies and turning it away. If she couldn’t, but I can, then I should, right?

On the other hand, I'm a mom with many faults. I lose my temper. I holler. I get tired and frustrated and irritated more than I should, and I only have two that talk back to me. I should probably just quit while I'm ahead.

Still, my biological connection to my grandmother troubles me, and the hint of guilt, every time I think about my family's future and whether our family should keep growing, doesn't make it easier to find an answer that gives me peace. I assume she would tell me to keep having kids, if I asked her.

But amazingly, years ago, Fleeta left me an answer in her own words.

As far as I know, Fleeta didn't keep a journal, but in 1964, when she was working on earning her master's degree in counseling, she wrote a paper that covered this very topic. In it, she considered her role as a counselor when discussing family planning with clients, and she wrote her approach.

"Teach people the facts," she wrote. "Never tell people how many children they should have. Never tell people they have too many children. … I would expect people to reach their own decision about the size of family, realistically, objectively and intelligently."

Almost 50 years later, her words apply to me now, too — and it's a good thing. Three weeks ago, as soon as I took one look at my brand new baby boy, I thought maybe I should have one more.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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