Jeffrey Kluger's The Sibling Effect: The latest book in an emerging canon that fetishizes large broods.

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Sept. 21 2011 5:39 PM

Books By Men Who Like Big Families

Jeffrey Kluger's The Sibling Effect is part of an emerging canon that fetishizes large broods.

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Kluger's conception of marriage is likewise anachronistic, a relic of an era long since done in by Betty Friedan and the need for two incomes. In Kluger's world, a typical mother still says "Don't bother Daddy when he gets home; you know how angry he gets," while "in stable marriages Dad would also take pains to give Mom props for how hard she works and to remind the kid that anybody would be fed up at the end of a long day of domestic labor." Seriously. So even as census rolls show the share of families with more than two kids creeping back up, the rough-and-tumble crewcut-era boyhood Kluger waxes nostalgic about seems impossibly distant from the contemporary reality of female breadwinners.

Driving the way-back machine even farther, Philip Longman, the author of The Empty Cradle, goes as far as to call for a "return to patriarchy" (and homesteading!) to ensure more robust fertility. At least he understands the opportunity costs: Factoring in the penalties of mommy-tracking in our inhospitable work world, he writes, would raise the Department of Agriculture's per-child estimated average expenditure (currently climbing toward $300,000) to more than $1 million a kid.

Meanwhile, Bryan Caplan, an economist as well as a virulent natalist, bypasses such notions entirely in last year's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, preferring to argue that since we earn more money than we did in the '50s, we should have more kids and not fewer. He doesn't bother with increases in cost of living, let alone the cost of college tuition. Nor does he make any mention in the book of the fact that his wife works; I know that she does only because I asked him myself. He does, however, tell us that when his wife learned that she was pregnant with just one baby after previously having twins, he had to resist the temptation to tell her, mid-sonogram, "better luck next time." Caplan isn't suggesting that his wife pick up the pace for the sake of the fetus, however—he's not trading in the sort of don't you want what's best for the children guilt beloved by so many writers on parenting. (In fact, Caplan rails quite effectively against parental guilt. Among other things, he advises us to lean on the serenity prayer, a tip which allowed me to send my kid to school in PJs this morning.)

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Don't do it for the kids, Caplan says of procreation, do it for you. It's a business-school-style approach to consumption (rather than production, oddly), one he rides hard. "As a consumer, how do you change your behavior when a product gets cheaper or better or easier to purchase? You buy more," he writes. "You post a five-star review on Amazon. If kids are the product, consumer logic still applies: Buy more as the deal gets sweeter." Writ large across the globe this means major gains, he argues—including the as-yet unborn geniuses who will solve any resulting environmental and overpopulation issues. Exultant in the idea that we are soon to hit the 7 billion population mark, Caplan tells us that just means 7,000 one-in-a-million thinkers.

Of course, these books aren't really anything all that new; it's the American way, this Cheaper by the Dozen mentality, conflating virtue with fertility. In June's GOP debate, when candidates were instructed to deliver a single opening sentence, Rick Santorum counted his kids (seven) and Mitt Romney followed suit (five), adding daughters-in-law (five) and grandchildren (16). Both were potentially trumped by Ron Paul's claim that he had delivered 4,000 babies as an obstetrician. (Dudes all, like these authors.) But the winner in this otherwise-cockfight was the Bachmann birthing overdrive—Michele's parenting of 28 siblings, 5 from her own loins and 23 from foster care. No doubt we'll read all about it in her forthcoming book, which is supposed to cover both her personal life and, fittingly, her views on "pro-growth economics." The canon of big brood books will have another author with an agenda, and I won't feel any better that this time it'll be a mother holding the pen.

Lauren Sandler writes for Slate, Time, the New York Times, and other publications, and is the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.