The weak economy of the past five years could end up exacerbating a long-term trend toward more one-child families, as the cloud of financial uncertainty causes some parents to fret about the burden of taking on everything from daycare costs to college tuition for more than one child.
The percentage of women who reach ages 40 to 44 and have given birth to just one child has risen sharply over the past few decades, from nearly 10 percent in 1976 to nearly 19 percent in 2010, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data available. That age range signals the end of their childbearing years for most women, so researchers say it's a good measure of the increase in women having only one child.
It's common for people to have fewer babies when the economy slumps, and the current recession and recovery has coincided with a sharp drop in the nation's fertility rate.
Experts say those who put off having kids usually make up for lost time when the economy becomes healthy again. This recession and recovery has been particularly prolonged, however, and no one yet knows when — or if —Americans will feel confident enough about their finances to have as many kids as they might have if the recession had not occurred.
"This recession (seeped) into everybody's lives in ways that past recessions didn't," said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the Carsey Institute and the University of New Hampshire.
(Read more: Weak economy means fewer babies—for now)
That could mean some women run out of time to have more children, even once they feel more financially comfortable.
"It's really hard to say if this is going to be a permanent change of people's ideology surrounding child bearing, but there's reason to believe that among those older (women) you may see a lowered fertility from this," Smith said.
For parents who have spent years under the cloud of the weak economy, the prospect of adding another child to feed, clothe and send to daycare and to college can seem particularly foreboding.
"It's very scary to think that I could be bringing a child into the world and then be going to the food bank," said Kati Criner, 36.
(Read more: Dream delayed: Young people put off parenthood)
Criner and her husband have a 6-year-old son. She said they always talked about a family that included two or three kids.
But Criner, who grew up in a family that sometimes struggled to afford basics like shoes, said the couple also wants the kind of life that allows for things like a camping trip in the summertime, a college fund for their son and eventual retirement.
About three years ago, Criner became pregnant for a second time, but she had a miscarriage after her appendix burst. The couple is still paying off the credit card debt and medical bills they accrued when she had to miss work for surgeries and recovery. It has forced them to live paycheck to paycheck.
"We have nothing extra in the budget," she said.
A few weeks ago, Criner also learned that she is going to lose her job in leadership at a call center by the end of the year.
The financial hits have only added to the feeling that it would be a financial mistake to have another child. But Criner who lives in Boise, Idaho, admits it's also a bit heartbreaking.
"Every time I see a baby, I swear that, like, my uterus hurts. I'm like, 'Look at that. I really want one of those,' " she said.