Worried about finances, parents opt for ‘one and done’

Kati and Jason Criner with their six-year-old son Terry at their home in Boise, ID
Joe Jaszewski | TODAY
Kati and Jason Criner with their six-year-old son Terry at their home in Boise, ID

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.

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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.

Cherie Atkinson, 27, also grew up in a home where money was scarce. There were eight kids in her family, and Atkinson said that meant there were times when they couldn't pay the light bill or even know what they would eat.

Now that she's a parent herself, Atkinson said she's grateful that her husband has a good job and that, as a graduate student, she's on a path to getting a stable job in the education field. But with student loan debt hanging over her head, she said she also worries that having another child would put her young family in a precarious position.

"I feel thankful and at the same time I also feel like I'm not going to do anything that could make me feel tight," she said.

(Read more: What were Moms doing during the recession? Yelling)

Atkinson, who lives in Valparaiso, Ind., said she isn't the type of woman who grew up fantasizing about being a mom. But now that she has a child and enjoys it, she said that she would happily have a second child if money wasn't an issue.

"We want to add to our family, but we are responsible people," she wrote in an e-mail to TODAY. "If having another child is going to put us into a financial crisis, or make us dependent upon others, we are not willing to do it."

Even parents who are doing well financially now say that the Great Recession has caused them to think, and worry, more about debt and other financial issues than generations before them.

Before she became a mother, Myranda Dillon and her husband always thought that their ideal family would include two children.

Then her son Eli was born about two years ago, and Dillon, 25, started taking a hard look at the cost of everything from diapers and sports equipment to, eventually, the cost of sending their son to college.

"We just started thinking about the future and everything we wanted him to have," said Dillon, who lives in Hurricane, W. Va. "Slowly but surely, it just became really, really obvious that this may be our only one."

Many moms who have chosen to have one child say their choice has been driven by other factors, such as having more time for yourself, your spouse or your career. Lauren Sandler, the author of "One and Only," has drawn praise as well as ire for her argument that only children – and their mothers – may be happier and do better than people in larger families.

Smith, the demographer, said there's strong evidence that working moms suffer an earnings penalty over women without kids - and just find it tough to juggle all the responsibilities.

"When you're organizing life, three kids is harder than one," she said.

Dillon said finances are the key reason she and her husband expect to only have one child. But she also worries that having another child would be hard in other ways, such as adding to the guilt she already feels when she heads off to work.

"We're hands down the happiest we've ever been now," Dillon said. "I think we're very, very lucky and in some ways I think that almost having another one, whether (in) time or resources, is going to take something away from him eventually."

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.