Time and again I've been told I should be relieved it's all over, that I don't have to do it again. That I can move on. Friends, professional associates, doctors, have said it - "You're so lucky to have one of each." A boy and a girl, that is.

Many people - most moms or dads themselves - look at me with an approving "You're job is done - aren't you happy?"When I even mention that I would like a third child (I'm sometimes too embarrassed in polite company to volunteer . . . "and maybe a fourth") I often get a "but why?" It seems many folks could understand wanting a third child only if I had two boys, say, and was trying for a girl.

Of course what I go through now is nothing compared to what my friends with more than two children - and especially more than three - experience.

It can start even when there are just two kids, but only when they are not thought to be "spaced" properly. I have a friend who describes holding her 1 1/2-year-old by the hand while obviously very pregnant with No. 2. She received outright stares at the mall, with a few folks wondering out loud if she knew what caused pregnancy. Then when she entered the hospital to have No. 3, there was polite condescension since her first two were opposite sex so it was considered "unnecessary."

Still, three children will often be considered a tolerable number by polite society - though more and more it's clearly the outer limits of what's respectable. So if you really want to drive people crazy, four is the number to do it with.

My friend, who recently was thrilled to have her fourth in 4 1/2 years, says the pejorative comments, the incredulous stares, the condescending "sympathy" offered by strangers, friends, even family, practically drove her to tears.

This is a woman who owns her own business, has several of her children with her there at any one time and, like my other friends with "too many children" stories, has a stable marriage and a solid income. But people still look at her like she is utterly irresponsible.

At a conference recently I was introduced to a "child advocate." Talk turned to my family and obvious pregnancy. I commented that this was No. 4, which meant my husband and I were one-third to one-half of the way to our goal. (Yes, I admit I was goading her.) Well, the child advocate was obviously horrified and managed only to sniff something about how it would be impossible to give them individual attention. "They'll give each other individual attention" I responded.

There's no question people are having far fewer children in the United States today - barely replacement rates. But it's one thing for people to want that for themselves, and another to belittle people who opt otherwise. I hope such a view is just a cosmopolitan phenomenon and that it's different in the real America for people who break the norm. But I have to wonder. When was the last time a family of more than three young children was featured in a major advertising campaign? Yes, advertisers are just reflecting reality. But they are also subtly saying "three's the respectable limit."

So why does the thought of "large" families make so many people so crazy that complete strangers often feel they can offer their opinions about it? Even, if not especially, to stable, economically secure (though tightly budgeted) two-parent families who are clearly not asking for help in raising their kids.

I suppose today children are often seen as drains on the environment - instead of as human resources. A lot of folks view them as burdens on women, who can't possibly fulfill their "potential" with more than a couple. Maybe our society just doesn't value children enough to think large families are worth the time, energy and money investment they require, even if just of their own responsible parents and family.

Maybe our culture has gotten so used to supporting irresponsible behavior that deep down we're afraid we'll somehow be called on to support even these children, too. Or perhaps we've become so "me" centered that we think if we no longer "need" as many kids to work the family farm now or because we no longer expect to lose several before their adulthood, why have more than the replacement rate?"

I just know that I think kids are great and am support of whatever folks decide about having their own. When I see a large family with responsible parents in charge I don't think "What are you doing?" I think "Good for you!"