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.