This post was initially inspired by a question asked in an open chat comment thread (on the Ask A Manager blog, but it’s in the weekend open thread and hence nothing to do with the blog topic). Briefly: the poster has two children aged 5 and 2, she’s struggling with the decision of whether to have a third child, and she asked working parents on the site for their experiences with the same decision. As it happens, this is a situation that I also experienced many years back, and so I Have Thoughts on the subject. I started writing a comment, but it was getting so long and rambly that I decided I might as well make it a blog post instead.
(Warning: I’m discussing the issue of decisions about childbearing from the very privileged position of having been able to have the children I wanted and not have ones I didn’t want, and I know that there are very many people out there for whom either or both of those isn’t the case. I’ve been extremely lucky, and I know it, and don’t mean to make it sound as though I’m oblivious to my privilege here.)
When I thought about having children, I always planned that I would stop at two. Well, unless I ended up having a child as a single parent, in which case I planned to stop at one, as I wanted to avoid a children-outnumber-parents situation, but the ideal for me was always to get married and have two children. Besides, I grew up in a two-child family, so that felt normal and and right to me (1). When I met my husband-to-be he wanted three, but I decided that I’d be OK with considering a third if he wanted that, and he decided he’d be OK with stopping at two if I wanted that, and we agreed that if we made it as far as the married-with-two stage we’d revisit the issue at that point and see where we were then.
In fact, by the time we made it to the married-with-one-and-a-second-on-the-way stage it was very clear to both of us that we were going to stop at two. My husband had taken a voluntary redundancy option at work some years earlier and stayed off work to be a stay-at-home parent while the children were small, and his window of opportunity for getting back into his field was starting to narrow; he could feasibly stay at home through the upcoming infancy/toddlerhood, but that was going to be his limit (and neither of us was keen on having to find day care for a baby). Plus, stay-at-home parenthood had been harder than he’d anticipated, and he was now quite clear that two was enough for him. As for me, thrilled about my pregnancy but also constantly nauseated and facing the looming prospect of going back to night feeds, I was thoroughly on board with the idea that I was going through all this precisely one more time and then never again. And my opinion remained quite clear on that point once my daughter was born. We were now a two-child family, and that was great.
So I was a bit stymied when, a few years down the line, broodiness crept up on me and walloped me over the head.
Now, if my circumstances had been different, I might very well have decided to indulge that wish and have a third child, and I expect that, had I gone that route, I’d have gained much happiness from it and this post would be about how it all worked out for me. However, one significant difference between the OP’s situation and mine is that I knew perfectly well that this option was not on the table. I knew my husband was not going to be OK with having a third child, and that was that. I didn’t even raise the issue; the mere suggestion would have sent him into a tailspin, and it didn’t seem worth it when I knew perfectly well what the answer would be. So for me, all along, this attack of broodiness was something I just had to deal with and get over.
And that was doable. Because, as much as I might have enjoyed indulging myself on this one, there were a few things I knew all along:
I would be OK without a third child.
I knew that, in the long term, I would be all right with not having a third child in a way that I wouldn’t have been all right without getting to have the first two. Of course, if I’d faced the situation so many people face of not being able to have even those two children then I’d have had to get on with my life even so, but it would always have been a loss. Having a third child felt optional to me.
This is probably a weird metaphor, but I always thought of it in terms of a table. Deciding to go from one child to two had, for me, been like deciding whether to put the last leg on the table you’re putting together; it wasn’t really even a decision, but a no-brainer. Of course you put all the legs on a table. If you don’t, something is missing in a way that fundamentally damages the integrity of the table. (2) Deciding whether to go from two children to three was like deciding whether to put a vase on top of the table after it had been constructed. It would add something extra, something you might love, but equally well you might decide that it worked better not to put a vase on top of this particular table. Either decision would be OK. Either way, I’d have the table I wanted.
It wasn’t really about having three children rather than two; it was about the prospect of having to move on.
I realised that most of what I was feeling was about dealing with the thought of that part of my life – pregnancy, childbirth, babies – being over for good. Since this life stage was not only something that had been fairly all-encompassing over much of the past few years but also something I’d eagerly looked forward to for as long as I could remember, the realisation that it was all finally a dwindling glimpse in the rearview mirror was quite a major one to come to terms with. And to some extent, it was also about the inevitable retrospective wish to have done some things differently with my existing two.
You don’t really want a new baby, I thought to myself. You want the babies you had back again for a do-over. That wasn’t all of it, but there was a lot of truth to it.
Following on from that understanding, of course, was the realisation that…
…having another baby wouldn’t solve the broodiness problem. Well, temporarily it would, but a problem postponed isn’t really a problem solved. Since so much of this was about saying goodbye to the pregnant/new motherhood part of my life, I found it (and still find it) a pretty reasonable assumption that having another baby would just leave me feeling the same way a few years down the line. However many children I had, eventually I’d still have to move on and accept that that part of my life was over.
None of this self-knowledge, of course, made the reproduction cravings magically vanish; I just had to keep reminding myself of all of the above and ride it out like a vastly higher-stakes version of chocolate cravings. The good news is, however, that that actually worked. Eventually, gradually, they faded.
Ten years later, I can happily say that I wouldn’t want another baby now if you paid me, and I’m glad, now, that I didn’t have one at the time. Life with the children I do have has been a lot more difficult and exhausting than I’d originally bargained for, due in large part to the clashes between their needs (they’re both autistic with features of ADHD) and a sometimes problematic school system. It was absolutely worth it, but I’m still glad I didn’t add a third child into the mix.
I did realise, a few years ago, that I like the idea of providing a permanent foster home for an older child. For practical reasons this will unfortunately probably never be possible, but, if it is, then I’ll be a mother of three without ever having to deal with babies again, which will be a lovely outcome. If not… I’ll still be happy with two.
So, at the end of all this, do I have any advice for people in the situation of that commenter? Think about what you actually want. Be realistic about your reasons for considering another. Think about what your partner actually wants. And good luck with whatever you do.
(1) As an interesting side note, my sister had the opposite response to the same family background; she’s written that ‘growing up in a quiet, bookish two-child family’ left her with a firm preference for ‘the slightly anarchic dynamic of three’. I love the fact that we reacted in opposite ways to the same background. People are cool. And by the way, in case you’re wondering, she did get her wish.
(2) The other thing that works for me about that metaphor is the fact that different tables have different numbers of legs anyway. A three-legged table works fine as a table; it isn’t at all the same as a four-legged table with a missing leg. In the same sort of way, my personal feelings about the size of family I wanted had no bearing whatsoever on what size family someone else should have; there are people who do only want one child, or none, or three or four, and those are the ‘tables’ that work for them.