Last week, my husband took our two oldest girls to California to visit family for six days; I stayed in Vermont with our two youngest. It was the first time our family had carved ourselves up for an extended period of time. The decision wasn’t easy; I was just a smidge bitter that I’d have to skip a trip to the beautiful place that was our home for five years, and where we still have many dear friends and family. But it was a decision born of frugality (my husband had enough miles to cover exactly three airfares) and practicality (Ever tried flying cross-country with a newly-walking one-year-old? It’s like six hours of wrestling a very stubborn baboon; it can be done, but it’s best avoided).
I wasn’t sure the split was equitable. My husband took the louder half of our children; I was left with the half that can’t do as much for themselves — the half that still throws food and needs diapers. Our three-year-old wasn’t sure about the arrangement, either. She lost her two big sisters, whom she alternately irritates and idolizes, and was left with her baby sister, who doesn’t do much except toddle after her and chew her toys.
For the first 24 hours after half of our family flew West, I had a perpetual lump in my throat. It was so quiet. Too quiet. I missed the chaos.
Things looked a lot different after a good night’s sleep; after I’d put the toddler and the baby down at 7:30 PM and they’d slept a solid 12 hours. No post-lights-out bedtime party. No feet running down the hall at 5:30 AM to the cries of, “I have to use the potty!” I only had to prepare meals for myself and two other people! I only had to pick up after two people! I only had to get two people ready and out the door in the morning! And these two people actually sleep during nap times! It was so, so easy.
Which got me thinking about how many kids one should have. I know I’m not the only one thinking this, because almost every day my website statistics show that somebody’s been directed to this post because they’ve done a search for something like, “Should I have a fourth child?”
I would never actually answer that question. I have no idea. I never planned how many children I would have, never had a magic number in mind. Having children is extremely personal, and it’s usually not going to turn out how you planned it, anyway. However, if you are the kind of person for whom intention and biology are aligned; the kind of person who says, “Here’s how many children I want, and their birth spacing, and their genders,” and it happens just as you wish — then the rest of us resent you like crazy. But this is for you: My extremely biased and very tongue-in-cheek reflections on offspring numbers.
One child. As I always tell the concerned parents of only children, “I’m an only child and I turned out just fine (twitch, twitch).” Parents of only children tend to be concerned; in many cases, that may be why they only had one child. One child is a good match for people who like a sense of control and order: the worriers, the perfectionists, the cloth-diaperers. The temptation for outsiders is to say, “One child; they have it so easy!” DO NOT BE FOOLED: In my opinion, one child is about as hard as it gets. First, having only one shot at child-rearing puts a lot of pressure on the parents (and the child): This is it, and if Junior ends up becoming a terrorist, that’s all you’ve got. Second, if you have an only child, you’re all they’ve got. You are the playmate, the entertainment, the bells-and-whistles. My own four children will entertain themselves reasonably well for an hour or more, because they have each other; if any one of them was an only child, I’d have no peace. My hat is off to all parents of only children; I don’t know how my mom did it.
Two children. In retrospect, this is probably the ideal number of children. Two children are easily managed and, after a certain age, will be able to entertain each other. If Junior becomes a terrorist, then you still have a backup. However, there are risks inherent in having two children. First, if Junior gets carried off by a bird of prey, then you’re left with an only child. Second, if the siblings don’t get along (and there’s no guarantee that they will), then instead of entertaining each other they’ll fight constantly, and you’ll feel like a bouncer in a biker bar.
Three children. This isn’t bad, either. It’s a particularly good option for those who find that two children feel just a little too easy, or those who haven’t gotten the desired gender on the first two tries. (WARNING: My economist husband tells me that if your first two children are the same gender, your chances of having another child of that gender are greater than 50% with number three, and the percentage goes up as you add children. We’re living proof.) The complication with three children is that it’s an odd number, so chances are someone’s going to feel left out. Also, three children automatically creates The Dreaded Middle Child. But if Junior becomes a terrorist, you can still say, “The majority of my kids turned out great!”
Four children. Ending up with four children is probably preceded by a conversation that goes something like, “Well, we’re not completely broken yet. Want to try for another?” This is when it starts to get crazy. You will need a minivan, if three children didn’t already push you over the edge. You will never go out without someone saying, “FOUR children?!? You sure have your hands full!” You will feel guilty about overpopulation. You will be embarrassed by the amount of trash and recycling you set out on your curb. The noise level in your house will leave your ears ringing for an hour, should you manage to escape. (My favorite description of having four children comes from comedian Jim Gaffigan: “Imagine you’re drowning…and then somebody hands you a baby.”) But four children can be an awful lot of fun. It’s a nice even number: Everyone gets a buddy. And if Junior becomes a terrorist, you won’t even notice.
Five or more children. This is above my pay scale. If you have five or more children, chances are that you need them to help on the farm, or you’re trying to land your own reality show. If not, you’re just a saint. Five children is the point at which I would no longer feel even a tiny bit good about my parenting at the end of the day, because there’s no possible way I could begin to give everyone the love and attention they need. But some people do it, and do it well, and I’m in awe of them. I’m also in awe of their bodies, because five or more pregnancies and childbirths? YEOW!
As lovely as my week as a parent of two was, it didn’t feel right until all four of my girls were reunited. When everyone was back together under one roof, I felt so grateful for all of the love, the noise, the mess. For about an hour. Then they started driving me crazy again.