Sunday, January 31, 2010

Everybody's Doing It: Is Three the New Two?

Some people say the body does not remember pain. I am not sure if that’s true, but just in case, I am writing little notes to myself to read at a future date. I’ve also scripted certain conversations and given my husband his lines. Because in five months, when we stick a party hat on my youngest and celebrate 24 months of maturity, you can bet that the slightest whiff of baby powder will send me musing---should we have a third?

Here’s what he’s supposed to say: No. No. And, no.

The pain I speak of is not childbirth. It’s what follows. The physical and emotional work of raising a child to the age of two. I don’t love my youngest any less for saying this, but the truth is—I’m not signing up for this kind of labor again.

When my pediatrician identified our baby as a “parent-killer”, for distinguishing herself with eating, sleeping, and temperamental eccentricities, he was only partially kidding. I have high hopes for more peace in the years to come. It’s not that my little one is unknowable and foreign to me. It’s the opposite. I understand her too well. I see myself in her—in the rawest, most emotional sense.

She just needs to be able to do things on her own and find a creative outlet. And, once she has the vocabulary to yell in complete sentences, I think we’ll be golden.

But, looking around at other families, it’s pretty clear that three is the new two. I suppose I am only hearing the question what those with one child have dealt with for years: so, are you going to have another?

This is when I pull out a post-it note and read my prepared answer. Or, I can show the questioner the bags under my eyes and oatmeal stains on my pants and turn the table: do you think I should? I’m pretty certain we’ll arrive at the same conclusion.

But, parents who have had it no easier than my husband and I are deciding that they have the stamina for three or four kids. Having the heart, or love, for more kids is not my problem. Nor is having the desire. Even my four year old, out of the blue, said to me while I was editing this essay, “I want a bigger family.” Where did she hear that phrase? Are they watching Dr. Phil in Montessori?

The truth is hard to say out loud, but it’s simple: I am a devoted mother, but my maternal resources are not inexhaustible. Perhaps they replenish to meet the need, but I am not sure they can do that without pulling energy from another part of my body. And, that is why I can say with some peace and a little regret: I don’t have what it takes.

In New York City, the larger family is actually gaining ground as a status symbol. Forget Louis Vuitton, accessorize with two sets of multiples. Apparently, nothing speaks of deep pockets and extra closet space more than needing six tickets to Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. I understand the concept, but I still cannot believe anyone would have more kids simply to prove their wealth. It seems so much easier to just run for public office.

In the suburbs, where space and schooling are not quite so much of a commodity, there is a noticeable increase in families of three and four children. One of my very close friends said she and her husband felt significantly outnumbered being a family with just two kids when they moved to their new town.

A 2008 story in The Washington Post (Three Kids, You Showoffs) mentioned a report by the Council on Contemporary Families. In the past ten years, the top earning 1.3 % of the population has seen an increase in families with three or more children. In 1995, only 3% of women in the upper income brackets had three or more kids. By 2002, the number rose to 12%. I tried to find a statistic for 2009, but I think everyone was too busy raising three kids to answer a survey.

What’s the psychology behind the increase? Can it be that our fears of over-population have lessened? A sociology professor at Duke, Philip Morgan, was quoted as saying as much in a story on Fox News, (Small Boom in Big Families: More Couples Having More Kids.) Perhaps, in our subconscious, this plays out. But, even if Fox News says I’m imbalanced, (and really, what mother isn’t on some days?)I’d say concern for the environment and preservation of our limited resources are still defining issues of our era.

Which is why I think the desire to have a larger family shows an abundance of optimism. It seems to say that despite the problems in the world, or the poor economy, or the uncertain fate of late night television, we are going to have more kids. And, someday, when all of them are in college at half a million each, we’ll figure out a way to pay.

Financial prudence seems to be a new concept in family planning. Most of my generation owes its existence to our parents’ lack of it. If my mom and dad had waited until they could afford the estimated $6,500 the average couple today spends on baby gear in the first year, I would be typing this blog in my sophomore English class.

But, it’s the high cost of a third baby that many moms spoke of at the site, CityMommy, when I asked them how they decided (or are deciding) how many kids to have. One mom, like me, voiced concerned for her own state of mind and health. And, some talked of the opportunity to adopt a child if the desire for a third arose.

But, most of the conversation focused on the high cost of college and the difficulty of shuffling so many schedules. It’s easy to say logistical concerns are immaterial, but in fact, it’s these small details that characterize a family the most. Are you the type who can let a baby nap in a stroller while you walk the middle child to kindergarten and let the oldest carpool with another family? Are you ok with generic orange juice and going through four gallons of milk a week and eating lunch at redlights because that’s your thirty seconds of me-time for the day?

I saw a mom at the pool this summer with four girls, one still in diapers, who packed fresh green beans and a change of clothes for each, and seemed as grounded and calm as if she’d floated in from a zen retreat. She made a monumental task seem organic, but I knew there was a great deal of thought behind her preparation and grace. One mother-of-three on CityMommy mentioned how she must now have detailed conversations with her husband about how they want their family to operate. It’s this kind of forethought that seems to define the well-functioning larger family.

Certainly many of our parents grew up in families of four or five, but the contemporary family is different. In fact, it’s radically different, according to Herbert Klein, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. (It cannot be a coincidence that so many articles about the family come from conservative think tanks.) Some of the changes seem obvious: both parents working, more single-parent homes, mothers having children later in life, and despite movement in the upper economic circle, a trend towards fewer and not more children.

But, there is another change. It explains why Neil Simon’s plays now feel as ancient as Aristophanes. Grandma just doesn’t live with her children anymore. Not today. A century ago, 82% of widows lived with their children; today just about 30%. The picture Klein paints of our families today is one of more isolation.

And, the technology that has made us one global village has taken us away from face to face conversations. Instead of long moments with close friends, we have hundreds of brief ones with people we hardly know.

So, perhaps, it’s because we are so removed from the family we once were that there is a movement to reclaim something of the past. We’re still a long way off from the average of seven children that Klein says typified the colonial household. But, it makes sense that in our culture of separation and individualism, that, those who can, would make the choice to create warmth and community in the one aspect of their life they have a great deal of control over.

If I had the strength, I’d join the party. But, according to a post-it note on my fridge, I’ll be washing my hair that night. Considering the number of showers I’ve skipped in the past five years of parenthood, that sounds like quite a treat.


Liz said...

With a 6 yr old and a 3 yr old we are SOOOO in the middle of this decision. We always planned on having 3, but clearly knew nothing about the actuality of having children then. Still, I feel unfinished somehow without at least trying. My husband thinks I'm nuts, but he's willing to go along with me...for a limited time. My opinion changes with the day, sometimes with the hour. And I'm only getting older........

Liz Reitman Waller

Anonymous said...

i guess grandparents best stay out of this interesting debate...

Alyson said...

I think knowing our limitations is a great and empowering thing. I don't think we have boundless energy (or endless bank accounts) so it's good to know what each of us is capable of doing, without killing ourselves.

And it's funny you brought up the status symbol thing. Another friend, also named Sarah, just told me about that, and all I have to say about that is WOW. I don't even have a nice purse, let alone a 3rd child to impress people;)

allen stjohn said...

Fine, thought-provoking piece.
After breezing through our son, who everyone called the dalai lama baby, our daughter was more of a challenge. Our friends recall the week at Cape May in which she would scream if anyone who wasn't her mother--including me--tried to hold her. It got a lot better when she learned to crawl and walk, but I think we learned a valuable lesson: Quit while you're ahead.

Here's my question: who's dong the math here? Parents--read moms--who wouldn't *think* of tossing a recyclable Poland Spring bottle in the trash, are fine with replacing two carbon-emitting, resources-consuming machines with three or more.
Go green. Have two.

And then there's the acutal parenting. With one kid, parents can occasionally double team. With two, you're reduced to man on man, which is still manageable. Three or more? It's strictly zone, with one or more kids perpetually uncovered. Vince Lombardi would not volunteer for this situation.

Our math is more straightforward. Who can afford three kids? In a family where no one is an investment banker, a doctor, or a lawyer, how exactly does one keep afloat? My wife, who has an MBA but is a tenured public school teacher, and I manage to pay our bills every month, with a little less left over in this new media age when web editors aren't embarrassed by offering 10 cents a word, or even asking me to work for free. (Happened just yesterday.)

But there sure ain't enough left over to pay for Harvard, or even Penn State. So it's student loans. Or an oboe scholarship, I guess.

But at the end, it's the Jan Brady Factor. My son gets to be the Oldest, no matter what. My daughter
gets to be the Baby, which has it's pleasures. If we had another, she's now an Jan-like middle child.
Who inflicts that on their kid?

allen stjohn said...

Awaiting a world in which one can edit embarrassing typos out of one's own blog comments, please mentally change the "it's" to "its" and the "an" to "a" in the final graf.

Houston! said...

I'm sticking with two. You can thank Lucy for that. I also want to actually have a life sort of back once I'm in my fifties, unlike my mother who had my sister (who is awesome, but still...) when she was 38. So...there you have it.

R. Bryant said...

"The truth is hard to say out loud, but it’s simple: I am a devoted mother, but my maternal resources are not inexhaustible. . . . And that is why I can say with some peace and a little regret: I don't have what it takes."

Thank you for writing these two sentences. For all of my daily, back-of-my-mind debating about whether or not our family is complete with two, these sentences neatly sum up the truth for me. AND IT IS OK. I needed that. What a great post - thanks!

Anonymous said...

coming from a completely different perspective in this day and age if you are single (a whole 'nother issue and kind of blog) and do not have any children, then there is lack of this awkwardly sized puzzle piece fitting anywhere, or so it seems. there is great isolation in being almost middle age (if middle age constitutes 40 in this modern day) and with not one child. it's a pleasure to read about anybody having one child. and to have one child to then make the choice for another or not. keep up the great blog Sarah!

Anonymous said...

I kind of wish humans could have several litters, like dogs or cats, and their offspring matured faster. Then I could take the lessons I learned with an earlier litter and apply them to the subsequent one.

James Rowen said...

This is an exceptional use of blogging. Congratulations on the work and expression, Sarah.

Angie said...

I'm pretty sure the Bunny wasn't more than a week old before the Bug told me that she "hopes" she can "have a baby brother next time." I'm mostly thrilled she already loves having a baby around the house, though I'm also a bit mortified that she can even discuss another one with so cavalier an attitude!

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I know I'm over 3 years late on this, but I wanted to chime in anyway...

First of all you're a brilliant writer. I just came upon your blog and I'll definitely be coming back.

As for how many children to have, your 3 is my 2, and the truth is that one is all I desire and all I can handle. And oh the comments/criticism I get for this! I wish we would all respect the childbearing choices of others whether it's none, one, or 21.