Here are some thoughts:
The first is hardest, in my opinion. You go from non-mom to mom. You’ve never taken care of a baby before, at least not 24/7. Your life is turned upside-down almost instantly after the baby is born and, unless you’ve been intimately involved with another lady’s labor/delivery/newborn experiences (which most people haven’t), you are really in for some shocks! (And so is your husband! ;-)) Some women have pined away for their first baby and find the experience angelic. Others are overwhelmed from the first dirty diaper to the first toilet training experience. Some women can’t wait until they can get back to their careers, and often a one-child family means that both parents are something important (like doctors) and need to get out of the baby stage as quickly as possible so things can get back to “normal.” But no matter what career you had, you as the mom still have to turn into a mom. You are no longer an independent woman and everything that requires your solid attention or enjoyment for over an hour must be evaluated carefully.
Everything is new and this is heightened for having only one child because it’s the only chance you get. You may feel pressured about everything you do (like it might have eternal significance), and scared about every developmental milestone that your baby misses by a month—”Uh-oh! Tommy hasn’t grown in the last two weeks!” Don’t worry, out of fear of being sued, the doctor will confirm your fears every time—”Uh-oh. Tommy hasn’t grown this month. Better take him to a specialist.” You have to learn to listen to your inner voice in these cases, as well as balance your mother, mother-in-law, religious community, school system, and every other person who has an opinion about how your one child should turn out. You’ll notice that no book or magazine on parenting agrees, and no-one looks like the parent you want to be, especially not those harried mothers of four you see in the playground. If you’re not careful, you can end up hovering over your child and trying to build them up into the perfect person (which they can’t be). Or on the other extreme, you can end up neglecting them. Many single children are either cherished as a child long before they should be, or they grow up long before they are ready. You don’t want your child to become prideful or insecure because of this, but they can tend towards one or the other very easily if they have no other focus in the home except their development.
This isn’t to say that one baby isn’t dreamy. It definitely can be. But for most moms, I think the first baby experience is at least surprising even if things go very well and sometimes this translates into not wanting to have any more children. If everything from pregnancy to preschooling freaks you out, just stay with one. You’ll get all the benefits of having children but only once. Pros are the time and expense, relative simplicity of things, and ability to invest everything you’ve got. Cons are weirdness that comes from only having one little person to think about—weirdness for both you and them. You will only have one grown-up friend when you’re older, and they will have to go through many things alone if you die or need care when you’re older. Some parents are thrilled with what their one child turns out to be and others are disappointed.
Two is the standard number in American culture these days because the family of four has a neat “us” feeling. It is small but not too small, Mom can have a career at least once the kids are in school, and no-one suffers too much from not having enough time, attention, or resources. Within the family, two provides each sibling a partner and it is usually not too overwhelming for a two-parent household. If you have one boy and one girl, you can feel very fulfilled, and the siblings usually grow up very close because they only have each other. Family dynamics are more fun and less selfish when there are two to think about, in comparison with one, and even a small Neon can fit a family of four without too much trouble. Most moms feel relatively able to control two children, but it is an adjustment when the second one arrives because now there are two sets of needs and the first child may need to be acclimated to that situation.
On one hand, most people feel comfortable with two college educations or whatever else it takes to raise children to completion. On the other hand, two is so attractive in our culture partly because financial considerations are so important to people. But this is not always the best determining factor long-term. Two has a specific feel, not just when you are raising them but when you are older, and it is worth considering whether you would change your mind about having two if the finances were not a factor. Because there are two parents and two children, there can sometimes be the pressure to put yourself into one other person. This can create a kind of an “either-or” experience. Meaning, Joey and Johnny sometimes polarize each other in personality. They fight, compete, or otherwise rebel to find their own identities. Parents often compare two children together too, which can cause problems if one child is more pleasing than another, one has trouble that the other doesn’t, or if parents take sides/pick favorites. Also, the pressure to provide the perfect experience for both children is still there, as it is for one, because you feel obligated to invest fully in two individuals. You feel like both need a car, a great education, etc., if one gets it. Usually there is the older/younger dynamic which siblings can resolve later but may cause lingering resentment even when they’re older.
That said, the popularity of two-children families in America speaks for itself. Most people must feel like they can do anything twice! (But not more!)
Three is harder to adjust to at first, but it is a nice dynamic once it gets going. Usually Mom feels like she just has one person too many to think about, especially when the children are young. Or it can feel like a long time before that third is toilet trained, ready for school, or whatever. It extends the “young child” season, I mean. But if I were questioning whether to have two or three children, I would definitely pick three. There is something fun and jumbly about three, and it evens out the “either-or” problem you can have with two. It is no longer “you or your brother” where everyone is either introverted or extraverted, bossy or shy, smart or slow. You don’t have the favorite and the unfavored one, the Prodigal second and resentful Firstborn. You no longer feel the pressure to have two of everything; someone is going to need to share.
There is less pressure on the parents too. While you could be perfectly aware of two people’s development continuously, when you get to three, there is always one person not being thought about at any particular moment. This is healthier for everyone. And, culturally, three is a transition number. It’s the highest number you can have and be normal in the world, and the lowest number you can have among people with larger families. You may be able to have a career as a mom, but it may be more of a teaching or nursing job that is more flexible to family needs. And it may take longer to get back into your job. Three is halfway between “controlled” (with two) and “herd” (with four). It’s “one more than two.” So if you are the type of Mom who doesn’t want to have “just two,” then you will probably have three.
God must have grace on this situation because normally the third child is extremely well-adjusted and as long as he/she isn’t unevenly spread apart from the first two siblings in age, those siblings will fight over who gets to have the third on their side. “Three’s a crowd” can happen, and you have to help a sibling who is ostracized for whatever reason. But “three’s company” too, and there is a lot of joy that comes from corralling your little brood around the yard, beach, or playground. It puts the parents in the position of having to be a united front (because you’re outnumbered!) and can do wonders for the marriage/parenting dynamics. Things need a little more order than before, the parents need to share more responsiblity (mom can’t do it all), and the car has to get a little bit bigger. Usually parents break into the fun, laid-back stage if they get to three. They get a dog, SUV, playroom, or whatever thing they wouldn’t have gotten with just two. I have heard a lot of people say that once they got to having three children, they felt like they could keep going and it wouldn’t matter a whole lot.
But it does cost a little more because three eat more food, require more clothes, and need more space (three sharing a room is harder). Also, you have a greater chance of getting both genders, but then you need more stuff too. When you add just one more person, you get twice as many relationships as you did before, so you have to watch the different sibling combinations to make sure they’re healthy. The family is healthier because they are forced to share and pal around more, but you have to be willing to put effort into the start-up cost of getting everyone on the right foot.
Four is fun, but significantly harder than three for some reason. You only add one more person but if Mom felt just able to handle three, she might be stretched with four… at least while they’re young, and when they’re teenagers too. On the other hand, four qualifies as a “large family”—Hooray, you’ve made it!—and now you have lots of sibling pairs to enjoy. Everybody has more than one sibling to partner with, and different combinations may really hit it off. Two kids each can share a room, in different combinations, and now there are two middle children who get to experience being an “older” sibling (something most kids enjoy). The “baby” of the family can be really fun too because a couple of your kids get to really notice what it’s like to have a baby in the house. Now you have a whole team to tackle the yard, laundry, or dirty basement. And they usually do! This is really neat to be a part of. It is a baseball team feeling, you fill up your minivan, and you start buying in bulk.
You aren’t a huge family of course, but you feel significantly different when you show up at a friend’s house, birthday party, or Sunday School. There is somewhat of a stigmatization once you break the Two and Three Rule. Grandparents may groan when you announce that fourth pregnancy, teachers will know your tribe very well, and you have to be careful which restaurants you choose to crash. Babysitting becomes a real luxury as most people are intimidated to handle four children well by themselves. If Mom has a career now, you probably have to get a nanny or live-in Grandma or something. You have to be willing to realize that you are now swimming upstream in culture—you’re not going to fit in or be as cool as you were if you’d stopped at three.
And yet, four children is nice because it is an even number– you don’t have that “third wheel” phenomenon that you had with three. You have a herd, but not as “herdy” of a herd as if you’d had five. You have lots of relationships to keep an eye on, and many schedules to jostle when they’re older, but lots of fun as you get into “the family” thing… toys, diapers, baby-proofing, pets, swingsets, whatever! Hand-me-downs become important but you don’t worry so much about material things because someone will always enjoy what is presented. There is definitely more difficulty in getting everyone what they need, and you have to be prepared to sacrifice more to pay for college, food, vacations, airline tickets, etc. Not everyone will get the family car, or the chores they prefer to do. On the other hand, four really forces Dad to get involved with things, and he often feels proud and gratified to lead and guide. This can be worth it all. (He can somehow manage to stay aloof, even with three!) You get the fun of experiencing four graduations, four marriages, and many grandchildren even if your own children have only one or two kids each. When you’re older, you can have large family get-togethers and you and your kids will probably value family and traditions more than other families.
If I wanted a large family that wasn’t large, I’d go with four.
Five is a jumbly feel. It is the “herdy” herd. I have four children and have two close family friends who have five, and I tell you it feels extremely different. I always feel like someone is missing! I can’t exactly pinpoint why. I can tell that others feel the same way, though, because while some couples are brave enough to have four children these days, considerably fewer have five. When you have five, everyone thinks you are either Catholic, Mormon, or crazy. (That’s not true, of course!).
Possibly because that fifth baby can throw things off. The “baby” stage doesn’t faze anyone anymore, but now you have one more child than adult hands. You’re outnumbered more than 2:1. It is difficult to fit five children in a minivan, even if there is technically room. It is difficult to fit them around your kitchen room table too. It may mean that you have two children in one bedroom and three in another, which can be uncomfortable (a bunk bed with a queen on the bottom, or a trundle). Or you have to get another bedroom and put just one child in it. When you pair children off to accomplish something, one pair will now have a “third wheel,” or that fifth person can become the “baby” of the family who never gets in the action with their older siblings. (Or the oldest can become the designated babysitter, which they often resent). It is significantly harder to “divide and conquer,” and your house will probably stay a mess until the last person leaves. Flying the whole family anywhere now is pretty much off-limits unless Grandma dies and you all really have to attend the funeral; you’re better off living close to her so you can just drive. Otherwise, this is the size family where renting an RV becomes an option you would have never suggested before. And it is the size where you don’t rent hotel rooms on your travels, you rent a small house. You’ll rejoice, however, when you get to take only the youngest two with you to the Walmart! You’ll feel like you got a real break!
Plus, on the other hand, my friends’ families of five are chaotic and happy. They have really learned to relax… they have usually thrown all types of systems and administrations out the window by then, and really enjoy who they are. The family name means a lot. Problems are put in perspective. Sports are a must. The four year old still has the pacifier, the dog sleeps with the two year old in its crib, the teenager is doing homework with one hand and holding the baby’s bottle with the other, and four different types of music can be coming out of the windows from the outside. But while I would never volunteer to babysit those families, they are the first place I want to go when I need to relax, smile, or just hang around some happy people for awhile. Or if I want a really fun holiday dinner, or if no-one shows up at my kid’s birthday party and I need some quick, ready substitutes =)
So consider number five. But question: can you handle a fifth pregnancy? Sometimes moms feel like it is one too many. What about if the fifth comes along significantly later in your life? If your children are two years apart, you can be a completely different parent/person than you were with the first a decade or more ago. And having a baby at forty may entail something different for the child in later life, than it did at thirty. If the children are spaced farther apart, the oldest might not get to know the youngest so well. On the other hand, you probably gave up career and other competing interests by now, so maybe you should take advantage of it. Realize that this will translate into you becoming, in the eyes of everyone who sees you, the resident expert on every childraising subject there is! As long as you hide the fact that you can’t remember or distinguish who from who anymore, you will encourage many moms who are awestruck behind you =)
SIX (or more)
Once you’ve gotten to six, Congratulations, you’ve broken the glass ceiling. Whereas it is acceptable for “large families” to have four or five children, no-one goes to six. Once you’ve had six, you can have as many more as you want and people are finally going to stop asking you if you know what causes that. Whew! You live off of hand-me-downs without even thinking about it anymore, several of your older children can babysit the younger, and you pretty much have every age group represented in the house at any one time. Six is an even number, so it can feel more organized than five, and I have observed that families who go to six or more children usually start reacting to the chaos of four and five and get more administrative. Chores and laundry are part of the family ministrations now, and even the two-year old may have jobs he is responsible for. These families get extremely creative about how people can pitch in, how allowances work, and all kinds of things that normally stump families with fewer children. You don’t even think about the pressures of toilet training anymore, and you don’t have a choice about not being resourceful. Your family is forced to love and care for one another, as well as eat frozen pizza without complaining. Grandma chooses to stay in a hotel when she visits, and no-one wants to come anywhere near your “hospital” when people get the stomach flu. Usually Mom is totally resigned herself to being a mom for life (given up career and things like that completely), and not only do you need her but you may need a nanny too! Often times Mom doesn’t have any time to herself during the day… she settles for a shower at 3pm and a quick run when the younger kids go down to bed. With more than a couple teenagers at one time, she’s up til dawn almost every day. And the only private place of the house is the bathroom; Dad may have even moved a desk in and made it his office by now =)
But the full feelings you get when everyone opens their Christmas presents or sits around the table at Thanksgiving is so worth it. Having a visitor is no big deal because no-one even notices the extra person except to add another plate at the table, and the ability to discern “important” from “unimportant” in life really takes hold. These are some of the most dead-to-self, fulfilled families you will ever meet. Life after the kids leave feels almost alien; someone almost always chooses to stick closer to home. Holiday card times are a riot, so are dentist visits, shoe-shopping excursions, and vacation times when you drive everyone fourteen hours in your big twelve-passenger van. (At least Grandma can fit now.) It is always somebody’s birthday and you don’t own any childraising books anymore because you gave them all away. And when people see you in the grocery store with only four of your kids and remark that they don’t know how you do it, you get to smile at their jaw drop when you say, “Yes! And my other three are so good too.” Way to go you!!!