Reader’s Request: Child Spacing and Family Size

My friend Stacy (of Sanity for Stacy) suggested this topic for a Reader’s Request post. Stacy wrote, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on child spacing, how you decided on the spacing between your two children, whether or not you’re planning on having more, and how you came to that decision.” So, this is that post.

These are the reasons that have influenced my husband’s and my decisions around family. Some might resonate with you and some might not, but none of them is intended to be prescriptive. How many children to have and how close to have them is a very personal choice that I wouldn’t presume to make for anyone but myself (and sometimes I feel unqualified to even make those choices for myself).

For more about Reader’s Request posts or to suggest a topic, please click here.

My husband and I have two children born four years and three months apart, but until my daughter was three years old, my husband and I were pretty sure she would end up an only child.

Growing up, I’d experienced with joy the chaos of our extensive extended family when my mom, dad, two siblings, and I would travel from California to Ohio for visits, and I decided that I wanted a big family. Five kids, at least. That’s how many were in my dad’s family. My mom’s family had eight kids. Both sides of the family were pretty fruitful. One of my maternal great-aunts gave birth to twenty-one children. I knew I didn’t want that many, but five seemed like a good starting point.

As I grew older, my ideal family size shrank. By the time my husband and I decided to start our family, we figured we’d have two kids.

We had specific ideas about the kind of life we wanted our kids to have: lots of opportunities (sports, music lessons, travel), the luxury of being able to attend a liberal arts college without needing to worry about coming up with money for tuition, time alone with each of their parents as well as time together as a family. All of this would be easier with two kids than it would be with more. And if we stopped at two, we could keep our Volkswagen Jetta and not have to upgrade to a station wagon or (gulp) a minivan.

We decided that we would have one biological child and then we’d adopt one so that we wouldn’t be adding too much to the world’s population (especially adding American children, who will grow up to use a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources), but we’d still get to have a family.

We planned to have our kids three years apart, so that the first was out of diapers before the baby came along (I did not want to have two kids in diapers at the same time). We also had an idea that this spacing would allow our kids to each have the benefits of only-childhood as well as those of having a sibling.

And then our daughter was born. She didn’t change everything, but she did cause a shift in our thinking.

For one, her birth wasn’t the empowering, bonding experience I had expected. I felt cheated; I wanted a do-over. So, we decided to have our second child the old-fashioned way rather than adopting so that I could have that second chance. We were still just replacing ourselves, we reasoned, rather than increasing the population overall. And who knows: maybe one or both of them would grow up not to have children and they’d make up for our over-use of resources the next generation down.

For another, our daughter was not the baby I was expecting. From the night she was born when the nurses assured me that she would sleep all night long and instead she stayed awake nursing…all night long, she did not act like I’d been led to believe babies act. My daughter, it seems, had not read the baby books. Or perhaps she’d read them and was just determined to prove them all wrong. I was under the impression that babies sometimes slept. And that when they slept, they sometimes slept on a surface other than their parents’ chests. And that when they were awake, you could sometimes put them down without them crying. I knew that most babies don’t sleep through the night by any grown-up definition of the word until months after birth, but I was sure that most of them slept longer than four hours at a stretch before they turned three. My daughter was not born with these same impressions.

Add to this our relative poverty during my daughter’s first three years. My husband had a pretty low salary in one of the most expensive areas in the country. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t far from it (we qualified for subsidized housing, but not food stamps). Still, we were comfortable. Our apartment was small, but it was in a safe neighborhood that was close enough to work that my husband could commute by bike. I could also get to most of the places my daughter and I frequented without driving, so maintenance costs were lower on our one vehicle. When we needed more money to see a particular doctor to help with our daughter’s digestive issues, I took a part-time job at a place where I could bring my daughter to work with me. We had everything we needed and a fair number of luxuries, but we didn’t feel like we had the financial reserves for a second child.

Then just before our daughter’s third birthday my husband got a job in Salt Lake City, and everything sort of came together. The financial issues were mitigated, and our daughter not only started sleeping better, she began to be able to entertain herself for short periods of time, long enough at least for me to take pregnancy naps. She’d also stopped nursing, which was something else I’d been waiting for. (While I knew it was possible to nurse through a pregnancy, I didn’t really want to.) So we made the leap and made another baby.

The birth of our second child was exactly the experience I’d been hoping for, and as a bonus, he was a happy, “easy” baby. I remember one weekend afternoon a few months after the baby was born, I was alone in the living room with my husband.

“Where’s the baby?” he asked.

“He’s in the bedroom,” I answered, incredulous even though I knew I was telling the truth. “Asleep. With no one holding him.” We exchanged a glance and together we looked in on the little guy because we could hardly believe it was possible that we had a baby and a four-year-old and yet had found ourselves alone together.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. I experienced some fairly deep post-partum depression/anxiety, and our daughter had a lot of trouble adjusting to our new family dynamic. We sought help, and gradually things improved. Still, when a friend with one child asked me when I thought was a good time to have a second, I answered, “Never.”

Now, I love my son—and my daughter. I love my children with a love so big that it overwhelms me and causes me an almost physical pain, but had I known how incredibly challenging this whole thing would be, I might not have been so sanguine about increasing the population of our household.

My husband and I did, for a few months, consider adding a third child to our family. I was still very much enamored of the idea of adoption, and on the good days, I felt like the addition of another child could only serve to grow exponentially the love that was already in our house. We started looking into different adoption options, but put the process on hold when my husband lost his job. By the time we were settled in Massachusetts, growing our family no longer seemed like the best plan. The dust had barely settled from the fairly harrowing experience of joblessness followed by a cross-country move, and while we were doing okay now, we were hesitant to rock the boat. Plus, our son was now old enough that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. You know, the light that heralds the end of infancy and the beginning of the long road towards individuation? If we added a baby to our family now, we’d be signing on for at least another five years of the intensity of early childhood parenting. Neither of us felt up for that.

There are times, though, when the visceral memory of the weight of a sleeping infant on my chest is particular vivid that I think…maybe. There are times when I even wish to be pregnant again, although those wishes are usually dispelled very quickly by thoughts of the three-finger separation that remains between my rectus abdominus muscles, the varicose veins that criss-cross my legs and cause my inner thighs to itch, and the constant fear that I will, in fact, pee myself next time I sneeze. My midwife told me after my son was born, “If you can birth a nine-pound baby with a nuchal arm this easily, you could birth an eleven-pounder, no problem!” I take that as a compliment, but that doesn’t mean I want to try it out for real.

My husband and I have made choices about our family. I believe that they are the best choices for us, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel some ambivalence. Choosing to have only two children means choosing not to invite a third into our family. And sometimes the craving for that third is strong enough to make me forget just how harrowing parenting just two can be.

For now, our family feels just about right. But who knows what the future holds?

10 comments

  1. timbra · February 25, 2013

    I read something today that was to the effect of “the baby of the family knows that their parents finally got one just right” or something like that. . .I would beg to differ, in our case, our second child is the reason we can not currently commit to venturing on to more. . .her needs are GREAT. . . and since my husband is a Hoosier, I like to make basketball references like “once we move into zone defense, it will be all over. . man on man defense is best for us.” 🙂 I have some similar reasoning to yours for two kids, like just the balancing act of everyone getting some alone with everyone else. . .though there was that time Valentine’s week where each daughter got a date with daddy, but MOMMY never went on a date with daddy. . .so someone is getting ripped off here:) But I know all too soon those little girls will be teenagers who want little to do with dating their daddy. . .so I’ll be here when he falls to pieces 🙂 And I think we are also at the “light at the end of the tunnel” place so considering doing it again even now, seems like starting all over. . . plus I worry about the dynamic shift between my two, just as I worried over the shift in relationship between my first and myself when the second made her way. . . I guess these are the things we can not decide, they just are, and they become and form out of whatever is. . . it’s not out of the question for us, just not something we are choosing at present. This was a beautiful post CJ and I love that you wrote it!

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  2. belcantomom · February 21, 2013

    I loved reading this. 🙂 being conscious in our conception is an important value of mine. Although, I must admit, being “baby hungry” is not something that has ever happened to me. When we discuss another child, the baby phase is always something to get through until the wonders of toddlerhood. Kind of odd considering my chosen career field…I love babies, just not that much. I think ambivalence is part and parcel of mothering and family spacing is certainly part of that. All I can be sure of is that I have no regrets about my choices up to this point. 😉

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    • CJ · February 21, 2013

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Karin! No regrets is a great way to live. I don’t have any *real* regrets…just those fleeting “what-ifs” that appear on the really difficult days or when I would just like some quiet without staying up past my bedtime. I never thought I was baby hungry, either, but that’s what gets me wanting another. Mostly I think I’m just baby hungry for my own babies. I like that phase and the phase my daughter is in now and has been in since she was about 5 or so…the leaps in learning and understanding are just so incredibly fun for me. Toddlerhood is a miracle of its own, and I love the adorable things my son says and does (the things that don’t involve Sharpee pens I thought I’d hidden well enough), but it’s not what I crave when I think of babies.

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  3. Stacy · February 20, 2013

    This topic is fascinating to me, obviously. It’s as if by asking everyone I know, I’ll be closer to figuring out my own thoughts on the subject…

    I have four, which is a lot. Even on a good day, four seems like a small herd of children. They certainly make enough noise to qualify as a herd. I didn’t plan on the two matched sets of children that I have; I always knew I’d have a bunch of kids, but figured I’d pop em out every two years like everyone else I knew. My 2nd came along a blinding 20 months behind her sister along with a crashing case of ppd, and then, just when we decided we were ready for a third, we couldn’t get pregnant.

    A two year stint with infertility followed, along with a devastating second trimester miscarriage, and doula work became my infertility project. My Max came along immediately after I convinced myself that we were done having babies and that I was going into midwifery. Then, of course, my Ian, my joyful surprise, who let us know he was coming two days before we entered the hospital for Max’s second surgery. But now? I love my two matched sets of kids. Love the closeness of the siblings, love the five+ years between my two sets. I wouldn’t change a thing about it now.

    Lately, I’ve found myself feeling mighty melancholy as I know that I’m done birthing babies. There’s no reasoning with my biological urge to reproduce. It’s insanity, my life is craziness incarnate, but I can still look at a tiny newborn and get a catch in my throat. Part of it, I confess, is a longing for that perfect birth that I never had.

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    • CJ · February 21, 2013

      It’s a very complex thing surrounded by very complex feelings. I’m glad you asked me to post about it, though. It’s given me some clarity about our choices.

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  4. Melanie R. Meadors · February 20, 2013

    SO that space in my muscles is OK?!?! My doctor was such a jerk, he wouldn’t explain anything about it when I asked him about it not closing up. Mine’s about three fingers too. Does that affect being pregnant at all, do you know?

    Cam and I tried for a few years now…and now the rest of my life is taking over and I feel like I’m done with babies (who knows, though). When it takes so long, and your child is ten years old and pretty independent, things change and now I look at my life and say, “Well, we have to wait a while because I can’t be nine months along in September when the writing conference I’m coordinating is happening” etc. I still think about adoption, but we would do things VERY differently from the first time we traveled that road. I’m older and wiser now ;).

    E wouldn’t go to sleep until 130 AM, and then would wake at 4 to eat, and then would wake at 8 for the day (with two naps). The good thing is that we had to live with my parents (cam lost his job right after we got back from our honeymoon), so mom didn’t mind rocking him for a little while so I could have a break.

    LOL I wanted a huge family. but…..the powers that be had other plans!

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    • CJ · February 20, 2013

      It’s funny how life seems to take us down paths we didn’t expect. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feel grateful for the way things are without mourning the loss of another possible future. I get caught up in the “what-ifs.”

      About abdominal separation: I don’t know about OK (I’m not at all sure that being able to observe the action of my intestines while lying on my back is “OK”), but “not uncommon,” for sure. You can get surgery for it, but it basically involves a football stitch to hold the muscles together, it’s generally considered cosmetic and costs tens of thousands of dollars, and it doesn’t always work right or leaves your belly looking weird anyway. Or so I’ve read. I’ve talked to lots of “professionals” (not prostitutes…like physical therapists and doctors) about it, and they all say, “Oh, that’s normal. It closes up a few months after you give birth.” I’m pretty much done asking people about it because I don’t consider 42 months “a few” (much less 120 months…). I’ve done lots of exercises to strengthen my transverse abdominus, which seems to be helping with the back pain and with the excruciating pain I get in my lower belly when I roll from my back to my side without very carefully bending my knees first. It does not, however, seem to be flattening my belly or closing up that separation. I’m this close [ ] to getting a girdle-type support garment, but I can’t get a clear answer about whether that would help strengthen the muscles or just make them worse. I suspect no one really knows and anyone who acts like they do is just making crap up.

      I’ve never read anything about it making it more difficult to get pregnant, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would affect conception. I never noticed if it closed up after my first, but I definitely noticed it after my second. (And so, apparently, have all of the people who’ve asked me if I’m pregnant.)

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      • Melanie R. Meadors · February 20, 2013

        LOL on your last comment.

        I was wondering about being pregnant with it. Like, as you said, I can see my guts doing merry things in there. it’s kind of scary to think of junior getting bigger in there and pushing things out… That’s what my doctor said, too. “Oh, it happens. It’ll close” and this was after E was 6 years old, and I had been doing various exercise and stuff. I’ve basically given up on it. Surgery sounds kind of scary for something like that. I mean, the recovery time must be long. And can you imagine my son being told he can’t aggressively cuddle with me? Heh.

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      • Cherilyn Michener Reno · February 21, 2013

        14 years ago, after my eldest was born, I saw a PT in Maryland who specialized in post-partum issues, and she gave me exercises for my 3-finger gap. I don’t know how effect they are supposed to be if one is more than a year post-partum, though. I will see if I still have them somewhere.

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      • CJ · February 21, 2013

        If you find them, I’d love to know what they are. I’d be curious to see if they’re different at all from the ones I’ve been doing (from multiple sources, including a PT in Utah and a PT practice in California). I’ve always read that avoiding “bad” movements is as important as doing the exercises. I can avoid some of the bad movements (like playing tennis) but others are more challenging to avoid (like lifting children). I started doing the diastasis recti exercises 6 weeks postpartum, so either my belly is more recalcitrant than average, or I’ve been doing the exercises wrong.

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