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?