The Question of Three…

How many children do you hope to have? One, two, three, maybe more? Our contributor, Sarah Rodrigues shares her personal experience with the “how many kids?” debate and how she and her husband finally found the magic number. 

I honestly intended to wait until I was home to do the test. But with my 13-month-old asleep in his buggy, my 2 year old safely at a friendʼs house and the shopping centre loos deserted, well, it was just too tempting. Besides, I needed a wee. Small problem was that the cubicles were too small to fit the buggy in, so I cannily chose the end one, which no one would walk past, and wedged the baby in the open doorway. I kept my eyes fixed on him as I went about my business, only glancing at the small white stick perched atop the cistern after Iʼd rearranged my skirt and disposed of the packaging.

It was positive.

I washed my hands, grabbed the buggy and marched back up to the pharmacy where Iʼd just purchased the test. “Well, I guess the next thing I need today is folic acid,” I said, somewhat hysterically, to the woman whoʼd served me less than 20 minutes ago. I started to shake uncontrollably, a mixture of shock and laughter. “Oh my god! My husbandʼs going to kill me!”

He didnʼt, of course, and once the initial shock was over he was just as happy as heʼd been about the news of our other babies – tempered, naturally, with concerns about how weʼd manage, along with money, time, living space and the all-important question of getting a bigger car. Well, we did manage (although sometimes, looking back now, Iʼm not entirely sure how) and we did buy a bigger house and bigger car. My three are a little gang now – born with just 3 years and a couple of weeks separating the oldest from the youngest, Iʼm well and truly past the stage of having to play Chief Entertainer: they just play, and, every once in a while, I look up from my book and shout at them to stop sitting on each otherʼs heads. Itʼs a beautiful thing.

As youʼll likely have gathered from this, our third was not planned. Truth be told, neither one of us can quite figure out how he happened into existence at all, although given that his birthday is September 26th, thereʼs a fairly obvious Christmas Cliché involved.

Unplanned, unexpected – but unwanted? Not at all. I knew beyond any doubt, stretched though I was having my first two children within 16 months, that I wanted another baby. My husband wasnʼt opposed to the idea, at least not in theory. He likes babies and liked our babies in particular. He felt like we were pretty good parents. But. But.

I knew what he meant, I did. And, with my family on the other side of the world, it did occasionally occur to me to wonder how weʼd cope, too. We talked it over, back and forth, maybe, maybe not, this year, next year, never? We stopped short of making a decision, neither wanting to impose our own viewpoint too vigorously on the other. But I just knew that there was another baby I was supposed to have. Sometimes the yearning was palpable; Iʼd see pregnant women and my stomach would knot with longing. Seeing a woman with three children, especially three young children transformed me into someone with the crazed look of a stalker; Iʼd examine her minutely, not least for signs that her attention to her personal appearance had been abandoned in the face of an Infant Triumverate (if she was reasonably well put together, Iʼd make a ʻtickʼ in my mental Pros column. “Will not necessarily turn into Macbethian crone.”) Sometimes Iʼd even strike up a conversation with them. Just casually, mind. But always leading, inevitably, to the question of their three children. How had they decided to ʻgo for itʼ?

Over and over again, Iʼd get the sense of a decision that hadnʼt been easily arrived at. One baby? Hardly anyone questions having at least one baby: even when struggles to fall, or stay, pregnant are met with along the way, itʼs almost a given that couples, and indeed, many single women will have, or try to have, a baby. Two babies? Again, ʻnormalʼ, ʻstandardʼ, ʻaverageʼ; according to the Office for National Statistics, the average number of dependent children per family in 2012 was 1.7, which is about as close to 2 as you can get without the severing of body parts. Indeed, the decision not to have any more children, to ʻstop at oneʼ appears to be far more contentious, with parents of ʻonlysʼ having accusations of selfishness levelled at them, as well as dark mutterings about raising lonely, socially inept misfits. Skip to the question of 4 children and, frankly, it rarely comes up: there seems to be little question, in most minds, that four is pushing it: financially and physically. For the Beckhams, maybe – sure, fine, no problem.

But three – three! – sits in a cloudy, amorphous space somewhere ‘between’: between standard and ridiculous, between possible and impossible, between “Well of course weʼd like to” and “You have got to be kidding.” Of all of the women I ever spoke to and continue to speak to, since I now find that Iʼm approached by mums-of-two who quiz me about what itʼs like to have three – the decision to have a third child is like a TugʼoʼWar rope being pulled: at one end, by need, emotion and biological urges and, at the other, by common sense, practicality and bank balances. All in all, not an easy battle. Which is just another reason why Iʼm glad that the decision was taken out of our hands by happenstance, or by the Spirit (or spirits, hic!) of Christmas. Itʼs easy enough for me to cut my coat according to my cloth if Iʼm handed the cloth and told to get on with it. Left to my own devices in a fabric store, Iʼd stand, a blank stare belying a whirring mind, like a rabbit in the headlights, paralysed by indecision.

Thatʼs just the internal conflict, the mother grappling with the opposing shouts of heart/ womb on the one side and head on the other. What about when you start to factor in the opinions and needs of others who will be affected by the arrival of a third child? Often, as you might expect, the ʻpracticalityʼ end of the TugʼoʼWar rope is grasped determinedly by the father. As the one who wonʼt (canʼt) fall pregnant, is it because his biological impulse isnʼt as strong? As the one who is, traditionally at least, the primary breadwinner, is it because the burden of provision will fall more squarely on his shoulders? Or is it because, as the one who is supposedly biologically hardwired to think logically and mathematically, the numbers just donʼt add up? Two adults + two children = equal footing, package holiday, two playmates, limited chaos, fewer years of broken nights and nappies. Two adults + three children = not enough pairs of hands, not enough time to devote to one another and to your already-existing children, and unequal gender divide and the worry of one child, at any given time, feeling left out.

My husband and I both grew up in families of three children so there may be an argument for us wanting, on some level, to mirror what we already know, even though he was far more reticent on the question of a third than I was. Experience must surely play a role in the desire, or not, to have another a baby, even if that experience is your experience as a parent rather than as a child. The mother who has had troublesome pregnancies and tortuous labours may be less inclined to go through it all again; the woman whoʼs troubled by fear of chromosomal abnormalities, birth defects or illness may think, “I have two healthy babies … better not push our luck.”

We lost our first child, a girl, at 20 weeks and I wondered at times whether my bone-crushing desire for another child – which was as strong when it came to my fourth pregnancy as it had been when I sought, desperately (at times, with hindsight, quite comically) to fall pregnant with our first healthy, living child – was born of a need to ʻmake upʼ for that loss. Would my family ever feel complete or would there always be an empty place at my table that Iʼd feel the need to fill? And if the latter, at what point would I have to concede that that space would never be filled and that Iʼd have to be happy with as many children as I had? Equally, I wonder whether my husbandʼs hesitation stemmed, at least in part, from the uncomfortable memories of me in that hopeless labour with our first child, and from the person that I became, swinging between hysterical anger and grief on the one hand, and utter, immobilising depression on the other, in the months that followed her loss.

Itʼs hard to say. I definitely still feel a sense of loss, of grief, but it has diminished over the last 12 years; the scar tissue of time, and lack of time, pinkly welding the edges of that gaping hole together. Thereʼs still a sense of someone who should be there, even though I know logically that the 11-month gap that wouldʼve existed between my first two children if our first baby had gone full term makes it unlikely that weʼd have had our daughter, now 10.

Despite all of this, I know Iʼm done: I have no desire for another child; indeed Iʼm scarcely even moved by the sight of other newborns, feeling less clucky and more lucky that those days are behind me. When Iʼm at the park, practising my Linda Blair style head rotation as one child dangles precariously from the monkey bars and the other two walk blithely into the path of a swing, I know that Iʼm done. When their dinner manners have descended into Lord-of-the-Flies-style feral-ness, I am more than happy to say that there are no more empty places at my table. In the words of De La Soul, three, for us at least, is the magic number.

Written by, Sarah Rodrigues. Originally from Australia, Sarah is now settled in London with her English husband Dave and three children Phoenix, Cassian & Leon (plus the Zeus, the Greek rescue dog!) She travels as often as possible and writes between drop-offs and pick-ups. You can follow her on Instagram at @justtwenteen