I stumbled across a comment on my blog today, asking me how old I am now and suggesting that the writer of the comment, who’s just about my age, would still like to have three children. It made me think.
I still do have three children (thankfully). Sometimes I think about the essay I wrote when they were a lot littler about the logistical and energy challenges I was facing then. In response, I got a nonrebutting counterpoint essay from another parent with three older children. It made me hunger for what he had. I also got some heat from a Slate writer who claimed I was part of a parenting-writer set making them not want to have children because we complained about the challenges. (To that writer: Sorry, parenting is totally easy. You should do it immediately.)
I guess a lot has changed since then, and a lot has stayed the same. Now my three are thirteen, ten, and eight. We’ve survived a divorce, a remarriage, a move, some pets coming and going, some friends coming and going, some pretty fierce behavioral challenges, the death of my brother and their uncle, one person’s transition to middle school–and nearly out again at this point–a move, and perhaps most challenging of all, youth soccer. We’ve done OK though. Like I said, they’re all still here! I thought I’d provide an update for those still on the fence.
To quote my own essay in a rather pompous manner, “Here is my disclaimer: I think each of my three children is wonderful. I am very glad I have each one of them. Every child is a blessing. Even when they kind of aren’t acting like blessings. I don’t need a gentle reminder of how precious they are. Because I really do know. But this is what it is like to live with three of them at once”–now that they are eight, ten, and thirteen.
Nobody is trying to actively die anymore. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this does make life easier! Sometimes I take naps! Sometimes I totally space out while they’re outside, and everything goes fine! (Just kidding about that. They dig holes in the middle of my lawn, put the mud into Tupperware, leave the Tupperware lying around until it cracks, and then eventually devolve into having a mud war that ruins the socks they insist on wearing outdoors with no shoes and which splashes the walls and possibly the dog.) But nobody dies, unless you count the Tupperware, the patchy lawn, and my patience.
I’m still not sure I would unload all three of my kids at once on very many people if I need a babysitter. To be fair, they always behave better for other people than they do for me, and it can be surprising what good behavior reports I receive from friends, but I just…want all those people to stay my friends. The GOOD news here is that the oldest is a teen, and she can kind of fend for herself to some extent! She might start reading and forget to eat or something like that, but she will also start reading and not notice/remember/be bothered by the fact that I am gone. I have even left her in charge of her brothers very briefly and anxiously and with screen-based entertainment that will keep them from devolving into murder. This is this amazing, beautiful new world. I do not have to bring them to the grocery store all at once very often anymore.
When I do take them all to the grocery store at once, however, it’s literally no betterthan it was when they were all toddlers, babies, and preschoolers. Something about the group dynamic makes them all stoop to the least common denominator, acting the age of the youngest child, or possibly even lower. They still run and argue and ask me for junk I’m not going to buy and anger the other shoppers, or at least I assume they do but I’m too afraid to make eye contact to be sure. I don’t usually feel like I have no control over my kids–until I take them to Safeway. So let’s return to that prior paragraph where I feel thankful that theoretically I don’t have to bring all of them. Which means theoretically I don’t have to feel so enraged that I’m ready to call CPS on myself while I’m trying to choose a cereal off the–I JUST WANT TO LOOK AT THE PRICES WILL YOU PLEASE JUST STOP IT OH MY WHAT THE I EXPECT MORE OF YOU YOU ARE TOO OLD TO BE CLIMBING ON THE CART LOOK AT THAT LADY SHE DOESN’T LIKE THAT. (More on cereal later.)
They still unabashedly fight for my attention. Before I get up in the morning or whenever I’m not on their minds, they get along fine and construct elaborate buildings out of cardboard and make their own board games and make mazes for the mouse and play with costumes and set up an imaginary comic book store in the living room.
But once I appear, bang, people are calling each other jerks or worse and shouting and quitting the game without putting all the freaking comic books or boxes back. They police each other’s table manners, judgment, noises, homework, and just about everything else, which means a kid who eats scrambled eggs with his hands and forgets his binder on the regular will be barking at another who allegedly has chewed his apple with his mouth open.
Car seat problems, though, are rapidly becoming a problem of the past. Nobody legally must be in a car seat anymore! I’m FREEEEEE! Just kidding–two of them still ride in boosters because they are short and I am mean. But still, two optional booster seats is SO MUCH EASIER than three mandatory car seats! They can squeeze into a backseat together if need be. I don’t have a minivan anymore! I have a relatively compact car–though still one with a third row, because I don’t enjoy listening to arguing over space and elbows.
The car in general has become so very much easier too. I very rarely feel tempted to drive 300 miles an hour while hollering at everyone! Why? Well, mostly books! Books are a miracle! The thirteen-year-old has been reading and ignoring us for ages, but the ten-year-old discovered the Percy Jackson series last year, and that led to lots of long-term quiet reading. (Thank you, God! Thank you!) And the amazing thing about having three kids is that, with the herd mentality, the third person kind of has to do whatever everyone else is doing or just sit there, bored. (Third children do not particularly know how to entertain themselves.) Once the ten-year-old started reading a lot, the eight-year-old really upped his book consumption by default, and now they often seriously just sit there, silently reading, in the car (or even the house). And even if not everyone is reading, it’s likely that at least one or two children are, and so it’s less of a giant pile of squabbling humans. I have more trouble with them ignoring me while I try to make conversation. They also have a tidbit more endurance and logical ability to understand that I can’t magically make us reach our destination.
We also have a lot more fun now that everyone is capable of sarcasm, questionable jokes, and one-liners. Our dinner table is often full of laughter, and the car can be too. I can’t believe the things these guys think of! They’re old enough that I can get pretty goofy too sometimes, and other than the horrified looks from my husband, it doesn’t do too much harm. I guess this is what people are talking about when they want a group of kids. We talk about politics, social justice, stinkin’ Roblox (waaaaay more often than I would like), what-if scenarios involving ending up with a lot of money, and what’s going on with our family friends. Full disclosure: these family-wide discussions do usually involve a lot of one child telling another that they are wrong, often kind of inexplicably, and me griping about them arguing. But I like that we’re able to do this now.
The logistics are still a nightmare and will continue to be until we obtain all that theoretical what-if money and hire a fleet of chauffeurs, referees, governesses, counselors, maids, and cooks. We have three soccer teams, eight classrooms and teachers at two schools (nine at three schools if you include my spouse), three sets of dietary likes and dislikes (including a child who only has dislikes and one with two allergies), three sets of friends and the occasional friend poaching by a sibling, two different school start and end times–both of which confusingly change by five minutes every year, two kids who wear the same size and fight bitterly over clothes, one kid who grows into a new size every month but whose socks the other two still steal, and three sets of homework/field trips/classroom requests/school meetings/school supply lists/volunteer requirements. I live in fear of forgetting something. Or someone. I feel like I have dementia sometimes. OK, most of the time. I have trouble remembering that I need to buy new cleats for the child who literally outgrew her new ones in a few weeks, that someone needs a top hat for his Halloween contest, that someone needs his orthodontist appointment canceled, that someone is having a friend over tomorrow but not at the same time as the other one who is having a friend over tomorrow, that I signed up to be the party planner for someone’s class but it’s not the same kid who will need allergy-safe food and snacks for his class…and I live in fear because I don’t want to let any of them down. They cannot possibly understand the amount of stuff that’s on my mind, and thus if I completely forget to pick them up from soccer or they are the only child in the class who doesn’t have their report ready to go, they will take it personally.
But this does bring me to another thing that’s way better now. So much more stuff is their own responsibility these days, and they can at least theoretically do more for themselves. Thank goodness, since you’ve probably noticed that I am waaaaay over capacity. Let’s be clear–they’re not so good at this sometimes. I feel a little like I can’t understand how both of my boys forget their homework at school more than they remember it, while everyone else has turned theirs in–in neat handwriting, with capitalized letters beginning the sentences, and with a pen that’s not smeary and hot pink to boot. BUT the two oldest kids’ teachers feel that THEY are responsible for said homework and managing their various items, and that’s such a relief. Partly because in a three-children-working-parent world, I felt like I could never keep up when they were all younger and people would look at me askance when we came screeching in, arguing, without all the stuff we were supposed to have and wear and bring and remember. Now it’s their fault! Or something like that.
And they can feed themselves breakfast and lunch and snacks and sometimes even dinner, if I don’t mind that it’s a totally random meal. Although last time I tried that, trouble-shooting other people’s dinner-making problems was at least a thousand times worse than cooking while people complain. And one child wound up eating macaroni and cheese that his brother had added the cheese to before draining the water. But whatever. They ate. They even knew that they were supposed to have fruits and vegetables with the meal.
However, I deeply fear our future grocery bills as they are growing and eating more, but we haven’t even reached the point yet where we have two teen boys. I am keeping all cereal manufacturers afloat in a very real sense. All three kids now prefer cold cereal for breakfast, and they wake up, pour themselves what amounts to a mixing bowl of cereal every single morning, and then they come home from school and pour themselves another before they’ve even put down their stuff. I have pictured showing them how much a serving supposedly is using our diet scale, but to be honest, that would mostly just be for comic relief, because they consume about a box a day at this point with the accompanying milk or nondairy products and raisins. It also generally looks as if somebody filled their mixing bowl and then spun in a circle, whirling Chex and dangerous-for-the-dog raisins and milk drips everywhere and then deliberately stepped on the floor Chex. We also eat entire bags of oranges or apples in a day. I’m starting to wonder if those child-labor laws aren’t kind of a bad idea, because then they could help with the Joe’s O’s budget.*
At this point you’re probably tired but kind of hungry for cereal–or maybe that’s just me–and wondering what the actual point of all of this is. I can’t really tell you that, because I can’t keep focused without someone announcing that they can’t find any socks or becoming angry that none of their group of siblings will play a game with them, and I’m afraid I’ll never really reach the point ever again. I will say I don’t want you using this essay to prove to your spouse that it’s actually a good idea to have three children, because I did find my old essay being used as fodder for spousal disagreements. It’s just that…well, some of you said it would get easier, and it really has. I think I’m in this kind of sweet spot where I don’t have a bunch of babies anymore and don’t yet have three teenagers, just one, and she’s a pretty darned good one. I figure I’ll probably need another rewrite in about five or six years. I hear that by that time nobody will want to talk to me or play games with me anymore anyway, so maybe you will actually see that essay.
I’m off for some cereal now. Unless it’s all gone and there’s just an empty bag in a mangled box. Which is pretty likely. But I’ll be darned if I’m taking the kids to the store for more. I’ll just hide here until someone wants me to play a never-ending game of argumentative Monopoly.
*And the soccer cleats budget. And the printer paper budget. And the leaving the lights on budget. And the field trip budget that rivals the president’s travel budget. And the sock budget, which is surprisingly large.