I regularly speak with people who have zero children, or one child, or two children. And they tell me they might consider or would like to have three children. My first impulse, I will own, is to bark, “No, you don’t want three kids.” But that is not helpful, I know this.
So here’s what I’m going to do. I am not going to assume anything about you. I’m just going to tell you what having three kids is like for me. Especially three kids with not quite enough space between the last two.
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.
- Having three kids is not “kind of like having two kids, but with more Christmas presents.” It is a whole other universe, a universe that is just as shocking as that transition to having your first child, only also a universe that’s kind of like running a marathon and hitting a wall and then being handed some bricks to carry while you run the last 7 miles. If you are lucky, you have at least two adults living in your house–but they still outnumber you. And even when you have two adults living in your house, there will be many times when you don’t even have a 2:3 ratio but a 1:3 ratio. There is no time when nobody needs anything. Ever. It does get a heck of a lot better once none of the children are infants that need to be fed every three hours or more, but it’s still very hard when any of them are toddlers intent on killing themselves or your pets, or even just preschoolers, who can’t quite be trusted.
See What Happens?
- It is so tiring, and yet you find yourself with less help than you have available when you have two kids. You see, many people cannot handle your three kids. They are either people who can’t handle groups of children, or they already have a group of children, and if they babysit your kids, you take their kid-count from three or four up to six or seven. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Youngish babysitters (and maybe oldish ones) will have trouble keeping the baby alive while the middle child tries to test their limits and the oldest child, in a bid for attention, acts just like the middle child. Grandparents are often too old to take care of the three kids–which makes sense, because I don’t really have enough energy for it either, and I’m 33.
Table Surfing Baby
- None of them have the same needs at the same time, and what worked for one won’t work for another–these are three distinct people you are talking about, with different genders, ages, personality traits, and yes, birth order. And when there are this many, it frankly gets kind of hard to keep track of whose what is whose. My dad called me “Sarah” for most of my childhood. I found this terribly insulting. But now I get it. It’s not that you can’t tell them apart, it’s that you are exhausted and your brain has died, and there seems to be this multitude of people who all want the same thing, but need different things. I have a cryer, a bolter, and a climber, and they’re all different ages and capable of different things. And everybody needs one thing: attention from you, but you can’t deliver that to three people at once very often. So they will fight to get it.
- The logistics become extremely difficult. When my third was born, my second was just over two. And he was an “explorer.” I had to preplan what to do for when the toddler bolted when I was carrying approximately 45 pounds of baby seat plus 20 pounds of diaper bag. I actually considered swinging the baby seat at him to knock him over until I could reach him. Because that would still be better than him getting hit by a car. I also will not be owning a car with fewer than three rows of seats again until our daughter weighs 60 pounds or more. Well, she’s seven, and she is still in the neighborhood of 50. In most vehicles, three car seats will not fit side-by-side. And there’s no way to fairly divide up bedrooms if you would like people to share. Our daughter got off easy, because she’s the girl, so we moved her on up to her own room eventually and put the boys together. Except she’s really the person who could have had the patience (and been thoughtful enough) to more easily share a room with the youngest. Most of the stuff you got when the first was a baby does not last until the third one is a baby, or it becomes evident that your first baby was lucky to survive those particular products without injury/therapy/other adverse consequences. So you basically have to start again in the baby-gear roundup. The box of unhealthy food product you should surely never serve your children always serves four people. Tickets come in twos and fours. And don’t get me started on the expensive medical bills/college tuitions/food/larger home to live in/gas for the larger vehicles/etc.
Hate Minivans? Yeah, Me Too.
- I know lots of people with more than three kids. And somehow it seems easier. Here’s my theory: when you have three, you have not yet reached that critical mass phase, where the children act as a group. Instead, it’s just lots of separate individuals, acting randomly. Someone is always left out. I don’t think it helps that there was also never a plan for one of us to be a full-time stay at home parent and a plan to have large numbers of children. Instead, I am a working mother of one to two children–already very difficult–but I have three. I have even heard from a few friends with more than three that the jump from two to three was the hardest.
- More logistics. Let’s say you have three kids, who are seven, almost four, and not quite two. The oldest one goes to school. Let me tell you about school. It sounds like it’s all day, but that’s actually an outrageous lie. That child’s school might run from 8:05 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. That’s a little challenging, because if you work, you probably don’t get off by 2 p.m. Well, let’s throw in that in her district, Thursdays are early out days, and school closes at 1:15 p.m. Now let’s throw in a preschool. Preschool runs from nine to noon. So yes, there’s an hour or two at either end. Not quite enough time in which to get anything done. And then throw in the baby. He doesn’t even go to school yet, which is actually kind of easier, because you don’t know how in the world you would drive him somewhere, too. But when he’s a young baby, his naptime coincides with the preschool dropoff. And his afternoon nap (and the preschooler’s) both coincide with the 1:15 p.m./2:35 p.m. pickup. Awesome, right? You could solve the need for having to spend two to three hours a day loading three kids in and out of the car to take people to school by purchasing them all individualized child care, where everyone either stayed on-site where she or he was or was driven to or from school, for a mere two to six thousand more dollars a month, depending on which scenario you choose. No really, I’m not kidding. And guess how much it costs to have a nanny who is capable of handling not just three children, but the difficult load-up and drop-off scenarios that you yourself are basically incapable of handling?
- If you have any children at all, or are close to some, you know that having babies is really hard, but the more other young children are around, in some ways the harder it gets. Nursing one baby is difficult at times for various reasons, but nursing one baby while managing two other children is nearly impossible. Noah got used to me bellowing over his head while he was just trying to eat, and then I felt guilty because none of my other babies were subjected to my shrieks while they were nursing.
- If you are any kind of parent or caregiver, you have probably grown used to the public comment period that accompanies any excursion you take, and perhaps the occasional bout of despair. I cannot step out my door without someone informing me either that I am brave or that I have my hands full. And they either look pitying or they laugh. It’s super helpful. And I kind of can’t go anywhere without everything falling apart. (Coming soon: my essay, “She Needs Groceries,” written for the Listen to Your Mother show.) When my third child was brand new, my spouse came with the four of us to a party that was about fourteen feet from our house, and then left for a work obligation. Well, while I was alone there, I had to sit down to nurse the baby. The other two kids immediately started behaving badly, and there was very little I could do about it. I got the eyebrow from various people around, but my middle child was too young to give a darn. He was an unattended two year old. And then the baby spat up all over his clothes. So I took his clothes off, barking scolds at the other two, who were supposed to be carving pumpkins, but who were actually ruining the garden. As soon as I took the baby’s clothes off and resumed nursing, he did that baby party trick where they manage to pee straight out of their diaper without even getting the thing wet. He peed all over both of us. I knew I needed to go. But I looked at the naked, wet baby, my dirty two year old, who was digging, and my regular old five year old, who was not actively misbehaving but who was too young to really help me do anything. And I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get back to my house, which was only two doors down. And I felt like a failure of a parent, because I couldn’t handle this many children, but they were going to require that I manage to handle them. I don’t say this as a pity party–now it’s finally funny–but I imagine that many of you have been in this spot at some point, and I can’t imagine that anyone with three or more kids would not end up in this spot at some point.
- Noise. OMG, don’t get me started. Suffice it to say that the noise is probably the hardest thing for me, as as parent. I am sensitive to noises. And by sensitive, I mean that I get irritable and snappish when there is a constant din in the background. I think I have thus grown increasingly irritable and snappish over the past seven and a half years.
- The mess is troublesome. My family generates more than one load of dishes a day, plus about one load of laundry per day, or more. Just doing those things would be a job, but there are also more toys and debris on the floor, more garbage, more random acts of destruction…I love having a clean house. But I can’t keep up. And I was historically so organized, so thoughtful, so together. I’m money ahead if I get a birthday card for my own mom or husband at this point, and I forgot to go to my daughter’s first parent-teacher conferences (see Signs of Subpar Parenting), because I was in the throes of new-baby exhaustion and dementia. Talk about guilt.
I would be remiss if I did not own up to the benefits that having three kids comes with. Such as the fact that you really do get better at babies. I can nurse a baby, change a diaper, or teach a baby to sleep like nothing. Also, people finally stop thinking they can give you advice, because most of them don’t have as many children as you do. When I was pregnant with Selah, strangers would admonish me, “It’s not going to be easy–just wait,” as if I had said it was easy. When I was pregnant with Asher, they would warn me that having two was no picnic. When I was pregnant with Noah, the commenters would approach, ready to dole it out, and would often start with, “Is it your first?” since I am a baby face. I started to feel this kind of sadistic glee in saying, “Oh, no, it’s my third,” and watching their expressions change from helpful know-it-all to horrified stumped person. I refrained from saying, “What do you want to say NOW? What’s your ADVICE?” but only narrowly. I’m sure there are many benefits, too, in being a jovial crowd, including the fact that each child brings funny new sayings, gifts, and ways of expressing affection to the table. But sometimes I’m so tired that I am missing out on what those are, and I cannot write them all down, photograph them, and document them the way I could when I just had one child.
So there it is. Make your own decisions. And if you have a third child, I can try to watch them for you. Though I might get kind of snappish or forget where one of them is.
All Three Kids Smiling at the Same Time, Captured on Film
If you’d like more about cherishing these blessed moments with three kids, read Worst Baptism Ever.
While I love nearly all of the comments I have received, I wrote another post meant to rebut the argument that parenting is or should be easy: Rebuttal and Train Museums.
And for those who are irritated by my venting (this clearly happens), I also honestly enjoy many of the other moments. Here are thoughts on trying to clean my daughter’s room: The Things She Carried.
After a number of people read this (thanks to all those who have affirmed me in my fatigue), Brian of i would be frail, wrote a good essay that doesn’t disagree with, but adds on to my story. His children are slightly older, and in some ways that gives me hope! Hopefully you enjoy reading both, and if you have three kids, find a little hope in his words of encouragement: So, You Would Like to Have Three Children: A Non-Rebutting Counterpoint