We were at a family gathering when I overheard an older relative say in a wistful voice that no more babies would be coming along in our extended family. I had to suppress a smile, and a secret. Nobody had asked my husband or me if we were done having children. But it was a reasonable assumption to make: We had two kids spaced exactly three years apart: a boy in third grade, and a girl in kindergarten. They each had their own room in our modest three-bedroom home, and they fit perfectly in the back seat of our midsize car.
The only thing is, I didn't feel done having children, unlike friends who did. Content that their families were complete, they were ready to dismantle cribs, drop off bags of tiny clothes at donation centers, and share stories about their husbands' vasectomies. (Scheduling the procedure during March Madness, when basketball's a happy distraction from an ice pack, is the way to go, they agreed.) I envied these moms' certainty, while I quietly hemmed and hawed about having another.
If anything, I had plenty of reasons not to have a third child. I was just getting back into a more predictable groove with work. Our resources—financial, time, everything—were limited. My husband and I were sleeping again! I'd had two fairly easy pregnancies, and a healthy son and daughter. It seemed a little crazy and greedy, almost, to tempt fate and try for a third.
Besides, I was over 40. There were medical risks, for a pregnancy and for me, to take into account. I admit I was vulnerable to occasional vain thoughts, too, like: Do I really want to be the "old mom" at preschool? And wait, how old will my husband and I be, exactly, when this imaginary third child graduates from high school? (On second thought, let's not go there.)
Finally, what would the two children we already had think about bringing a new baby into the mix? Was this really fair to them? And would they ever feel close to a much-younger sibling, or was that unrealistic to hope for, with so many years between them? There are health and safety concerns for mom and baby to take into account when closely spacing pregnancies, and some debate about what age spread is best if you want, say, children with better reading and math scores. (Groan.) But were there any drawbacks to intentionally having children many years apart?
When I confided in a good friend who has two kids the same ages as my own that we were considering trying for one more, she didn't understand. I was so close, she said, to being able to do all the things we moms had to put on ice during our years raising small children, like eating at nice restaurants and traveling with some freedom. We were on the cusp of having both kids in elementary school for a full day, which, whether you work or don't, eases life in a number of ways: It's more time, or at least the illusion of more time (amazing how quickly the day goes!) to pursue all those projects you've been putting off for years or, to potentially minimize crushing childcare costs. My friend wasn't criticizing as much as challenging me to consider my desires more deeply: "Why would you want to start over now?"
I can't sufficiently explain the desire for a third, probably no more than any parent can adequately explain her reasons for deciding to raise another human being to someone who's committed to remaining childfree. But my mind drifted to when my big two were small, to the feel of their soft, small hands on my face, and to their squeals of delight while being pushed in a baby swing. More than these sentimental yearnings, though, it simply felt like someone was missing. As another friend said to me, "If you're still talking about having another, you're probably not done." I realized I might wonder "what if" forever if I didn't get a move on, and since my husband and I were on the same page—I couldn't have proceeded otherwise—we held our breath and leapt.
I was lucky. I got pregnant. Interestingly, I was less tired while pregnant with my third than I had been with my second, even with more years on my body and an extra child at my side. But unlike with my second pregnancy, when I had a 3-year-old to manage, my kids were now 9 and 6. They were more self-sufficient, and we were all sleeping better than we had in years—I felt great. Friends with a big age gap between kids told me the older ones would help, to an extent, with the baby, and they did. After our baby, a girl, was born, I could ask one of my big two to run upstairs to fetch the diaper cream. Now that our third baby is 3, they entertain her, a lot, and make for patient playmates. I've vowed not to take too much advantage of my built-in big helpers, and at the advice of a friend who's a mother of five, ranging widely in age from college down to elementary school age, I'm making more of an effort to spend some separate quality time with just the big kids, and not let the natural neediness of the family baby take away too much time from them.
Our youngest adds so much to our family. My middle child, also a girl, treasures having a sister—most of the time anyway, when our youngest isn't getting into her big sister's stuff. The strength of their sibling bond is undiminished by the six years that separate them. While I was pregnant, this one final time, I so appreciated the occasional comment supportive of large sibling gaps, like this one, "My sister and I are nine years apart. We weren't close growing up, but now she is my dearest friend."
Our oldest relishes his role as the much-bigger brother. It tickles me to see our 3-year-old pad around after him in her feety pajamas, doing whatever he does, which at age 12, involves a lot of adolescent-boy humor. I'm halfheartedly hoping she doesn't introduce her preschool classmates to the song they've made up together, "Pick your nose! Pick your nose!" The fighting is certainly less, too, between our third and her older siblings. They're just not clamoring for the same things kids closer in age naturally do. Not surprisingly, our third is much more independent than her brother and sister were at 3. At dinnertime, if she's missing a fork, she hops off her chair, opens the kitchen drawer, and gets it. She knows with a busy, distracted family, some things are easier done if you do them yourself.
Of course, one last thing I find about having a third "caboose" baby well after the first two: I indulged in a fair number of fantasies of getting it "right" this time, now that I was older and supposedly wiser—only to be brought back down to reality. This child will eat her vegetables! (That is, until her older siblings introduce her to potato chips.) This child will not fall off the bed. (All three have rolled to the floor, I'm afraid to say.) Then there were humbling surprises. In spite of whatever experience and confidence I thought I had in my corner from having nursed two children, my third child was the hardest to breastfeed. Every child is unique. Every child has her own story. With the addition of a third, and all that she brings into the fold, our family at last feels complete.
And no matter the number of children that's right for anyone's family, whether one or a dozen, aren't we so lucky to have them?
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and mother of three. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.