In high school German, we once had a discussion on family size. Well, it was as much of a discussion as high schoolers in a high school German class can generally manage.
Wie viel Kinder haben Sie?
Everyone in the class either wanted two kids, or maybe four, or none. Except me and the one other Mormon girl. I wanted six. She wanted eight. The rest of our class looked at us like we were crazy.
Sie sind beide verruckt, ja?
Especially my teacher, who swore her dogs were children enough for her.
Because the world population is already too high and I don’t want to be fat and unemployed and stuck at home. (None of us could understand German that well.)
Why, they asked, did we want so many?
I only had one sibling. I’d never so much as changed a poopy diaper. I wanted a large family because that’s what Mormons do.
Six years later, I had a baby. An unexpected, beautiful, energetic bundle of trouble. And the future-child estimate started dropping. Four, we said, would be a nice round number. Then it was three. And then we had our second, and a few months later I was staring down the barrel of a paradigm shift.
Family size is a personal subject. Or it should be, rather. That’s what my Bishop told me the summer I got engaged to DH. He told a story about a woman who came crying to him after a group of church ladies showed up on her doorstep and informed her it was time for her to have a child. The size and timing of our family was between the two of us and God, he said, and never, ever anybody else.
Getting pregnant right away put off this day of reckoning between us and our well-intentioned neighbors. I think a lot of people assumed we’d learned a good lesson, going around and telling everyone that no, we weren’t going to start a family when the two of us were newly married and still in school. Surely now we’d see the way things were supposed to be. Several more babies were certainly in the offing, no questions asked.
The questions started when Bug was about two and a half. The half-joking, “Well, when’s the next one coming?” At age three, I’d introduce my family, and people would look around for the rest. “Just the one?” they’d say. At three and a half, a male customer at my part-time retail job told me it was time to have another child. The incident wouldn’t have made such an impression if it had been unique. From well-intentioned old ladies in the break room to parents to random people in the grocery store, it wasn’t their business to know whether we were trying for a second, but I’d tell them. Just so they’d leave me alone. So they’d stop judging.
Then came Pixie. An older man–a family friend–told me I had a “good start” on a family. I just smiled and laughed politely. After all, parenthood is such an important, wonderful thing, and the only way to perpetuate our species. No wonder so many people are so concerned that we have what they see to be the proper number of children, and at the proper time.
But seriously, I could do without their input.
Like my old Bishop said, it’s between me, DH, and God. That does not mean that it’s up to DH and I to realize that God wants us and everyone else to have at least five children. It means that every family varies, and by working together, thinking, planning, and then praying about our decision, we can come up with a plan that suits our individual needs.
And so it was that while sitting and writing this book, I realized that the reason I wanted a third child was because everyone else expected me to have one. And then I experienced the liberating sensation of not wanting another baby.
It was amazing.
I didn’t want another baby. I didn’t want another baby.
I didn’t have to want another baby. Not wanting another didn’t somehow negate the fact that I deeply loved the two I already had. And as much experience as our elderly gentleman friend might have, he was in no position to know what was best for my family.
Of course, life is not simple. Guilt, tradition, and social pressure are powerful things. I talked to DH and discovered that he had also been thinking a lot about the number two. We agreed that we should wait until we weren’t getting woken up by a screaming, hungry, poopy infant four or five times a night to make any real decision. But for me, that wasn’t the end of it. I thought about it every day. When I woke to feed Pixie at 2 am: should I have a third child? When hauling Bug, screaming, into the second time-out that day: should I have a third child? When feeling angry, overwhelmed, and alone: should I have a third child? When sprawled on the floor, laughing, my girls crawling all over me and dissolving in giggles: should I have a third child?
There are so many factors to consider. It’s not as simple as, can we afford to feed another one? There are college educations to consider, logistics, housing, and, most importantly, the happiness of the family we already have. And that includes me. My happiness, as we’ve already discussed, is key to the healthy functioning of the entire family.
So what if I won’t be happy tacking on another five years where I have to spend most of my time cleaning up the special messes that infants and toddlers have to offer? Is that selfish? Is there something wrong with me that I should try to change, that I should be willing to have child after child when the crowding walls of my home, the endless routine, the sleep deprivation, and the isolation leave me biting back tears and counting the hours until DH gets home?
I talked to one woman whose mother told her that if she and her husband weren’t having a lot of children, and close together, that they were disobeying God’s commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. Well, DH and I have two kids. They may not be six, and they may be four and a half years apart, but they are children, and they count. There is no lower threshold, no quota, no magical number you have to have in order to count as a real family, in order to be complete.
I love my babies. I love Bug’s innocent inquisitiveness. I love Pixies’s sly smile. The thought of not having another tiny one to patter around the house and pull stuff out of closets as I write or wash dishes is bittersweet. But sometimes the best way to show love to the family you already have is to not have any more.