Two Cents on Three Kids.
A younger working mom I met at a recent conference told me she and her husband were contemplating having a third child. She looked like I remember looking when I had only two children – hair well coiffed, pink ipstick carefully applied on her actual lips, minimal bags under her eyes, a flat stomach. She looked so happy, dreaming of another baby. Then she asked me if it’s harder juggling work and family with three kids versus two. Like I always do when a woman asks me this question, I lied. “Three kids is great,” I said. “Your life is already total chaos, so how can a third make much difference?”
The truth is that, for me, having a third child wrenched my fingernails from the cliff I had been clinging to for five years, juggling two young children with fulltime, demanding managerial work running the Washington Post Magazine. You know, the kind of deadline-driven, high-adrenaline, wake-up-at-night-with-a-great-idea kind of work. I was so thrilled by my job that I told everyone, for the full nine months of my third pregnancy, that I wasn’t planning on taking any maternity leave.
Then Tallie was born. The first thing my husband said, after “It’s a girl” was “We got a good one!” From the start, Tallie was an “om” baby, a peaceful lump radiating joy and tranquility into our lives. There was no way I wanted someone else hold her, much less take care of her for hours while I went back to work. What had I been thinking?
And caring for three kids turned out to be, um, a little more demanding than I’d anticipated. Throughout maternity leave, between breastfeeding, getting the big kids ready for school, and caring for Tallie, I had zero down time. The 16 weeks I took off from my job flew by. When I went back to the Post, my life collapsed. I showed up a half-hour late for work most days, hair unbrushed, lipstick smeared across the bottom of my face, looking (and feeling) like I’d already worked a full shift by 9:30 a.m.
I got to every meeting late and regularly wrote important presentations the morning I gave them. My results were still good –sales and profitability and my employees’ evaluations were zooming. But by the time 5:30 came around, my breasts ached, my brain throbbed, and I had little patience or energy for anything, much less picking up, driving home, feeding and getting three small tyrants into bed. I don’t recall having a single conversation with my husband during this time. If I had had the energy to make any self-assessments, it would have been obvious that for my family, a third child was the tipping point into insanity. After six months, I negotiated (read: begged) to work part-time. This saved me. Ditto for my marriage, my kids’ mental health, and our dog’s life.
Right now I have time to think about all this because last Sunday, I dropped our middle child off at sleepaway camp for two weeks for the first time. Without her, our house is strangely quiet and unusually neat. The dog gets fed – daily. We arrive at places when expected, not 45 minutes late. I turn assignments in before their deadlines. Yesterday I returned a call to my mother the same day she left a message. I’m not yelling at the two remaining kids clean your room-brush your teeth-get ready to go!