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!
I have time to explain to them – in a civilized tone that surprises even me -- how to make their bed, cook a croissant in the toaster oven, why it’s critical to use a napkin at dinner – instead of huffing and doing it myself because it is quicker.
In other words, it’s clear that for me, fulltime work and two children is manageable. Fulltime work and three is not. Don’t get me wrong, I love the chaos, commotion and joyous insanity of three kids. I love my work. I wouldn’t have my life any other way. Without our third child in the house, I’m limping around like a three legged dog. And I know many women who responsibly, successfully raise far more children than I’m doing, while working fulltime in demanding positions.
But I can’t deny that with two kids, or imagine this – one – I’d have a lot more time and energy for work.
However, I cannot bear to share this truth with other working moms dreaming of a third child. When it comes to children, it’s delicious – and in some inchoate way, a critical component to being a good mom -- to be impractical. Some feminists argue the key to successful working motherhood is to have only one, or for the daring, two, children. But part of my motherhood mantra is that women should have as many children as they want and can handle. Freedom to procreate with joy is good for women, men, children and our country. I believe strongly that we working moms can have it all, each in our own way, as long as we receive reasonable assistance from the men, employers, and governments in our lives.
Birth control and fertility assistance have been invented precisely to help each woman find her own magic number. For some, the right number is zero. I know others who are happy with double digits. Whatever works for you.
Which is why I’m not having a fourth.