How do you know you are done having kids?

As soon as the wedding is over, newlyweds are asked when they plan to have kids. New parents are grilled about when they will have more. How do we answer the question without a definitive answer?

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Julie Driggs holds Carter. 13 weeks, during baby yoga. Moms and their babies do Itsy Bitsy Yoga at Mamas Move gym. The class meets once a week for babies not yet able to crawl. Yoga is a great way to build strong muscles in infants - helping them get ready sit up, roll over, and eventually walk. It is also thought to help with digestion, sleep and bonding with mom or a caregiver.

I’ve been putting together a digital photo album this past week of the last five years, which entails a lot of sorting through photographs of both of our children (now 4-years-old and 8-months-old). There are first smiles, first food, first steps – all those tender milestones along with many memories of the daily struggles and sweetness in the lives of our cherished babies.

Now, as I am almost 40 and my son is nearing turning one, I’m keenly aware that this boy is probably my final baby. I’m getting that same achy feeling of approaching loss that I feel when the summer days begin to ebb away and fall arrives.

As soon as we got married seven years ago, people started asking us when we would have kids and almost as soon as we had our first child, people asked if and when we’d have more. One thing at a time, people! We waited what to us felt like a sensible amount of time before we had our daughter and then waited again and carefully considered having our second child. I enjoyed relatively easy pregnancies and safe births. Even with my so-called “advanced maternal age” and all the other factors deemed necessary to consider, the idea of having more children is still very tempting.

I ran into an acquaintance at the market the other day and she praised my little brood and then proceeded to ask if I was planning to add to it. She doesn’t know me well so when I said I wasn’t sure if I was finished or not, her response took me aback. She proceeded to share an unsolicited pregnancy horror story. (Just what I wanted to hear! And in front of my kids, too! Awesome).

I assume this is the kind of thing you say to someone when you feel afraid that they might try for a third child and you’re trying to frighten them away from the idea. “You’ve got one of each!” she continued, as if they were toys available for purchase in a set that we were collecting, not small, beloved children. “I only had two and it was just perfect.” There’s nothing like smug self-satisfaction, coming from a relative stranger no less, to help you decide whether or not to keep having kids.

There are lots of solid, intelligent reasons to only have one child, let alone two, or three. Each reason can be backed by persuasive statistics – population considerations, parental age, financial risks, time and attention, environmental burden, resource consumption, and more. Frequently, though, with choices like marriage or child-rearing, we tend to lead with our hearts and not our heads. Fifty percent divorce rate? Most of us handily ignore this glaring fraction and leap headlong into our own attempt at wedded bliss anyway. Having kids often has the same impassioned, less logical approach.

So it stands to reason that the inner debate about adding to my family isn’t an intellectual choice. It doesn’t seem to be with the large group of women I polled about this topic, either. The words “hormones” and “baby smell” and “cuddling” were thrown around a lot. The discussion about whether or not to have children, no matter when (or if) you do it, and the challenges attached to having kids, can be fraught with emotion, so it makes sense that the conversation may come from a place of deep feeling.

Even on the days when I think I’ve settled this question for myself, it rises anew every time I fold a load of laundry. The pile of outgrown clothing grows and I contemplate where it all ought to go. In a box of keepsakes? Just in case there’s one more? Or should it all go into the consignment / giveaway / hand-me-down pile and make its way out of my already cluttered house? I’m sure it’s overly sentimental, but I can’t help holding those petite striped onesies a final time and remembering when my son was just a little bit smaller before I let them go into the castoff abyss. He’ll never be that tiny again and I will probably never hold another baby of my own that little again, either. Cue the sad music.

I have a dear, new friend of whom I am in total awe. She has five lovely, well-behaved children. She’s fit, beautiful, hilarious, energetic, smart, and cool. Her house is artfully decorated and clean. She shows up at playdates with glorious homemade treats. Her husband, a dedicated and loving father, works overseas and so she makes most of this miracle happen by herself. She never pretends to be perfect and therefore, I can adore her and marvel at her competency. I cannot understand how any of this is possible with five kids. My life is complete chaos compared to hers.

Thankfully, she’s very kind and a great friend, so I shared my struggle to her. Should we, in all our happy disasters, have a third kid? She quietly confessed to me that she still yearns for a sixth child. I realized then that this whole question comes down to one thing: if we have the choice, we should only take on what we know we can handle.

I probably cannot handle three kids. Even though she sympathetically related that the leap from one to two was her hardest, I believe she can handle five, even six kids, with ease and aplomb. Me, not so much. Comedian Jim Gaffigan, himself a father of five, had this to say after the birth of his fourth child, “If you want to know what it’s like to have a fourth, just imagine you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.”

This is how three children would feel to me. Sometimes this is even how it feels to have two.

So, releasing the idea of a third child is good practice for us now, for all of the letting go we will have to do in our career as parents.

Decades from now, my photo album will swell with thousands more of these cherished moments of the two babies we were fortunate to have. They have each other and hopefully that will be enough for them. They are certainly enough for us.

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