The Case for Stopping at Two

I’ve read a few essays lately that argue for having one more child—the love a baby brings, the joy, the chance to revel in babyhood again and use all the skills you’ve honed over the first couple, why three children are better than two, and four better than three.

I’ve long dreamed of a large family and a wonderfully chaotic home, the kind you see in movies with laughter around the dinner table and children running freely. But my husband and I have two children (6 and 3) and we’ve struggled with whether or not to have one more. We continue to avoid making a decision, and the longer we do this, the more sure I am we won’t have another.

There are very real and logical reasons against having a third: we love to travel, and the cost of flying is already prohibitive. Our children are still young, and we already need twice the groceries. We have only two, and we still sometimes forget to feed them lunch.

On the other hand, it makes me want to cry to think that I am past babyhood and might never be there again, that a significant and lovely and messy part of my life is gone. That my baby is already three makes me anxious. I try to hold onto every minute and yet they still slip away like wisps of smoke. And, if I’m being honest, if my babies are no longer babies that means I am older, too. And I don’t want to be older. The single strongest lesson my children have given me is the realization that life is fragile and fleeting. I understand that now, and I’m not sure I want to be old enough to be the mom of tweens. I want to forever be a young mom of babies. I also feel a pull toward whatever person might exist—the life inside us waiting to be created. That “what if” calls to me.

Over the last few months, I’ve realized these feelings—the melancholy over something lost, the angst of what if—are the force behind my desire to have a third child.

And that’s exactly why I don’t think we should: because refusing to let go is not a good enough reason to bring a child into this world. In fact, it would be selfish.

Because, really, when I take off my rose-colored glasses, I remember that I actually dislike the infant stage. Sure, I love cuddly, giggling babies. The problem is the other 80% of the time. Having babies taught me that I am a different, more impatient, person when lacking sleep. I don’t need a lot of sleep, but I need it. They also taught me that I am easily over-stimulated. If the TV is on, my youngest is crying, and my oldest is talking over everything in an effort to educate me about dinosaurs, I lose my mind. Impatience and losing one’s mind are not good parenting traits.

I also realize that the feeling of “what if” will never go away. It will always be there; I just have to cut the cord. And if, in a few years, we decide we really do want another, there are many, many children waiting to fill a home.

For me, it has been harder to say no, even by default—to be honest with myself about my weaknesses, to understand what’s at work in my desire to have another, to realize that yes, a bigger family, the one I dreamed about, could bring joy beyond measure, but to accept that maybe we’re just not cut out for that kind of life. And the joy I feel now, spread among my wildly wonderful two, can be enough.

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How I Know I Love My Children Unconditionally

Before children, I merely loved. It was a selfish love. When my husband reached a hand across the table to snag something off my plate, I slapped it.

I know I love my children unconditionally. For instance, when I’ve just sat down at the kitchen table with a warm breakfast and my daughter crawls onto my lap and starts shoving it into her mouth, I don’t toss her across the room. I let her have some.

When I eat a cookie, I munch around the center until only the soft middle is left, the part I used to save for last and eat with relish, and then I hand it over to my son, who loves it, too.

When I recently came upon my daughter standing in a puddle—yes, a puddle—of diarrhea on the bathroom floor, my thought was, “You poor, sweet, lovely thing.” I would never have thought that about my husband.

When my son asks to play make-believe with his Angry Bird stuffed animals for the eight-thousandth time, I nod over my horror, grab the red bird, and pretend to launch it at a pig.

When my daughter shovels snow off of the lawn and onto the driveway, I smile.

When my children wake me up three times a night, and then enter our bedroom for good at 6am, I say, “Good morning” and pull them up to cuddle. This has been my hardest struggle. Since having children, I’ve learned that I am no good without adequate sleep. I’m touchy and angry. I have to swallow my urge to snap, and then on top of it, I have to smile. I am mostly successful at this.

Looking back over six years of being a mom, I think parenting is hard not because of dirty diapers, missed naps, or whining. Those are the details. What’s hard, for me anyway, is the fundamental transformation I’ve had to make. Henry and Clara have forced me to face my faults, to figure out what I don’t want them to emulate, and to change. Their well-being is important to me. And so I share. I compromise. I slough off the hard edges and I give them the soft center.

 

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Onward

The other day at the beach, I lay on a chair in the sand, my skin hot in the sun. My five-year-old son walked out of the water and up to me and, dripping wet, sat on my lap. He lay along me, toes to ankles, head to shoulder. I loved it. And I thought, “There will be a day soon, maybe in three weeks, maybe in three years, when he will no longer do this. And then from that day on he won’t ever do it again.”

My friend, Melanie, (whom you’ve already met) is moving away this week, from the Chicago area to Portland, Oregon. I met Melanie when our sons were just weeks old, sitting on the floor of a community room in a weekly meeting for new mothers. We happened to place our baby blankets on the floor near each other, our sons lying on their backs, their eyes darting to the lights on the ceiling, to the people around us. We were part of a circle of other new mothers, all of us bleary-eyed and happy to be surrounded by those who knew exactly how we felt and why.

Melanie and her son, 2007

Melanie and her son, 2007

I can still picture the moment she first walked into the room—a smile on her face like she already knew everyone in there. That’s how easy it is to become friends with Melanie. She and I and several other new mothers formed friendships that continued outside of the community room meetings–friendships that became about more than just 3AM feedings.

Melanie has a laugh that’ll startle you. (It’s more of a shriek, really, accompanied by several loud hand claps.) Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I love being in public with her; when she laughs, I don’t look at her, I look at the unsuspecting person a few feet away from her who inevitably jumps.

She is hardworking, independent, blunt, flustered, earnest, intelligent, and supportive. She gives hugs. She makes herself at home. She is career-driven and a family woman, protective, a mama bear. She, her husband, and her children disappear most weekends—that is their time. I’m not sure I’ve spent more than three weekend nights with her in six years.

Our sons' first spring, 2008

Our sons’ first spring, 2008

She knows who she is and what she wants most of the time. When she doesn’t, she talks it out until she does. She told me once that sometimes she needed to sit on the front steps and read a book before she entered the house after work. I remember being impressed that she had figured out such a small yet significant detail about herself, and it inspired me to regard myself in the same manner.

Her move is another reminder that a moment has passed. The days of new motherhood, of uncertainly slipping tiny socks onto tiny feet, of crying, exhausted, in a dark nursery in the middle of the night, of falling asleep midday on the couch with a soft pink wrinkled baby cradled in my elbow, are gone. They slipped past as quickly as the future day when my son will no longer sit on my lap.

He goes off to kindergarten next month. And Melanie is off to Portland.

Things change. I hope to continue to get better at letting them.

Meet: Boys vs. Girls

While on the treadmill a few weeks ago, I watched an interview with actress Jenna Elfman.

The show’s host said something about Jenna being lively and her boys must love it and Jenna said something like, “Oh yes, we’re crazy. We’re constantly having sword fights  and running around the house. I wouldn’t be a good mom of girls.”

Little Miss MuffetWhy on Earth not? I wondered. I know a little two-year-old girl who could kick some butt with a toy sword, if her father and I ever thought it prudent to supply her with one. And I also know a five-year-old boy who, while he loves to wrestle and “go nuts,” as he says, also loves to sit and draw birds for hours and tears up at the touching moments in movies. He also loves yogurt. I’m not sure what that says about him, but possibly something.

When I heard Jenna Elfman, I immediately thought of my good friend, Kelly, the mother of three boys. The issue of stereotyping boys and girls drives her insane. She’ll send me emails like this:

Two online ads set me off today:

1) “Girly up the color blue for the little lady in your life.”  Why is it rare to make the colors pink and purple masculine??!!

2) “‘Like’ this if your girl loves robots and check out the adorable pink robots…”  Why is it okay for girls to like robots, but it is not okay for my boys to like dolls and princesses?!

And, I would add, why does the robot have to be pink? And how exactly does one girly up the color blue? By adding ovaries?

Kelly also chastises herself whenever she catches herself engaging the stereotypes:

toys for boysA new boy came over to play yesterday and when the sweet mother came to pick him up, his younger brother went crazy and was running through our house. The poor woman was mortified and so embarrassed. I told her not to worry–that I have three boys. I was so annoyed that I said that. It got me thinking how often I hear “Oh, he’s just being a boy” when they are being naughty. I have three dudes and they are all completely different, so I can tell you it is not just being a boy. My niece is a mover and shaker and my son has been able to sit still hours at a time since he came out of me. 

I know how she feels. I try hard and am not always successful at avoiding stereotyping. And not even just the stereotypes–I also have remind myself that just because my son can be sensitive and likes to sit and read, does not mean he’s “the quiet and sensitive one.” And just because my daughter is careless jumping off things (pool ledges and bed edges) and likes to steal and eat cough drops does not make her “the reckless druggie one.”

I have a boy and a girl. There are differences, and sometimes those differences  align with the usual stereotypes–my daughter will cuddle on the couch and my son will headbutt me in the chin. And sometimes, later the same day, the opposite of the stereotypes.

Either way, their distinguishable characteristics should come from within each of them, and not from me or anyone else who thinks they know the differences between boys and girls.

P.S.–Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, has a long list of books, toys, clothes and other resources that “specifically counter the hyper-feminized consumer culture” HERE. I personally adore the clothing company Handsome in Pink.

PPS.–For my recent post over at PDXX Collective, on Writing about Boston, click HERE.

Angry Mama Bird

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this little game called Angry Birds? It’s taken over the world and, specifically, our house. My five-year-old son knows all, and I mean all, about the Angry Birds empire. He has many of the stuffed animals, two board games, tattoos, shirts, pencil toppers, keychains, a backpack, winter hat… His idea of a good time is watching How-To videos online. You know those little packets that come with toys, the ones that list what should be inside the box? My son’s Angry Birds Star Wars packet is his bible. It is worn and creased from having been pocketed, read, and re-pocketed so many times. He sleeps with it beside his bed.

This is all to demonstrate that he lives and breathes Angry Birds (and sometimes dinosaurs). “Worships” might be a fair word to use.

The other day, he received the new Angry Birds Star Wars sticker book and promptly sat down and asked me to read it to him. (We always read ALL the words of EVERY Angry Birds-related item he owns.)

All was going smoothly as I read through the storyline in the sticker book, the overviews of each scene, the descriptions of the Pig Army and the Pig Empire. Then I got to the Bird Republic (the good guys). You know–Red Skywalker bird, Ham Solo, Obi-Wan Kaboomi.

And Princess Organa. This is the Princess Leia of Angry Birds Star Wars. She had one of those cartoon bubbles coming out of her mouth that read: “Someone has to keep this flock in check!”

Hmmm. I felt a little twinge in my brain, narrowed my eyes a bit. But I read on:

“Princess Organa…expects everybody to obey her and is a bit of a drama queen.”

Oh, no they didn’t.

My gasps alarmed my son. I tried to explain that this was a stereotype. Then I tried to explain what a stereotype was. Then I tried to explain why some people are ignorant IMG_1056and perpetuate stereotypes. Then I tried to explain what perpetuate means.

Then it got worse.

Beside a picture of who I’ll call Han Solo and Princess Leia for clarity’s sake, a little bubble read: “Han Solo has taken a shine to the princess. Leia won’t admit it but she likes him, too.”

Really? REALLY?

You know that one movie (I think it was a book first) that starts with a boy teasing a girl and she runs to her mother and says, “Mommy, why did he do that?” and the mother says, “Because he likes you”? It makes the point that girls are sometimes raised to believe that boys treat girls they adore like shit. Which teaches girls to put up with too much shit.

Well, this is the opposite (except it’s also harmful to girls). Teaching boys that when a girl acts as if, or even says, she doesn’t like him she’s just being coy and really DOES like him is ridiculous–and harmful.

Think about it: that statement teaches boys not to trust what girls say. It teaches them not to believe it when a girl says, “No.” Especially if she’s wearing a short skirt when she says it.

I’ve said it before: Sexism can be a hidden, tricky thing. The seeds are planted early.

My son might not have understood my explanations, but he saw my anger. I’m planting my own seeds. And now he sees black marker where I struck out those sexist words.

**By the way, the sticker book was written by one Simon Beecroft at DK Publishing. Seems like a smart guy. See? Tricky.