Family Planning: Going for Thirds?

Nancy and I spent hours one summer discussing the pros and cons of having a third child. Time was marching on, biological clocks were ticking, and it was time to make a decision.

I’d been one of three children, and my wife had been one of five. We both felt that a two-child family is a little skimpy — a mere taste of how wonderful family life could be. Although she was working toward a degree in library science and aiming to work in that field, my wife saw motherhood as her main role in life. So she was feeling a little short-changed and unfulfilled.

Nancy and I revisited the question whenever we had a spare moment. More than once she suggested, “You know, you really ought to discuss this with your wife.” (Did I confuse you? Sorry. Nancy is a co-worker. My wife’s name is Betsy.)

“I can’t talk about it with Betsy,” I explained. “We discussed it last year. She said she wants a third child, but I gave her a few reasons why it would be reckless to have a third child. Betsy said it would have to be unanimous; she wouldn’t be raising a child alone. So that settled it. If I reopen the discussion, it will be impossible to decide ‘no’ again.” So the third-child hearings took place without testimony from the most important witness.

There was really only one reason to have another baby: We are madly in love with the children we have.

The arguments against were several: I told Nancy about the smallness of our house, my low income and dim prospects, my fear of childbirth, and my feeling that, after getting away with two healthy babies, we’d be greedy to gamble again and God would punish us.

We finally agreed that having a third child would require more courage and confidence than I have. Betsy and I would have to be content with our modest herd.

Months later, after the children had been secured for the night, I joined Betsy under the covers and she said, “Rick?”

Uh oh! She only uses my name when she is about to say something grave. “Yes?”

She took a breath. “I’ve got some news you aren’t going to like.”

“Yes?” I asked woodenly, ready for her to tell me she wanted a divorce or that she was dying or that our old VCR had eaten my tape of Cavegirl.

“We’re going to have another baby,” she said.

That’s not bad news, I thought, and then realized that Betsy had been left out of my agonizing. I said, “Dear, that’s the best news ever!”

She shouldn’t have been surprised at my reaction. When it comes to women, I wouldn’t say I wrote the book, but I could say I’ve seen the movie. Lots of movies. And I know that only villains express dismay when pregnancy is announced. So I would’ve said something encouraging even if only out of politeness.

But I didn’t have to fake it. I’d wanted a third child, but just didn’t have the fortitude to apply for one. So I celebrated the miracle that parlays a routine act of marital solidarity into a brand-new soul.

That soul is now a junior in high school. Our Wendy is obsessed with her looks and popularity is her religion. If she sends fewer than 1,000 text messages a month, the phone company wonders if she’s OK. But there is more to her than that.

I overheard Wendy telling this story over the phone: In the school corridor she saw a few boys taunting a girl for her odd manner. Amanda may be autistic; I don’t know. Her books were on the floor and she was crying when Wendy lit into the boys. “You @*#%#s must feel really big torturing Amanda!” she snarled, kicking the nearest one. “Why don’t you go home and tell your mothers what heroes you are?!”

The boys called her a few nasty names and slithered off while she helped Amanda pick up the books and compose herself. Then Wendy walked Amanda to her next class.

My former confidant, Nancy, and I lost touch years ago, but when I heard about Wendy’s little rescue, I so wanted to tell her about it.

Rick Epstein can be reached at

Categories: Exceptional Child, Organization, Planning, Special Topics