The Right Number of Children

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An expectant friend was trying to imagine what it would be like handling three children. He used a basketball analogy: “With a third child you’re outnumbered, so I guess you have to switch from man-to-man coverage to a zone defense.” That’s where you wait under the basket and contend with whomever shows up there.

But really it’s more like this: When our oldest daughter Marie was 7, she was lying on the kitchen floor delving into the nature of kinetic energy when a mousetrap snapped shut on her finger. “Yeow!” Crying in pain, she ran to her mother. Betsy, at that moment, had newborn Wendy undressed and squalling on the changing table.

“Just a minute,” Betsy told weeping Marie. “I have to finish with the baby.”

Marie, equipped with the best reason she’d had in weeks to come running to her mother, pointed at baby Wendy and said, “What’s she crying about?”

There is a technique many parents use when they’re outnumbered by crying children, but it doesn’t come from athletics. It is called “triage,” and it was devised by overwhelmed battlefield surgeons. They divide incoming patients into three groups: those who will recover anyway, those who won’t, and those for whom prompt attention will make the critical difference. This is the way my wife usually operates.

Or you can handle the three kids the way I do: badly.

Case in point: One night my wife was away at work and I was putting our three girls to bed. It was fun telling bedtime stories to Wendy when she was 3 because she’d get excited and start yelling at any character who was causing trouble. Usually I’d tell one story to Wendy and then another story to the two older girls. But when I was on bedtime duty alone, I’d have to tell a one-size-fits-all story to all three of them and they didn’t like it. They would argue each detail and plot point, dragging the story to a stop time after time.

The arrangement of my audience was also a problem. All four of us would lie in bed with the lights out, and the kids would elbow each other in the cramped space. So instead of a gentle winding down, easing the children into dreamland, a story session would get the kids so pumped up they’d be ready to run into the street and chase cars.

After that night’s story had turned into a riot, I installed each child in her own bed. Wendy was crying because, for her, bedtime was an insulting and disappointing surprise every single time. Her roommate Sally, 6, was shouting, “I can’t sleep with this little kid yammering.”

I let that situation simmer while I went into Marie’s room to say good night. (One of the good things about having three children is that at any given time you can usually find one who is not driving you nuts.) Marie, 9, said, “I’m only going to have two kids when I grow up.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because it seems to be really hard having three kids,” she said.

“You’re an observant child,” I said. “Two is the best number of children.”

“Could we give one of my sisters to a zoo or something?” she asked, too old to be serious. “They both belong in a monkey house.”

“It’s a tempting idea, but I’d miss them and so would you,” I said.

Marie snorted dubiously and kissed me good night. Then I went back to sing to Wendy. (My monotone rendition of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” makes slumber seem interesting by comparison.)

Marie was right about the difficulty of managing three children, especially when Child No. 3 is as lively and forceful as Wendy. But you stumble down a path awhile and the landscape changes. What began as a wish, a decision or a surprise, grows into a 3-year-old child who loves green olives, mud puddles and Piglet; who then becomes a 12-year-old who lights up the middle-school stage as Anna in The King and I; who then goes to high school and becomes a fierce defender of special kids against bullies; and who is now a 19-year-old who loves babies and dogs, and whose workplace adventures provide material for some of the funniest stories.

To think that only 20 years ago Betsy and I had been rationally listing the pros and cons of having a third child. No, we’d decided, a third child was not essential. Not then.  n

Rick Epstein can be reached at

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