At this busy time of year, we focus a lot on calendars. School is starting, weekly schedules are filling up with new activities, and the Jewish holidays are right around the corner. But I’m also thinking about internal calendars — specifically, about how our childbearing clocks and personal decisions play out in public.
Despite having gone through pregnancy chitchat — and unsolicited belly pats — twice before, I wasn’t prepared for some of the reactions when my husband and I shared the news last year that a third child was on the way.
Most of our friends and acquaintances expressed joy mixed with a bit of surprise. Some people, though, touched on that most private of private topics: family planning.
There was the common refrain: “We thought you guys were done!” There was its variant: “You seemed done!” There were the slightly ickier questions: “Did you guys just keep trying until you got a girl?” Then there were the few who winked and said knowingly: “So this one was an accident, huh?”
It’s true, my boys were already 8 and 5 when the news of their sibling-to-be became public last spring, and that five-year gap between progeny #2 and #3 is likely what provoked the surprised responses. But how exactly did I “seem done”? (Am I a roast chicken? No.) I am still under 40, well within the reasonable range of my childbearing years. Was it because #3 did not come at the same 30-month interval as #2? Does a five-year hiatus cross some unspoken boundary?
I am hardly the first mom to hit the “pause” button after having one or more children, nor am I unique in spreading my children out over several years. My own mother had four children over the span of nearly 10 years. I have friends with one child in middle school and another just starting elementary school, and other acquaintances whose kids arrived one after another. Whether positioned very close together or far apart, the spacing between children is highly personal to each family — and, of course, not always intentional or planned.
To some extent, even having the conversation about spacing between kids is a matter of privilege. Writing in Forbes in 2012, Jessica Carew Kraft broke down the financial benefits for different intervals (2-years or less, 3 to 4-years, and 5-plus), while ultimately admitting that fertility and age “play a huge role.” Various parenting publications offer pro-tips for each degree of spacing between children, examining the potential impact on older siblings, one’s marriage, career paths, and finances. For example, waiting five or more years between children, Parents Magazine warns , would necessitate purchasing new gear to replace all the out-of-date stuff.
These practical considerations are valid: We did need to buy new baby accouterments which, despite my best efforts, were simply worn out after cycling through my two boys. The jogging stroller was manufactured too early to be compatible with our baby girl’s carseat; the vibrating chair we lent to friends had lost its buzz. On the other hand, given the opportunity to replace our first-round changing table, we found a taller model that has helped us avoid the back strain that came with changing nappies on a too-low surface. Upgrade! (Fear not, sustainability fans: The older table now serves as a storage unit in the garage.)
Beyond the material aspect, though, there is an undeniable emotional element to the baby scheduling conversation, which can’t be articulated as easily as a chart of financial benefits. How do you fold a universe of memories, sensations, and hopes into a pro-con list? How do you explain to well-meaning inquirers why you didn’t feel “done”?
Don’t get me wrong: I relished the (relative) stability and mental clarity that came with emerging from the chaotic scrum of baby/toddler years into the more predictable rhythms of grade school. As my boys got older, I took on more professional responsibility. I had time to apply for grants, present at conferences, and publish articles.
Yet I knew I was ready for a baby-sized disruption in my life. I was excited about seeing how the boys’ relationship with each other would develop in new directions once their sister arrived. As the pregnancy rolled along, I enjoyed many sweet moments with my big kids — letting them feel their baby sister kicking, hearing them read to her in utero, knowing that their voices would already be familiar to her when she arrived.
My daughter was born just after Sukkot last year. This year, she will celebrate the Jewish holidays with her big brothers. As I begin preparations for the High Holidays, I’m reminded of the beauty of seeing a child experience things for the first time. Plus, my boys will also be able to witness their sister having her first Rosh Hashanah. Those special memories can’t be quantified.
Yes, sometimes it feels odd to be buying shin guards for one kid and Robeez for the other, or to be looking into orthodontists for my older son’s braces while the baby is cutting her first teeth. No doubt, our family calendar is more crowded now, and scheduling is more complicated than ever. But ultimately, the contrasts and the chaos only intensify the sweetness of this stage of life.
For me, having a third after taking a break helped enrich my understanding of what it means to build a family, whatever the distance between siblings may be. In this New Year, may we find ways to honor families of all shapes and sizes, and to support them on their paths.