Last night Caroline stepped out of the shower and said something that we’d both been thinking: “I miss life as a family of three.”
This isn’t at all a commentary on Wally, who just turned a week-old. Knock on wood, he’s been about as easy as could be so far. He knows his days from his nights, he’s been a breastfeeding pro since day one, and he tolerates his older brother’s clumsy attempts to hold him. He shows every sign of fitting in just fine.
But our lives in the months leading up to Wally’s birth were awfully close to perfect. As we lay in bed during the final months of her pregnancy, Caroline and I would sometimes talk about how odd it was that we’d chosen deliberately to upend a life we were so completely happy with. For much of Jay’s first year we had felt overstretched, but by the time he had turned 18-months-old our life as a family of three had settled nicely into place: Jay was sleeping through the night and spending his mornings in daycare which gave me and Caroline enough time for work; we were going out on the weekends with our friends again; Jay was talking a lot and had become legitimately fun to hang out with; and Caroline and I had gotten through our early hiccups as a parenting team. On the eve of Wally’s birth I might have said there was nothing about our lives I really wanted to change.
Reflecting on how happy we were at the time of Wally’s birth, it struck me that we’d decided to have a second child for very different reasons than we’d decided to have a first. Three years ago Caroline and I first entertained the notion of becoming parents because we were dissatisfied with our lives. We were both 27. Since graduating from college we’d been free to do just about whatever we’d wanted, but after five years in which we’d bounced between cities and backpacked around the world, all that freedom had started to feel empty. We wanted more weight in our lives and a child seemed like just the way to provide it.
When I observed to Caroline that the circumstances surrounding Jay and Wally’s respective arrivals were very different, she pointed me towards a study by Duke sociologist Phil Morgan called “Why Have Children in the 21st Century?” which argues that couples have a first child for different reasons than they have a second (and a third and a fourth, etc.). Morgan found that couples plunge into parenthood initially to fill an immediate need in their lives like wanting “a child to love and care for” or in order to have “more fun around the house.” By contrast, he found that couples have a second child for more long-term strategic reasons, like wanting to “provide companionship for siblings” or out of a desire to achieve a certain sex balance, like a boy and a girl.* That certainly captures why we decided to have Wally when we did. We wanted Jay to have a sibling and we wanted them to be close enough in age that they could grow up together as friends (at least theoretically).
As I think about the family circumstances into which Wally was born I keep coming back to a hiking analogy. Six years ago, before Caroline and I had any children at all, we took a three week hike around the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. One afternoon we stopped in this picturesque little village to rest and drink some water. The village was perched halfway up a steep hill overlooking a rocky Himalayan river. We’d been walking for five hours and the setting was so beautiful that once we sat down, it was hard to fathom why we wouldn’t just settle down where we were. But the place we’d planned to spend the night was eight miles farther up the trail. So after lingering for a few minutes, we stretched our legs, shouldered our packs, and started off again.
Wally’s arrival has felt a little like that afternoon in Nepal. Before he arrived we were happy where we were, but we also were not yet the family we wanted to become. So we said let’s go, and took to the trail again.
*Morgan also found that couples who have more than 3 children generally do so for economic reasons, like wanting help around the family farm. The fact that there are so few family farms in the US anymore is one reason why very big families are rarer than they used to be.