Ask multiple parents about ideal family size, and you’re likely to get multiple answers. But one trope that keeps coming up over and over is that having three kids is harder than having two because that’s the point at which the kids outnumber the parents. While every family’s experience is different, here are six reasons transitioning from two kids to three can — sometimes, at least — be easier than going from one to two.
For the nearly two years when my oldest was an only, she was pretty much the center of the universe that was our home. It wasn’t that we catered to her every whim, but babies and little kids can be pretty demanding, and they have a way of taking over for better and for worse.
From the kid’s perspective, transitioning from solo star of the show to one of a cast of (crying) characters can be really tough on the star. But if they're already part of a cast and a new member shows up? Eh, no biggie.
An only child who wants to play and doesn't have a friend over only has two choices: playing alone or forcing an adult in their lives to join them. This means you may have to build a very high tower (but only with the red blocks) or demonstrate excessive admiration for the delicious "ice cream” they just concocted in the toy oven.
But once Baby 3 is ready for the world, there's a good chance Kids 1 and 2 are keeping each other entertained. Sure, that entertainment may involve a more colorful wall than you used to have or a tearful tussle over who gets to play with the Spider-Man ball, but hey, at least you have the luxury of changing the baby's diaper while the older two are off doing something else.
With your first kid, you're learning what in the world you're supposed to do with a baby. You learn that "slippery when wet" applies to babies at least as much as roads; that clipping the nails of a wriggling creature, while tough, is not quite as insurmountable a task as it seems; and that the biggest blowout will inevitably happen right after you've given the kid a bath.
With your second, you may have the baby hacks down, but now you realize you have no clue how to actually do all those baby things while simultaneously entertaining a toddler or paying attention to an older child. It's a whole new learning curve.
By the time you have your third, though, you've already taken your prereq classes and can finally move on to putting into practice what you've already learned. Plus, you've probably already got some ready-to-use instructions stored up, like "We only put baskets on our own heads, not the baby’s,” or "Wait! No, babies don't eat lollipops!”
One bonus of having been around the block twice is that you may feel more confident in your parenting choices because you’ve been there and done that already, and your kids turned out OK so far.
Part of this is learning what you can let go of — and that may be a lot of the stuff you thought was essential the first or second times. It could be physical stuff that retailers want you to think is indispensable, like wipe warmers, or stuff you used to be convinced it was necessary to do. You know those memes about how parents boil the pacifier of their first baby every time it falls out but by the third baby they just pop it back in? Well, with your third, you may find there is some truth to that.
There is a flip side to all this increased confidence and skills. Even though in certain ways, you're smarter about parenting by the time Kid 3 makes an appearance, you also know enough to realize that you're not actually an expert in parenting, you're just an expert in parenting your specific kids.
As a baby, my oldest used to love being held stomach-down on our forearms and would often cry if she was being held a different way. The key information to retain was not that this specific position was magic, but that there might be some position that works like magic to help calm babies down — and it's up to the parents and the baby to figure out exactly what it is. By the time I pushed out my third child, I realized more fully that while I had a lot of good tricks up my sleeve that were well worth trying, ultimately, I might have to tweak or even ditch them if they didn't work with this specific baby.
My oldest was at a pretty needy stage when my second was born, so I was constantly trying to make the right judgment call on whose needs should come first. Sometimes it felt like every decision was an anxiety-riddled zero-sum game.
“I should prioritize the baby because she's tiny and helpless and needs me more!” I would think. But the other gremlins in my head had opinions too. “No, I should give the toddler more attention because she's feeling displaced and needs emotional reassurance!” And then: “Wait, but no, I can't treat my second worse than I treated my first. I’ll be setting them up for a lifetime of sibling rivalry!”
When I had my third, making these judgments was so much easier because I wasn't constantly pitting one kid against another in my head. That’s when the numbers game worked in my favor. I still gave preference to the baby when her basic needs had to be met ASAP, but when I had to turn my attention over to the big kids, I felt more justified because, hey, I was helping the majority of the children in my care.
All told, it should go without saying that family size is a very personal decision that every family needs to make for themselves to the extent they can. But for those who want a third and are worried about being in the minority, it’s worth remembering that sometimes, a number is just a number.
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