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The Right Number of Kids: 3 ... Or Is It 4?

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It sounded like a good idea, once upon a time. We would have three kids. Not a BIG family. Not a little family. Not average-sized. Just a little big, just a tad more energy, a smidgen more involving, than the two-kid households where Bill and I were raised.


Let’s just say—you can’t be “a little pregnant,” and you can’t have a family that is “a little big.” Nine years after popping out my third munchkin, I am here to report that the three-kid household is the circus that never leaves town. And lest you think I am an unusually crabby individual, there is a new survey to back me up.

RELATED: The Right Number of Kids: 1

A Today Moms survey of 7,000 mothers across the United States found that the moms who reported being the most stressed out were those with three children. Not only were they having a harder time than the moms of two kids or singletons; they actually described higher stress levels than the moms with four, five or more kids.

Of course, I can understand why it’s easier to have one or two kids. It’s like crossing the street. If you’ve got one child, you wait for the light to turn green, then reach for her hand and cross the street. If you’ve got two kids, you’d better grab their mitts before the light changes, in case one of them (usually, the younger one) decides to dash out into traffic. You may even need to look behind you to find that kid, but you do, and you cross, less focused in one direction perhaps, but managing, a child in each hand.

Then you have three, and suddenly there’s the choice: Who can manage without my hand? Who can get through this moment on his own, because I’m too busy with his siblings right now to help him out? There’s guilt in that decision. There’s anxiety. There’s probably also frustration, because he wants to hold your hand even if he’s old enough to manage alone, and so he’s whining or worse, starting a fight with a sibling. And so, once again, there’s chaos and you reach the other side with a pounding heart and the resolve to manage this better, next time.

Add in the one-third financial mark-up from the two-kid family, and you have it: the stress built into life every day in a three-kid household.

It’s very possible that if we’d gone and had one more kid, I’d be more zen and my children would manage better.

Here’s what’s killing me, though—why is it easier to manage even more children? To find out, I emailed three girlfriends who have four kids. This is what they told me:

“By the time your fourth arrives, you don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. If giving your 3-year-old ice cream or a lollipop before dinner will keep the peace, you let her have it. You know it won’t ruin her for life!” –Priscilla Holmes, Philadelphia, Pa.

“Four kids makes me uber-consumed with being organized ... I believe four has taught me that I need to be more conscious of what is important in life. I stay focused on the little things because they really are the big things.” –Heather Trilling, Westlake Village, Calif.

“Four is easier because the kids can pair off. Especially when you have two of each. With three there is one left out. Also when it was three the baby got treated more like a baby for some reason. With four you can't indulge the youngest and she's more likely to try and keep up with the others.” –Anne Arikian, Los Angeles, Calif.

RELATED: The Right Number of Kids: 2

It’s very possible that if we’d gone and had one more kid, I’d be more zen and my children would manage better. I cop to the trap of trying to give my kids all the time, attention and resources that their friends from two kid households receive; with three, it’s still possible most of the time. There’s just less left (less time, less energy, less money) for me and my husband.

Still, I’d do it again. Having three kids may be more stressful than two, but I also think it’s more fun, exciting and, when it’s going well, more joyous.

That said, I’m not rushing out to get pregnant again, either.

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