Having a third baby: an idea whose time has come and gone

April 30, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

There has been an unexpected bonus in my daughter's piano lessons -- and her name is Katie. She is the 18-month-old daughter of the piano teacher, and after each lesson, I get to hold Katie under the pretense of saying goodbye.

It is a very long goodbye, for Katie has leaped from the imagination of a doll maker. Crystal blue eyes as round and big as quarters. Tiny lips pressed into a bow by her puffy, pillowy cheeks. And when I hold her, Katie melts into my shoulder as if she wants to nap there.

Katie drives away all reason, and I am intoxicated with her, with the idea of her. With the idea of having a third child.

It is unlikely -- my husband says that while he can see himself as a 55-year-old baseball coach, he can't see me as a 55-year-old PTA mom -- but I am preoccupied with the romantic notion of one more baby.

It is unreasonable to shatter the perfect symmetry of a two-parent-two-child family, I know. ("Man-to-man coverage," explains my husband, the sportswriter. "Nobody escapes for a touchdown.") We have one of each sex and both arrived safely and it is folly to tempt fate.

They are older now, and life is manageable, the way it would not be with a new baby. Our daily routines would become daily productions if the number of kids outnumbered the number of adults.

With two children, I can fake normal life. But with three, I'd have to face the fact that I'd be out of action for at least six years. I can't imagine crossing the street with three kids, let alone getting out the door in the morning for work.

But I have only to watch the way the soccer mothers rushed to the woman holding the newborn to know that I am not the only 40-year-old still clinging to this vision of herself as a woman young enough to still have children.

We would all protest that we would not go back to night feedings and diapers for love or money, but when we are battling adolescents who tell us to get out of their lives twice a day, it would be lovely to have somebody to love -- us. Again. For a while longer.

The statistics weigh heavily against this sentimental daydream.

When you are thinking about a third child, you see large families everywhere, but the truth is, it is a cottage industry, not a national trend. The Department of Fertility Statistics at the Bureau of the Census says the American family is shrinking. In just one generation, the average number of children per couple has dropped from three to under two (1.8).

In 1970, according to the Census Bureau, 17 percent of the nation's households had three or more children. In 1992, just 7 percent were that large.

While large families tend to be two-parent families, they are less likely to be two-income families. Census statistics show that 68 percent of married women with one child are in the labor force, compared with 64 percent of married women with two children and 55 percent of married women with three or more.

When women are surveyed, they list stress and financial concerns as the most important reasons why they do not have a third child, while affordability and the ability to give each child some attention are the two biggest reasons given for small family size.

We are shrinking our families to a size we can cope with, a size we can pay for. But that does nothing to extinguish the longings.

Most of us came from larger families, and there is an almost primal need to match the size of our family of origin. But we are also the children of "zero population growth" and more than two children does not seem to us like a responsible act.

And it would not be greeted favorably. If you are pregnant for the third time, people feel free to ask, "Why?" "Was this planned?" "Are you happy about this?"

Often a third child is conceived at the time when the second child enters school. When the woman is free to devote more time to a career and does not, unkind observers will suggest that she is afraid of an existence defined by something other than child-rearing.

The mothers I know might protest that they are content to hand the delightful Katies of the world back to their mothers. That babies are sweetest when they are not your own.

But I suspect there is more of this ambivalence in these women than they are likely to admit.

If they held Katie, I bet they would linger. And daydream.

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