“I’d rather have my brother than a trip to Europe.”
My good friend was giving me good advice, but it was hard for me to accept. “It’s not that simple,” I protested.
I had asked her for her input: My husband and I were trying to decide whether or not to try to have a third child. We’d had our first boys close together, which had not exactly been our plan, and I found myself 32, completely stressed out after having had two children under the age of 2 and then the resulting toddlers, but not yet ready to call the game on childbearing entirely. I felt like there was still someone missing from our dinner table.
My husband and I spent nights running numbers. What if we wanted to send them to private school? Could we afford braces for three kids? The world isn’t really made for families larger than four; three children would mean two hotel rooms if we traveled, two taxi cabs (or now, possibly an Uber XL), bigger tables at restaurants (if we could even afford to take five people out to dinner). And then there was the already daunting question of college tuition.
But beyond the basic questions of whether we had enough bedrooms or a big enough car for three kids, when I was being completely honest with myself, having more than two children carried other implications for me as well. They were questions less fundamental than knowing whether or not we could pay for college, less cosmic than if we had a moral obligation not to contribute to the overpopulation of the planet. They were worries definitely more First World, superficial, and specific to parenting in this age of Cultivating Magical Childhoods for Our Offspring: If we had more than two children, would I be stealing luxuries from my first two by indulging in my desire to have a third?
We are fortunate to make enough money between us that if we save accordingly, we could afford nice things for two children: maybe private school, annual vacations, private lessons… the kind of extras that make life very comfortable. But for three children? Well, a trip to see the Roman ruins when they are studying world history is probably not going to happen. So I turned to my friend, who was the oldest of three, to ask her what she thought. That’s when she told me that she would rather have her youngest brother, who was by then a college student, than a trip to Europe.
Her words stuck with me. But still, I waffled. It felt selfish to have another child, to dismiss all the things I knew we could probably afford for two children and instead have a baby. Would it be OK if we couldn’t afford to take our children to see the world before they grew up? Would they feel the lack of things they could have had if they were the only two?
I asked another friend of mine, a parent a decade older than me whose children are also older. She said the words that changed my whole perspective:
“I used to worry about those kinds of things,” she mused. “But then I realized that it’s not actually our job as parents to give our children every experience. It’s OK to leave some things up to them to accomplish. It might even be better to let them do some things on their own someday,” she said.
I had to read her email a few times. It felt so foreign to me, the permission to not worry about giving my children All the Things. For whatever reason, many in my generation of parents have chosen a kind of Giving Tree approach to parenting: We throw elaborate, Pinterest-worthy birthday parties, we personalize everything, we invest life savings into amateur sports careers for children who have not yet hit puberty. We give and give and give, often with decoration and fanfare, and we frequently end up with children dressed more nicely than we are. I had sort of felt like maybe it was in my job description that I take my children on trips to Amazing Places so they could do Amazing Things and have Amazing Experiences as part of that protocol.
We ultimately decided to have that third child. And then, we went rogue and lost our minds and decided to even have a fourth. I mean, we already needed two hotel rooms anyway, and we already had a minivan, so why not, right? Our vacations do, in fact, involve more driving than flying and way more “H” hotels, as my children call the Holiday Inn, than fancier destinations. They don’t get a lot of private lessons and they go to public schools, but when they genuinely need something, we find a way. I still dream of taking them to Europe someday, but we might try it one or two children at a time instead of all six of us at once.
Now, I think of our family differently. I think about holidays in the future when they might all be able to make it home at once, of many bodies in the kitchen at family meals, private family jokes and memories from epic road trips when they were children, the times when they all slept together on the floor of a single hotel room because we couldn’t afford two. I hope that someday their children have tons of cousins to grow up with, and that they will support each other and be each others’ memory keepers. And if we can’t do it for them, I hope they someday go to Europe and see the Roman ruins themselves, on their own dime and in their own time.
We might not be able to give our children every experience, but I do now believe that is perfectly OK. We enjoy what we can and do give them, which is more than enough. I feel confident that someday, they will answer that they would rather have their littlest sister than a trip to Europe. Europe will be waiting for them whenever they do get there.
Maybe they will even take me with them when they go.