Children are like flowers, rainbows, and potato chips: You can never have too many. That's the kind of sentiment you might see on one of those cheesy Facebook posts featuring flowery script and a meadow full of cherubic tots. And it may in fact be true if the continued existence of your reality TV show depends on your having 17 children. But for everyone else, there is indeed a limit if you wish to remain a citizen of Planet Sanity. Unfortunately, you don't know what that number is until you have exceeded it. In my case, the number of kids I can reasonably handle turned out to be three. So naturally, I wound up having four.
"Four kids are a load," a friend, himself a father of four, said sympathetically one day not too long ago when he asked how I was doing.
But there are loads, and there are mother lodes, and the mother lode of adult-onset insanity is attempting to raise a big family when you yourself were an only child.
I plead ignorance. As an only child, I grew up fantasizing about big-family life. In my quiet home I entertained myself with dolls and books and television and the occasional imaginary friend. On Christmas morning I opened my gifts by myself with doting adults looking on; there was love but never too much of a mess.
In a home with just one child, the laundry pile never grows larger than the dog. There are never three televisions blasting at once, or four cell phones ringing or beeping. A bag of Double Stuf Oreos always lasts for more than one day. There are never four children pounding on the bathroom door while Mom is trying to enjoy a nice, relaxing bath.
Because only children don't know what life in large families is really like, we fantasize. We dream of Waltons. We dream of Weasleys. We imagine a family with four, six, eight children, all adorably freckled, all looking just like us, with our full lips, and their father's kind eyes; individuals, yes, of course -- but indelibly similar.
And so it came to pass that I, an only child, who after my parents' divorce spent a third of my childhood in a tidy and ordered household of just my mother and me, followed my dream -- only to wake up in a small house with four kids and a husband, feeling freaked out and wondering what had happened. One minute I was at the Sears Portrait Studio, beaming with my armload of babies and toddlers in Santa hats and matching plaid shirts, and the next thing I knew I was pulling the covers over my head, muttering, like the Grinch, "Oh, the noise, noise, noise, noise!"
What happened was, they grew up. And it turns out that a large family of babies and toddlers is markedly different from a large family of grade schoolers and high schoolers, who are not content with going where you want to go, sweetly tucked into their strollers and car seats. You may be crazy busy and sleepless when you have a large family of young children, but the older they get, the less control you have. And forget the Waltons: You can't say "Good night, John-Boy" and "Goodnight, Elizabeth" because either the house is still too noisy at 10 p.m. or Jim-Bob is at the sophomore prom and needs a ride home at 11:30 p.m.
During this time you may look on your oldest son, who is always yelling at his siblings for getting into his stuff, and feel a flash of pity for him. Maybe he would have been happier as an only child. You would have had more time to spend with him. You would never have had to leave the football game early to pick up his sister from piano or take his brother to a sleepover.
You look at your youngest daughter and think, What if it had been just her? She could have worn brand-new Ralph Lauren and we could have had matching mother-daughter Hanna Andersson jammies instead of hand-me-downs from the cousins who live four states away. We would have seen more movies, gone to more concerts and plays, and eaten out regularly, not just on special occasions. When you're dreaming of a large family, after all, you're thinking of the Hallmark moments, not calculating the cost of five meals, plus tip.
Should children in a modern household ever outnumber the adults? Did I, in fact, have too many children, especially now that I'm single? It's time to face the truth: Maybe. Okay, fine, deep breath: Certainly.
Yes, I took on more than I could realistically handle.
But to have fewer children I would have to live without Katherine, and I don't want to live in a world without Katherine. Nor one without her messy and noisy brothers, Mencken and Galen, or her maddening, can't-wait-to-get-out-of-here, 17-going-on-34 sister, Alex, who is so much more exhausting now than she ever was at 6 months old.
Can't live with them, can't live without them. They say that of men, but it's truest of children. My large, zany, loud, messy life is not at all what I envisioned. Never in my pre-family days did I once think, "Gee, I can't wait until I have four kids and a septic tank, and the power goes out for four days!" But it's a funny thing: Handling these kinds of day-to-day crises may be easier if it's just you and one beautifully dressed kid. But with four kids and no working toilets -- oh, the stories you'll tell! And, oh, the love you will feel.
It turns out that having all those children made me more tolerant, more loving, more capable of occasionally overlooking a mess.
Which is a good thing, because with four teens and tweens, in a few years I'm going to have grandchildren running around here. Yowza. Heaven help me -- you do the math.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2012.