Saturday, October 9, 2010

How 4 is More Than 3

Recently someone asked me how different having three kids was from having four. Going from two to three seemed like such a big jump to their family. Adding one more to that was too much for her to imagine. It made me stop and think about the question. What is it like to have four kids? How is it different than three? Or even two?

Let me first point out that we did not have our four children all in a row. I have no idea how those moms survive from day to day. Our second baby was born three weeks after his big sister’s first birthday but from that moment on, our family growth came to a screeching halt. Jeff was still working on graduate school and starting his career so we happily raised our two as Irish twins and knew any future siblings would come later.

When our first two were independent preschoolers we added another boy to our family. Almost four years after that, our last baby. That put our oldest and our youngest almost a decade apart in age. But no matter how you decide to space them out, having four children is very different from having two or even three.

First let’s visit the topic of clothes. Cute little Osh Kosh hand me downs only last for so long. Once a kid hits elementary school, the friend and family donations dry up. Then it’s time to hit the department store. Buying shirts, pants, socks and underwear for two can add up quickly. With four it’s enough to max out a credit card. Add on to that the fact that everyone needs a winter coat, possibly winter boots, dress shoes and athletic shoes.

Even if money’s not tight, the time it takes to physically take four different kids shopping is almost a full time job. Once we passed the years where I could buy clothes for them without their consent, we had to start scheduling clothes shopping trips like we do dentist appointments. Last week I found myself at Old Navy, with all three boys. We just needed ‘a few pair of pants and a few shirts’.

Getting three rotating boys to try on the necessary items, stay patient while I cruised through clearance racks, and not kill each other (just for fun), was enough to make me crave a nap as I shelled out over two hundred dollars at the register. And that whole escapade was just the tip of the iceberg. We still have to shop for their full winter wardrobes. In past years I’ve spent my Old Navy afternoons juggling the boys on top of trying to steal a few seconds away from them to explore the girlie side of the store with their sister. Fortunately she’s graduated on to picking out her how clothes.

The vehicle in our driveway is also something that reflects our larger family. I know a lot of people who have two kids drive minivans. But when your family totals six, you fill it up. We’ve become experts at packing lightly when we go to New Hampshire to visit grandma. Once the six tall bodies that make up our family climb into the van, there’s little room left over for suitcases.

Every extra child means another birthday on the calendar. Presents and parties and cake on another day you need to make special. Every child means another stack of presents under the tree in December. Every child will also have his own friends, who will multiply and take over your house if the snacks are good enough.

And the thing I feel the most on some days, every extra child means more stuff in your house. More shoes by the door, more buckets of ‘special things’ tucked under beds, more sweatshirts left draped on the back of the couch and a zillion more school papers left on the kitchen table. A jug of orange juice lasts less than a day. A box of cereal is lucky to make it through one breakfast. There never seems to be enough spoons in the drawer if we have soup for dinner, then ice cream for snacks two hours later.

By now you might be wondering why we did it. Why subject ourselves to such chaos and expense, when it just seems like a lot of work? Let me tell you why.

To begin with, we did it because Jeff and I both grew up in big families and loved having lots of siblings. Even as adults we love being surrounded by brothers and sisters, older and younger than us, and the way each of them enriches our lives. Every extra kid in a family brings a different personality. Each of our children have their place in our family and each one of them rounds us out in a good way. When we have family discussions around the dinner table, we have a nice variety of viewpoints and opinions. My children are learning from each other how to get along with many different kinds of people.

As they’ve grown up, and passed through different developmental stages, my children have grown close to whichever sibling meets their needs best at the time. When he was little, Isaac loved snuggling in his big sister’s lap as she read him books. Her praise meant ten times more to him than praise from mom or dad. As he got older, he started to be the big brother for Sam, reaching down to use the nurturing skills his sister taught him. Now that he’s a teenager, he most identifies with his older brother, the one who’s paving the way for him through the confusing halls of high school. He’s learned something different from each interaction.

It’s not a lifestyle for everyone. A lot of the time it’s loud and rowdy, especially if there are boys involved. And it’s not something you should jump into blindly. But for some of us it’s a pretty good life. Even with all the extra work, extra expense and extra guilt that you’re not possibly meeting everyone’s needs, there’s always a reminder somewhere along the way, of why it’s all worth it.

Sometimes it’s as simple as watching your handful of kids just enjoying each others company.


Cathy said...

I have a family of three boys ages 15, 12 and 6. I know the big gap and now that they're older, it's so nice to have the help.

I often think that I wish I had the 4th. I feel like I have a family of two and then an only child. In addition, going out to eat often results in being stuff in a table for 4 with a chair stuck on the end. Knees and legs getting kicked, no elbow room, etc...

We definitely upgraded our car and what kills me are the $200 hiking boots for the 50-mile backpacking trip every year. Boots that get used once and then remain on the shelf in the garage until the next kid can wear them. That goes for the ski boots too actually now that I think about it.

Carrie Link said...

I love the details you supplied, things I'd never thought of!