The Family You Plan For, The Family You Get
The family we want is not always the family we get, but the family we get is the one that we love.
According to the World Health Organization, the concept of “family planning” allows people to attain their desired number of children and determine the spacing between them.
According to the old Yiddish proverb, men plan and God laughs.
I had a plan for my family. I wanted three children. If you had asked me before, I would have said this: two boys, relatively close in age, and then maybe a girl, though I wasn’t bothered about the sex. I would wait a little longer to have the third child—settle the first one into school, break the back of the second’s toddlerhood—so I could appreciate fully that last ride round the carousel of new motherhood. So I could swill it in my mouth like the fine wine it is.
I had my two boys, just over two years a part. And then three and half years later, I had twins.
I’m not sure I think the configuration of a family is something we should aim to control absolutely, though modern medicine offers increasing opportunity to do just that. There is much beauty to be found in the unknown, in the mysteries the reproductive process is so good at serving up to us. But still we are human. And still we make plans, we make choices, whether Mother Nature is smirking behind our backs or not. We harbor ideas and desires about how many children will be sitting at the dinner table, about what they might be like, and we have regrets, too, regrets that creep in like frost, even though it’s not always socially acceptable to say so.
I planned for three children and I ended up with four, and it has changed my life more than I ever imagined.
Lots of people have four children and are happy about it. Lots of people have twins and are happy about it. The issue is not the number of children or their gender or the spacing or anything else substantive for that matter. It is the gap between expectation and reality and the inevitable effect such a breach has on our psyches. It is the emotional adjustments we have to make when our plans go awry, when the plot twists in a direction we didn’t quite predict.
Those who dreamed of princesses and pink, but find themselves knee-deep in digger trucks. Those who saw a future with siblings entwined, but are only able to have one child. Those who wanted the kids bang-bang-bang, but whose steady rhythm is interrupted by the lull of miscarriage or infertility. Those who expected neurotypical children, but who are nurturing a different sort of mind. Those who assumed their babies would develop according to the books, but to whom time is telling another story.
In my darker moments, when my twins are locked in yet another battle of wills or my husband is miserable because of it or I’ve spent that second half-an-hour putting the other youngest child to sleep though my tank of patience has long since bottomed out, I am hit by what I have come to refer to as “three-child envy.” It flares up when I watch my friends on Facebook announce their third pregnancies, with glee, pregnancies that yield a single baby and complete their families in just the way they hoped. It stirs its ugly head when I watch the mothers stroll into the school yard to collect their pair of older children, the lone toddler clinging comfortably to their hips. Because those families, those families seem perfect to me.
We are all lucky in some respects, we look luckier than we feel to the parent who has the opposite problem—too few children, for example, instead of too many—to the parent who is facing a more objectively serious challenge. But luck is subjective. And how we react to the unexpected, whether we stew in the what-ifs or whether we press on as if this is exactly how it should be, is contingent on the entirety of who we are. The kind of resilience or optimism that allows for the latter is not, for some of us, a switch that can be flicked on at will.
As much as I wish I were, I am not the mother who says: I couldn’t imagine it any other way! Or: it’s a blessing in disguise! Rather I am the mother who says: it is what is. And what it is in our house, unfortunately right now, is more difficulty than hidden delight. More strain on the marriage, more shouting at the kids, more general bursts of distress and disgruntlement. How do I know? Because every so often I get to experience the family I planned for.
Like last week. Last week one of my twins (and it could have been the other) stayed on with his grandparents for an extra five days, for a special trip, while the rest of us returned home. It was easier. It was so much easier. My husband and I all but stopped fighting. The air lost its perennial charge of static. The decibel level hovered somewhere in the normal range. No doubt the power of relativity was working its magic: three children will indeed feel easier when you are used to juggling four. It was also, however, a glimpse into the mists of what could have been, where the cold fact is that what could have been is simpler than what is.
But ease is only one dimension of a life well lived, it is only one value among many. So too playing at a family of three children isn’t the same thing as being a family of three children, because that fourth child exists, he has been brought into the world and he is cherished. And in the end I was desperate to have him home, of course I was, even though I knew it meant an instant return to our status quo of chaos. For the tangled truth is this: the family we want is not always the family we get, but the family we get is the one that we love.