The tipping point

Date

Samantha Selinger-Morris

Three's a crowd: Samantha Selinger-Morris with (from left) Jasper, 8, Flynn, 23 months, and Elke, 6.

Three's a crowd: Samantha Selinger-Morris with (from left) Jasper, 8, Flynn, 23 months, and Elke, 6. Photo: Nic Walker

After years of being at odds with her husband over whether they should have a third child, Ariela Bard finally clinched her "campaign" for another baby with a novel compromise.

"Nathan went to Paris, London and Spain," says Bard, a 35-year-old freelance writer. "[He said], 'If we're going to have a third child, I want to go overseas before the baby's born. I was like, 'Sure.' That's two weeks. This is for life."

Sitting at her dining table with her third child, five-month-old Jacob, swaddled and nestled in a crook of one elbow, she adds, with calm clarity: "It's a desperate want and you say yes to stuff."

It's a typical conversation from the frontline of what is, admittedly, a very middle-class social dilemma: to become a three-child family, or not to become a three-child family?

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One only has to eavesdrop on comments lobbed at women who have had a third to see how fiercely the question is debated. I've had: "Do you feel more, y'know, accomplished? More than if you just had two?" And, from a mother of two, "You're making me feel so inadequate!"

Then there are the surveys. One conducted in 2013 by Today.com, polling 7000 mothers, concluded that families with three children were the most stressed. (Researchers found that once you reach a certain "critical mass" of children, parenthood starts to get easier, and three is the "tipping point", the "storm", before the "calm" of four.)

Oh, and a third child will also fail to increase the happiness of his or her parents, after its birth, unlike the brief spike in joy that parents enjoy after their first or second child, according to 2014 study, published in the journal Demography. (The third child is no longer a novelty, and places a great deal of pressure on parents' emotional and financial resources.)

But then countless articles claim the exact opposite. "Why three really is the magic number when it comes to having children", reads a headline from Britain's Daily Express. Too right, says The New York Times, calling the third child "aspirational".

So which is it - the pinnacle of family joy or a happiness wrecker? Fertility trends in Australia have been steadily moving away from three-child families since the 1980s. In 1981, 27.4 per cent of women aged 40 to 44 had three children, compared with 20.1 per cent in 2011. The fertility rate, which peaked at 3.55 babies per woman in 1961, is now at 1.93 per woman.

Dr Stephanie Hyams, who has seen a lot of patients struggle with whether or not to have a third child, thinks the decision has become more urgent for women now than it was a generation or two ago.

"Many people are now having their second child at 40, so maybe we're feeling that stressful pressure to decide, because the clock's running," she says. "When people were having kids in their 20s, they didn't have that kind of pressure."

And with third children being born to older mothers, when there is an increased risk they could be born with health problems, many women feel added pressure that they need a "good" reason - the "right" reason - for chancing it and "tempting fate".

"I had to really decide whether this [desire] was about having a third child or a daughter," says Georgia Rozenes Levy, who felt that to want a girl, after having two boys, would be "selfish", given the potential impact an unhealthy child could have on her family.

"I thought that by wanting a girl and only a girl that potentially I could get a sick child. I really had to believe that I didn't care about the gender."

I have another theory about why there's so much third-child discussion and why it's so polarising - painted as either the best thing you'll do, or the worst.

Simply put, many of us are lying about why we really want a third child and what it's like once we take the leap. And, as with any scarce commodity, the rarer it is, the more we clamour after it, like hungry cats scratching for scraps at the screen door.

I would know.

"Oh no!" I'd lie, time and again in the year after my third child was born, when people asked me what it was like having three kids. "Two's no different from three, really ..."

I wasn't ready to tell the truth just yet. Because that would mean admitting to the shadowy desires that hovered beneath my instinct that another child would bring more light - the kind of thoughts that would be enough to make Dr Spock throw his hands up in the air and go on a two-week tequila bender.

I had secretly wondered, for instance, whether juggling what David Sedaris once termed "a wrecking crew of three" might give me that elusive and electric jolt of accomplishment and recognition that I've chased ever since those notes of praise my professors scrawled in red ink on my university assignments - Well done! - disappeared along with my 20s.

And on the day I spotted a photograph in Vogue magazine of supermodel Stella Tennant smiling, with her four cherubic children, in a black claw-foot bathtub, I thought: might a third child bring some of that mussed-up glamour into my life?

And the big ticket item: my hope that a third child might force me to look inwards to my family more often for fulfilment, and liberate me from my tendency to seek it from outside sources, like other people's praise.

This reluctance to admit the real reasons for wanting a third child is something Dr Ann Evans heard frequently while working on the 2009 study, "Taking Stock: Parents' Reasons For and Against Having a Third Child".

In interviews with 40 couples, Evans, a fellow at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, discovered that while people could easily articulate why they didn't want a third child - primarily practical reasons such as the predicted strain on family finances, which would mean having to deny their existing two children the private school education, travel and extra-curricular activities they currently enjoyed - they struggled to articulate why they did want a third.

"There'd be laughing around it, a nervousness around articulating it," says Evans. "A lot of times it was, 'Oh, I can't really explain it, but I really want to have another because I thought my brother did a shitty job with his third, and I want to do better.' "

These mothers feared being judged - with good reason. One 39-year-old I spoke to says she has received horrified looks when she's admitted that part of her desire for a third was born out of the fear that if she had only two children and one of them died, this would leave an only child to deal with the devastating loss.

"I've said this to a few people and they've gone, 'Whhhaaaat?' Some people think it's sick."

But hey, who made them the grand poobahs of the world's maternity wards?

Because as I discovered in interview after interview, the frequently unspoken desires that motivated many couples to leap for a third child nevertheless led to great happiness and cherished children.

One 35-year-old mother of three, who says she wanted a large family so her children wouldn't suffer the loneliness she felt growing up in a family with only one other sibling, and in which she felt "quite different", added: "I feel like he's brought a lot of joy into the house, and it's balanced things out for my kids. They don't fight as much with each other, because we all have someone else to care about. There's this family harmony that has come about."

As for me, since the birth of my third child, Flynn, 23 months ago, I have found myself seeking, and finding, joy with my family more often. Because each day is more of a struggle than it used to be - my early morning sunniness frequently drenched in an afternoon undertow of eye rolls, indignant homework deniers and a howling baby - I am more watchful for those fleeting, dazzling moments of delight. Such as when my six-year-old daughter, sitting on the toilet, asks me earnestly, like a delusional career politician: "I have so much friends. Why does everyone love me?"

And my dream of enjoying some of Stella Tennant's glamorous allure?

Thank you for bringing it up. No, that hasn't happened, a reality that became clear the other day when, after scraping dried cereal off the floor again, I Googled: "How to be fabulous with three children?"

We need to tell the truth about our experiences, though, otherwise those still struggling to decide whether to have a third baby are left unhelpfully in the dark. And as I've discovered, many of the truisms often thrown at confused parents of two are often not so true.

Couple after couple told me they heard - as did I - the phrase "You only regret the children you don't have, but not the ones you do." They obviously hadn't spoken to a patient of Dr Hyams, who once said, "I don't know what I was thinking. I should've stuck at two."

Dr Hyams adds: "She basically said she felt constantly stressed by the extra pressure to bring in money for the mortgage. At the time it sounded like a great idea, but then reality sunk in."

And what of the third child as the "tipping point" that forces you over the edge into unmanageable chaos?

"There are moments when I feel broken inside," says Ariela Bard. "When Nathan's at work and it's bedtime and they [her two older children] are giving me shit, and he [the baby] wakes up."

But, she says, more often than not, baby Jacob swings the family's invisible pendulum towards joy.

"Children are fun and bring joy, they haven't had the joy beaten out of them yet by life. Whereas as [with adults], we're getting older and, you know, disappointing things happen. People

I know are getting sick. So having three on this side [the kids' side] and two on the other side" - Bard slaps her table for emphasis - "it's bringing more happiness into the world. There's more of an ushering in of joy than of crap."

In any event, three-child families are far from the only families who become tipped, one way or the other. For many two-child families, the ongoing mental acrobatics about whether to add another child is in itself a tipping point - into an unending state of indecision.

"I reckon for some of us, there's this little voice in the back of our minds, 'What if? What if?' " says Dr Hyams, herself a 45-year-old mother of two who has "struggled" with whether or not to have a third. "You look back at your kids [and think], 'Wow. I wonder what another would look like.' It's something beyond rational thought. Maybe it's hardwired into us, something in us that's not satisfied with what we've got.

"Maybe there are parents of four who feel the same way."