It's really begun to hit me now: "Damn! I've got a lot of kids!" Elliot, our third baby in six years, is four months old this week, and although I'm crazy-in-love with the little guy, the fact that my husband and I are now outnumbered by our offspring seems rather overwhelming. Don't get me wrong. I wanted three kids and am thrilled to have them. However, I must say that, qualitatively, the jump from the perfect one boy/one girl, two-child American family to what is today considered a large family has been a biggie.
We first noticed the difference when we told friends and family that we were expecting a third child. Instead of the excited shrieks we were greeted with when we announced our first pregnancy, or the approving nods we got with our second, usually-polite people looked me up and down like I was a sideshow act and disdainfully posed questions like, "Don't you two know what causes this yet?" Well, um, gee, that's got to be about the stupidest question imaginable. However, I kid you not when I tell you that this same query was put to us in various forms (sometimes jokingly, sometimes with a hint of inexplicable malice) at least once a week for the duration of my recent pregnancy.
And then, of course, there is the religion angle. Once, whilst hugely pregnant with Elliot, I was shopping with my six-year-old and two-year-old in tow, wearing the only items of clothing that would fit my then eight-months-swollen bod. Suddenly, I was brazenly approached by a similarly attired woman with long braids and bad glasses. She was also pregnant and had several small children clinging to her skirts. "Praise God sister!" she shouted in my face. "Where do you go to church?" I stared back at her, utterly confused. Why was this woman asking me this? Why was she calling me sister? I then realized with horror that, surrounded by a sea of small hands and faces, we looked almost exactly alike in our Birkenstocks and denim maternity jumpers. She had seen my family and assumed I was a fundamentalist mama! I mumbled something about the Unitarian Church and moved on. After relating this uproarious and yet vaguely unsettling experience to a few close friends, the chuckles at my expense began in earnest. I am now teased on a regular basis about my family size being somehow related to my religious views. Ha ha.
Of course, it doesn't help that I drive a grey, 1990 Ford Aerostar minivan, the official car of the religious right. For five years, I drove a sporty Honda Civic, chock full of papers, books, Diet Pepsi cans and a growing number of children. By the time Elliot's birth loomed imminent, I knew I needed a bigger car. I envisioned a cool old Volvo wagon, maybe in black. Well, guess what . . . we didn't all fit. With two car seats and a squirmy six-year-old, plus hubby Chris and myself, the Volvos we looked at made for an uncomfortably tight squeeze. I still remember the day Chris sat me down, took my hands in his own and delivered the bad news: "Honey," he said gently, "It's gonna have to be a minivan." After I finished crying, we started shopping and finally settled on the unstylishly roomy vehicle I drive today. As I motor around town with all three of my own children, plus various friends of theirs stowed in the back, I feel like singing "the wheels on the bus." Even when I crank up my favorite Jonathan Richman tape as we roll along, a previously surefire strategy for making me feel young and carefree in my old two-child-stuffed Honda, I still feel matronly. At least the windows are tinted so I don't have to wonder why attractive men in SUVs aren't glancing over at me. I can tell myself that it's not the van, they just can't see through the smoky glass.
As far as caring for the kids goes, Chris is right when he says that we have had to move from a man-to-man defense to a zone. There are times when all three of them have needs at the same time . . . but there are only two of us. And when Chris isn't home, there is only one person, and that person is moi. What to do? Well, we have relaxed our already relaxed standards quite a bit since Elliot's arrival. Daily baths for each child have become more like every-other-day, and sleeping in play clothes has become routine. They all seem to be surviving. As for me, I am on mothering auto-pilot right now. Each twenty-four-hour period is a nonstop cycle of diapers, nursing, graham crackers, stories, and karate lessons. With two little people, the to-do list seemed somehow more do-able. With three, I have had to surrender to motherhood more fully than I ever before imagined possible. I have found the adjustment to three children to be even more shockingly life-altering than becoming a mother in the first place. The only way for me to cope right now is to immerse myself fully in this moment and these children, and to know, deep inside, that I will one day soon be able to come up for air.