What can you do with one child that you can’t do with two or more?
May 19, 2020 4:22 PM   Subscribe

We have one child (9). We are in the process of conceiving a second, and are interested in potentially having a third shortly thereafter. What are some experiences you can have as a three person family that you can’t have as a family of four or more? What should I strive to savor in the next year?

We are in our mid thirties and in the fortunate position to have two professional incomes and to have inherited a nice house. We have a loving, stable relationship. We like to travel in comfort, and are not that excited by the prospect of adventure.

I’m also interested in the flip side: what experiences can you have with a “big” family that you can’t have with a small one. I’m excited about stuff like Christmas morning with a bunch of little kids running around.

My spouse and I are both only children.
posted by unstrungharp to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t have kids so may be completely off but you’ll be trying to find things you can do with a tween and a toddler or a teen and a pre-schooler and I am not sure how big the overlap there is. Based on what was happening when I was growing up parents with kids with large age gaps were basically dividing and conquering-one parent does age appropriate things with the older child and one with the younger. If you want other kids of a similar age to make things more fun you invite their friends.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:41 PM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

That’s why we’re planning to have two more.
posted by unstrungharp at 4:49 PM on May 19, 2020

About 20 years ago, I married a woman who had three kids from her first marriage. The two main things relative to your situation that I remember now (we divorced about ten years ago) are that two kids are way more of a handful than just 2x one kid, and three kids are even more so than that (I mean, in a nonlinear way), plus there are infinitely more vehicles out there intended for four people than there are for more than four. Best of luck to you and yours!
posted by kimota at 4:49 PM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Remember the things you found hard to do when your 9yo was an infant? Especially the ones that you have been enjoying since, oh, the child was 3 or 4 or 5? Do those.
And sleep in. Definitely, sleep in.

My favorite thing about having four that were all approximately two years apart was that, once I got to three kids, there was 1) always someone else to play with, and 2) there was always someone else to play with if one of them needed time alone. #2 doesn't work quite so well with only two, and works well once you reach three, and is wonderful with four (or more, when we borrowed cousins).

Honestly, though - you may have waited too long for some of that benefit. By the time they're three-to-five years apart in age, the differing interests may be a problem, if there aren't kids to bridge the gap. (All the two-child, 3-5 year gaps I know had significant problems with sibling conflict, and even beyond, when the parents didn't deal with it well or had a clear favorite.)

More than 5 years, it seems to settle into a "they're cute, and I'll help babysit or play with / entertain them, but they're not a PLAYMATE", if that makes sense. Chances are, with that age spread, you'll have either lots of help, lots of resentment, or just plain disinterest. Which option you get is going to depend on 1) your child's personality, 2) how you parent, and 3) what other people, especially family and their friends, put in their head. An innocent "oh, you won't be the baby anymore" can do a lot of damage if it simmers. IMO, it's important to get a headstart on the mindset early, maybe even before a baby is a sure thing.
posted by stormyteal at 4:59 PM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

My kids are 5.5 years apart. Quiet, time to yourself, let the older child enjoy Every Toy With Small Pieces and Toxic Bits, board games, lengthy restaurant visits, more grown up movie night...some of these you can still have after hours but not so much.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:00 PM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

I agree with koahiatamadl on this one. The question isn't so much what you can do with one child that you can't do with two or three, but what you can do with a 9 year old that you can't do with a 9 year old and a newborn. The answer would be lots. Their schedules and interests will be entirely different. Does that mean you can't do things as a family? Of course not. But one child will often not be having much fun. There will be much dividing and conquering in your future. My wife, who is 10 years older than her sibling, still harbors resentment. But that was due to poor parenting. I would say make sure your 9 year old gets heaps attention and preparation now and try to continue that level of attention after the baby arrives.

One entirely unsolicited piece of advice: don't treat the older child like a built in babysitter unless 1) they willingly agree to it and 2) you pay well.
posted by trigger at 5:13 PM on May 19, 2020 [19 favorites]

My kids are 8 and almost 6 and yesterday the older kid and myself were reading on the sofa and my wife was taking a nap or working on a craft and the younger kid took a fair bit of time bugging everyone until he was able to figure out something he could do by himself. So the ability for all of you to independently do things will disappear once you have small kids. Maybe your current child will still be able to but definitely not for you and your spouse.

My brother has 3 kids and he says that it is much harder than 2 because you're always outnumbered. Also, any 2 of his kids can happily coexist but once a 3rd is added there will be a conflict.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:20 PM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

I can't speak to anything pertaining to having a child, but as someone with a sibling 8 1/2 years younger, I would say that the relationship your first has with any future siblings is going to substantially different than most brother and sister relations. Your first will feel more like a babysitter and caretaker than as a peer. They will be in college and out of the house when their siblings are still very young, and that will cap how much they know each other in later years. That will very likely change when they are all in adulthood, assuming your family unit remains close, but that's looking way down the road.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:21 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Cross country train trip with your 9 year old! He’s the perfect age to appreciate it and see some amazing scenery. It’s tough to manage with super young kids and hella expensive with 3+ kids. So definitely a perfect 3 person family activity. Of course...not sure about the COVID impact...but a long train trip is on my bucket list.
posted by victoriab at 5:44 PM on May 19, 2020 [10 favorites]

My brother is 6 years younger than me. When I was in kindergarten, one of my parents was often able to come volunteer in my class or help with activities. Once they had an infant too, that wasn't feasible anymore. We sometimes did things that were specifically targeted at me - going to museums, or ballet things, or zoos - as a family; these became harder to manage until my little brother was more of a toddler and so it would usually be one parent with me, one parent with my brother.

9 years is a bigger age difference than ours, but once he got to be about 3 or 4 and would sometimes do what I wanted him to, we played a lot of pretend together. We weren't really friends until after he graduated from high school, but we had fun together and hung out and liked each other even when we were younger.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:53 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

-Canoe trip! you can fit one kid in a canoe with two parents, but any more than that gets dicey.

-Overnight camping/hiking - one kid's stuff isn't too much extra to carry, but 2? too much!

-Eating at Fancy/Expensive Restaurants. One extra meal - doable. Two extra meals? way too expensive. Three? Forget it!

-Sitting all together in one row of the airplane! (can still be done with an infant, but once the second child is old enough to need a seat you'll need to either do 2 sets of 2, or both kids with one parent and the other parent just gets to watch tv on their ipad the whole time or something?

-Going to the dump! You could conceivably do this with two kids but I think it would be hard, and my parents had a firm "only one kid allowed on dump trips" rule. All the kinds of things in the "helping" category, actually. Like, helping my dad with wood chopping (just carrying wood, really), or helping my mom with gardening, or helping to cook, or anything like that becomes pretty unmanageable with two kids involved unless it's an activity specifically geared towards kids.

-Family movie night at the theater - babies and toddlers are pretty much no good in the theater, so you won't have much of a chance to go all together until your younger children are older, which will make your oldest child pretty firmly in the "I'd rather go with my friends" category.
posted by euphoria066 at 6:16 PM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Lots of replies seem to be missing that we’re planning to have *two more kids, close together.* This question is actually about what it says it’s about: family size, not about the age gap between the first child and the second two.
posted by unstrungharp at 6:20 PM on May 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

My parents had seven kids. They said after the first two, it didn't really matter much how many more you had; you simply didn't have enough arms.

It does limit your choice of automobiles.

Some restaurants seem to only have tables for 2, 4 or way too many. You sometimes squeeze into a table for 4, and someone gets their feelings bent out of shape.
posted by blob at 6:49 PM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ask your kid what they want to do before you have the baby. Probably don't word it quite like that.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:59 PM on May 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

things you can probably do this year unhindered by COVID and which you can do with just one nine year old and can't comfortably do with a couple babies along:

paddle boats
swimming (hike to a swimming hole? so fun)
mild white water rafting
chocolate tasting walking tour in a nearby big city if your stores are still open
horseback riding
amusement parks, if they open
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:29 PM on May 19, 2020

I was eight when my sibling came along. I had a couple of weirdly specific grudges. For example, I was *furious* that I had to share the backseat with a car seat and could no longer spread my books out, put up my legs, etc. But I don't see how "let your kid enjoy the backseat while they have it" will work really, unless a road trip is in the offing even with current situation what it is.

More broadly, though, from my perspective, what I lost for good was undivided attention and the feeling of being a single family unit. Once there was a baby, the family broke out into two units and never felt like one cohesive family again.

As an adult I can see ways in which that was untrue, and jealousy was getting in the way of my adjusting to our new situation. But from the perspective of kid me - I'd have loved even a little more time to just be our three person family selves , doing fun activities together, having my parents' undivided attention at bedtime or story time, doing a family baking project, etc.

It was less about specific activities that stopped when we became four, and more about the level of energy and focus my parents had for those activities.
posted by Stacey at 7:42 PM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

Just wanted to say my eldest is 9 and 12 years older than her younger brother and sister. It will be fine. She had a bit of a shock when we told her we were pregnant the first time but now-she’s 23, they are 14 and 10-they are really close and adore each other. She can talk to my 14 year old (and monitor her jnstagram etc!!!) in a way that parents can’t. My kids have sleepovers with her and she’s stayed with them when we travel. We all go to Disneyland together. Right now, the younger two fight pretty much nonstop-each of their relationships with big sister is much easier. Someone once told me that everyone has advice about which age gap is best or worst based on their own experience with their subs or their kids, when really kids are just people with different personalities who might or might not like each other.

One decision we made was not to make our oldest wait to do things til the sibs were “old enough”. So, we went to Disneyland when she was 10 and her sister was one. I really tried to still have special time with just her-and we still do that to this day. My parents had her do special trips with them, without the littles. I know I’m blurring some of the hard times cause it’s easier now that they aren’t tiny, but at one level, she was starting to spread her wings at the same time so there was some natural transition.

And man, I love having all three of them. With friends and a boyfriend and his daughter-well, our house is often full, we have big meals and fun trips together-and I love thinking of the future with kids coming back home.
posted by purenitrous at 7:53 PM on May 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

I have 3 children that are 29.5 months apart top to bottom. They were 1, 2, and 3. All three in diapers. Crazy times. Wouldn't have it any other way. The three ying yangs are now in their 20s and best of friends although 3 very different personalities.

What we were able to do with one (before 2 and 3 came along) was divide and conquer. One could go to the store while the other sat in the car with the child. It was also easier finding a capable baby sitter for one and even for two than someone willing to take on 3 each 1 year apart.

One thing I thought was great about them being so close was that they learned to work it out on their own. When one would come running in to say another was doing this or that, we would tell them to work it out. We sort of wanted them to be united and if it took being united against us, so be it.

The house was always loud, but in a good kids are having fun way. My three were all very athletic and the two boys would play rough with each other and learned how to be both good teammates and aggressive on a field. They played football and lacrosse.

All three went to the senior prom the year my daughter was a senior because two of her friends wanted dates they liked, so that was quite the evening what with pictures, tuxes and dresses, corsages, etc.

The boys stole each other's clothing since they were essentially the same size from about 4 on. They drove each other to school when the oldest turned 17. Each got their license the next year.

My best friend growing up was one of nine so I was used to things like a crazy dinner time with arms and hands everywhere as they got their share of dinner.

The one thing I could say is that if you are going to have a bunch close in age, I would suggest having an even number say 4 or even 6. Having 3, there were times when there was an odd man out. With an even number, there seem to be pairs that stick together.

There were some advantages in them all being close together for the parents. Bath time, we stuck all three in a big tub and washed them like an assembly line then they could splash around and play. They shared sizes in clothes or one season later the next could wear the jacket or shirt. When they were real young they were all in the same size diaper so that was an easier task than searching for the right size. We moved them from a crib to a bed pretty young because we did not want to have two cribs. The youngest saw his brother move into a bed and a few weeks later was demanding a bed.

One of the most memorable moments was when we flew with all three when they were young . 3 car seats on a plane is not easy and you learn that they cannot all three be in the row. There has to be an adult in the row with them and the adult has to be on the outside. When they let parents with small kids board early, that is not so much a benefit as a necessity. Dragging three car seats while my wife dragged 3 kids was anxiety filled. People would congratulate us on the triplets. After a while we stopped explaining that they were a rear apart but close together.

I look back fondly on their childhoods. I do remember when we went from 2 to 3, we went from a man to man defense to a zone and that changed things considerably.
posted by AugustWest at 8:28 PM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have a 7 & 5 year age gap with my bros (I'm the youngest) and we all get along really well to this day. While still small, I was just sort of lugged around with the group and I don't think my brothers were particularly bored - we were all taught to sort of roll with the punches. If you're bored, think of a way to entertain yourself. Read a damn book. When the boys hit their teens it shifted to them chilling with their peers than family, but we all remember our childhood fondly.

My parents took us on a lot of road trips and camping around Europe. We hiked a lot, went swimming, did picnics and explored stuff. Built forts and snow castles. My parents would drag us to see old things and national parks and I love all of those things today. Dad would wake us up and pack our sleeping bags and take us up onto the ridge by our house to go see the stars and northern lights. They taught us a lot about yard work and the like, I think we were just more bearable outside. On a few rare occasions, we'd rent a cabin and swim and do sauna and stuff. A lot of this stuff was done with families with kids the same ages, so there were more adults around.

With an older solo kid I would def take them to water parks and a shortish bike ride and go camping. With more kids, zoos and museums and hiking. I think it really has to do with your mentality, I don't think more kids means necessarily means less options (if we're not talking financial stuff), it depends more on the amount of flexibility, enthusiasm and how much the parents support each other.
posted by speakeasy at 12:04 AM on May 20, 2020

Undivided attention. That's the one that still makes me want to cry since the appearance of kid 2, so make the most of it.
Like: your kid likes telling you about his day at the dinner table? He won't be able to finish his story without kid 2 spillling something, needing help or just plain interrupting. Every single day. You can mitigate it, but nothing beats the calm enjoyment of just being one child, holding your parents' attention.

Museum visits. Especially if you have a nerdy kid that likes reading EVERY exhibit info. Not doable with a two year old.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:09 AM on May 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

One big challenge we've found with two kids is getting them to agree on stuff. It goes something like:
"Hey, kids. Want to watch a movie over dinner?"
Kid A: "Yes! Let's watch the Muppets!"
Kid B: "No, let's watch a history documentary."
Kid A: "I never get to watch the Muppets!"
Kid B: "You chose last time!"

So as simple as it seems now, look for opportunities to let your 9-year-old make choices for the family, and savor being able to indulge them in those choices.
posted by yankeefog at 3:28 AM on May 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Nthing museum or gallery visits where you can all walk together admiring the cool things you point out to eachother. (9 is an age where they won't be trying to lick things or climb the displays, so it's much more relaxed, but if there is a baby, someone will end up chasing the baby) More than one child, you end up splitting up your party to follow various kids around. Spending more than a couple of hours somewhere like a zoo, where a toddler is going to get worn out more quickly. Hikes that involve steps or steep hills that will be unsuitable for heavily pregnant people or strollers. Epic lego or model-making or art projects or big jigsaw puzzles that would be easily ruined by the chaotic influence of a smaller child.
posted by slightlybewildered at 3:29 AM on May 20, 2020

Could you use this time to establish a regular 1-1 time habit that you'll be able to continue after the baby arrives? So eg. Sunday is trip to the play park then brunch, with either mum or dad (alternating weeks). Or trip to the play park with one parent followed by meeting up for brunch all together.

Then that continues after the baby arrives, so that Number 1 has some continuity and guaranteed 1-1 time. (Bonus: In the short term, other parent gets a lie-in on alternate Sundays!)
posted by penguin pie at 5:54 AM on May 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

Enjoy time with the three of you together, even if it's doing everyday things. Once the baby arrives there will be lots of times when one of you takes the baby and the other takes the big kid (for an outing, or to play outside, or whatever). Being all together as a family unit will be harder for awhile.
posted by beandip at 8:05 AM on May 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

We have four kids, spaced across 9 years. Single-child families look like less work, but somehow I wouldn't trade our experience for anything.

Once you pass two kids, you generally find yourself splitting the group in half, or waiting: for example, amusement park rides have four seats. Most restaurants are two-tops and four-tops, so you'll wait for a corner booth. Many planes are two-and-two, so you'll now be mixed in with other people. Stuff like that.

You move from a sedan to a minivan. (Sorry if this pains you; I loved the extra headroom!)

Then again, with three kids, the odds go way up that you'll have children fo the same sex, so handing down clothes doesn't require buying only trousers and green stuff for the older ones. :7) Similarly, same-sex kids are more compatible roommates as they get older.

Jesus, someone always hates what's for dinner. Then again, enough other people like it that they're outvoted.

Just two kids guarantees they will have different interests, and you will never be involved in the same activities -- which could be good or bad, depending on your experience. With the third, you might get a little one who wants to do the same thing as an older sibling, so you get to reuse the stuff & experience & skills.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:10 AM on May 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

August West: I have 3 children that are 29.5 months apart top to bottom. They were 1, 2, and 3. All three in diapers.

Holy shit. That's impressive. *crosses self fearfully*

Also: What we were able to do with one (before 2 and 3 came along) was divide and conquer.

Yeah, this is the key thing. Even with two kids, the old joke about playing man-to-man holds true -- though once a third arrive you can usually get them to engage with each other, so the strategic balance is somewhat restored.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:14 AM on May 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Gosh, a lot of people in this thread talking like everyone can just plan the spacing of their children and that infertility struggles and surprises don’t happen.

OP, one idea is indulgences for you and your partner! You should each get a long weekend vacation away alone or with friends. Go on long walks alone. Take the kid out/away and give each other leisurely lazy days around the house. You can still gift that to each other, with one 9 year old, but after the new little ones you won’t have much of it again for a decade.

Good luck with your expanding family!
posted by amaire at 9:04 AM on May 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

My older kid is four years older than her little brother and had aged out of most baby experiences by the time he came along two years ago, so this feels fairly fresh in my memory.

Big projects and long outings while you can with the solo big kid really spring to mind, for sure. I loved being able to just chuck a couple towels and some sunscreen in a bag and head to the beach on a whim for a long lazy day. Hopping on our bikes and just riding whichever way the wind blew us without having to hook up the damn bike trailer. Movies in the theatre with all the baby-unfriendly snacks. Browsing a bookstore and each getting a new book and coming home to spend the afternoon reading. New baking and cooking projects where you have to carefully read all the instructions or shop for special ingredients instead of falling back on your old long-memorized standbys. Lego projects or giant puzzles with the million fiddly pieces. More grown-up board games (my oldest looooves chess). Exploring new restaurants or ice cream shops or hiking trails or things like that (I sometimes had slightly less stomach for that with a baby along because of the associated uncertainty about the conditions for nursing or diaper changes or nap timing or how long the drive will be, that kind of thing). My oldest is very into imaginative play and putting on "shows" and I could sit and watch those for a good long while in a way I can't do as readily now. Or I could hang out in the bathroom with her while she bathed or brushed teeth and we would just chat about whatever, whereas now I'm scurrying around readying two kids for bed and that whole routine is a lot less relaxed. Oh, and water parks and amusement parks! I mean, they're not open right now, but SO MUCH easier and safer to keep an eye on just one kid and you can take on the wildest rides without worrying about who has to hang back with the baby.

For bigger families, there is absolutely NOTHING like the feeling of watching your oldest hold your youngest. Or spontaneously finding the two of them cuddled up in a chair reading or watching something together (the little one will be interested in whatever the big one is doing) or turning around in the car to see them holding hands in the backseat. Or the little one taking their first steps NOT to you but to their big sib. My oldest is very empathetic and nurturing and she can calm her tantrum-prone brother wayyyyyy more easily than I can, it's amazing to watch. Somehow she always knows what he needs in that moment whereas I'm just like c'mon, dude, cut me a freaking break here.

As for the family size and spacing benefits for me, their mom, I absolutely love having the age spread that I do. I would not have been a good parent to the "two under two" configuration that seems to be held up as the ideal in a lot of ways, and I felt like I really got to savor each of their individual babyhoods, and I had so much more perspective with my second just how short this time is. I was not at all fussed by going back to diapers or shitty broken sleep because it really is SO SHORT. I liked having a "second shot" at infancy and toddlerhood and all the things that follow.

The need to divide and conquer is real, and the family constantly having to pair off is definitely a thing that happens that feels kind of sad and crummy for awhile, but you age out of that too eventually. I had to make a very focused effort to take my big kid on special just-for-her outings after the baby arrived, which felt far more feasible than I had imagined beforehand because baby care for #2 took up so much less of my gray matter than it had for #1. We usually went to movies, the Crayola Experience, or got ice cream, always her choice.

Best of luck!
posted by anderjen at 12:24 PM on May 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

two kids are way more of a handful than just 2x one kid

Just chiming in to say this hasn't been my experience, and not my friends' experience either. Lots of people say 2 kids are more than twice as hard as 1, and lots of people say 2 kids are about 10% harder than 1 (that's my experience), so OP YMMV.

As other have said I suspect the difference with the large age difference will be what you can't do with a young child, not what you can't do with th 2. And you may even find the first few years slightly easier this time with your experience and an extra pair of hands to do simple things like briefly entertaining the baby.
posted by Tehhund at 4:53 PM on May 20, 2020

Kid A: "Yes! Let's watch the Muppets!"
Kid B: "No, let's watch a history documentary."
Kid A: "I never get to watch the Muppets!"
Kid B: "You chose last time!"

Mom's option A: scissors, rocks, paper.
Mom's option B: "Either you make a decision or I will, which neither of you will like."
There was no infinite time spent on arguing with my two daughters (who are now 30 and 33, and the most wonderful people in the world).

Seconding Mom 'n' Me time and Dad 'n' Me time, even if it's going to the park, riding bikes or skateboards, making huge soap bubbles, drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk, flying a kite, walking around the block, etc. This is precious time to listen to what is on their minds, without distractions.
This is a good habit with adult children, too.
posted by TrishaU at 7:55 AM on May 21, 2020

Late to this convo, but as someone who was 10 when my parents had my first sibling (and then a second one 18 months after that) please make sure you don't forget about your older child. Not to say that my parents forgot about me or anything like that, but I definitely felt like my needs took second fiddle to the needs of the small kiddos. I remember missing out on things when my parents couldn't drive me places because of sleeping schedules, etc. My dad travelled for work a lot so, that may be an irrelevant scenario for y'all.

I also did a lot of babysitting and can definitely say that the age gap is a large factor in the reason I don't want kids now -- I saw the work involved and the endless crying and don't really care to go through that again. Just wanted to share some of my experiences, obviously my family isn't your family :)
posted by theRussian at 3:06 PM on May 24, 2020

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