Why the Third Child Will Test Your Marriage

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I was walking out of our neighborhood pizza place the other night with my melting-down 2-year-old tucked under one arm and the pizza box in the other — tilted just enough to ensure the cheese slid completely off. My two older kids, 8 and 5, begrudgingly followed behind, elbowing and tripping over each other as they argued loudly over who was the first to spot our Elf on the Shelf that morning. I propped the door open with my foot, glanced back at a friend who was calmly sitting in a booth with her 8- and 5-year-old, and jokingly said, “Makes you glad you stopped at two, huh?” She laughed and said, “Yup! Best birth control ever!”

Some days, I am literally a walking cautionary tale for having three kids. And I’m OK with that. My need to look like I have it all together disappeared shortly after I brought my first baby home from the hospital. I prefer to keep it real, which is why when people who are on the fence about having a third child ask me what it’s really like going from two to three, I’m brutally honest. If I’ve had a glass of wine, I don’t even say, “Of course we love her, but…” Our third (whom we planned to have) is adorable and funny and of course we love her, but: Adding her to our family completely rocked our world in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

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It’s not that I never go to the bathroom alone, or that my car looks like the Island of Misfit Toys mixed with the inside of a trash can, or that I went back to changing diapers again. I expected that slog. And while I have my moments, I’m really not a frazzled mess all of the time. I sleep, I shower, I work. I ask for help when I need it, and I still carve out some time for myself. The part that makes me feel most over-the-edge is that since having my third, I’ve had a nagging suspicion that I’m not necessarily doing a great job with any of them. And that stresses me out. It’s mostly thanks to this simple equation: There is more of them and still just one of me. I’m spread thinner but expected to do more.

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Many people we know with three kids said that the third is usually the mellowest. (Others said the third puts you over the edge, but I chose to ignore them.) Well, our third is by far our biggest handful — walking early, running early, climbing on top of anything and everything, and jumping off those things early (and often) — and she went a good nine months straight whining all day long. I took her to the doctor several times, thinking she must have an ear infection or an allergy, and my pediatrician said, “Nope, she’s just a whiner.”

There have been moments over the past two years when I’d think how much more we’d be able to do — travel, go out to eat, sleep in, read together more, cook more — if we’d only had two. I am ashamed that I have these feelings, but I have them nonetheless. Because having the third means I’ve had to take my eye off the ball with the older two, and they are the kind of kids who need (want!) eyes on them most of the time. And since they know I have less to give, they seem to ask for more — right now! Or maybe it just feels that way when I’m sitting in the bathroom listening to their footsteps get closer and closer.

I have friends with three kids who make it all look easy. Friends who want a fourth. Friends who’ve taken the tougher times in stride, or at least appear to. I’m genuinely happy for them, but that did not prove to be the case for me. It’s not that having two kids was easy, but I thought I was pretty good at it. Most days I think I kind of suck at having three. And I don’t really like sucking at things, which is where much of my angst comes from. I’m not alone: According to a 2013 Today survey of more than 7,000 American moms, mothers of three stress more than moms of one or two — and even more than women with four children, who actually report lower stress levels, presumably because they’ve thrown their hands up at that point and no longer struggle to keep everything together.

Marriages suffer too, and mine certainly did, particularly in the first year. As the study showed, parents of three become outnumbered and overstressed as the third child “tips the balance” and really “tests the strength of your relationship.” And when you don’t feel like you have a handle on things, it’s human nature to focus on the flaws of others and to pick at each other. To bicker. To forget to be kind. I’m a big believer in adult-only time and putting serious effort into maintaining what I think is the most important relationship in the house. But when you’re spread thin, there’s less time to do that.

Then there’s this: My husband and I pretty much shared the child rearing with the older two 50-50, but about a month after our third was born, he took an unplanned career turn and started a new job with more hours and a long commute. So actually the simple equation is that there are more kids and still just the one of me and now only half of my husband.

A friend, also a mother of three, said that she and her husband have been seeing a couples therapist, and she told them that the majority of their issues are just from having little kids. Meaning, little kids can be hard on a marriage, and as those kids get older, many of their problems will disappear. I believe it. I’m sure we’re in for way worse challenges than sleepless nights and whining for attention, but I can already see how much chaos dissipates as everyone becomes more independent. Our third just turned 2 in November, and we’re almost completely back from the edge her arrival put us over. And we’ve learned big lessons. My husband and I look back at some of our less-than-finer moments in her first year and say, Wow, we did not handle that transition well. Fortunately we had a solid relationship to begin with and we were able to find our way back. And I like to think we’ll be stronger because of it.

Please don’t misunderstand: I love being a mom of three kids, and we do not regret our decision one bit, but I find that it kicks my ass on a near daily basis. And in this era of posting curated photos of perfect family experiences, I think it’s important to share the unfiltered version too. Do I want sympathy? Heck no. But maybe my confession will help someone who’s struggling. Maybe it will make someone laugh and feel like she’s not alone. Regardless, it’s important to be honest with each other — and with ourselves. Admitting that parenting is hard and that you don’t love every second of it does not make you a bad mom. In fact, sometimes just saying it out loud takes away some of the burden: Hi, my name is Erin and, yes, my hands are full. Thanks for noticing.

(Photo: Erin Zammett Ruddy)

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