Glancing up from cooking the kids’ tea, I noticed something going awry over in the corner. “Mary, don’t sit on the new baby,” I said. “I tired”, replied my one-year-old.
For a split second I thought: “That sounds reasonable enough.” Then I shook myself and got there just as the toddler started to ride the baby. “Seesaw Mardaw!” The baby smiled sweetly at her sister, no doubt glad to be getting some attention.
Not for the first time that day, I thought of the woman who led part of our marriage preparation course. When it transpired that she had 14 children – 14! –my husband asked her: “What was the hardest number of children?” I was expecting her to say something like “Seven”, but without missing a beat she said “Three.” Now here I am, with three children under three, and I know exactly what she means. At least with four, one would be old enough to be a bit sensible with the younger ones. With three, I’m constantly watching for trouble.
And there usually is trouble.
When pregnant with my third, I attended a reception at Archbishop’s House in Westminster and was chatting to another mum. “I had three under three,” she said, “There’s a whole year of my life I can’t remember.” Then she whispered: “Don’t take the whole birth control too seriously. You’ve got to think about yourself too.”
I’ve heard similar comments before. From family members saying they were worried I was “losing myself in childcare”, to a friend who told me the story of a Catholic mum friend of hers who apparently said she regretted not using birth control: “It’s OK, you know, most Catholics use contraception now. And Pope Francis is changing all that anyway.”
When do faithful Catholics give up on Church teaching? Does everyone sit through the Natural Family Planning presentation at marriage prep, quietly keeping their heads down, thinking this bit doesn’t apply to them because who actually does this for real? Or does there come a point when a well-intentioned couple throw the towel in: “That’s it. For various reasons, physical and financial, we’re using contraception now”? I don’t know. I’m a little scared to think it could happen in any marriage, even mine, despite the best intentions. The pressures are real.
Recently, I was sitting up late one evening waiting for my husband to come in from work. I heard the click of the latch and then my husband’s soft chuckle as he entered our flat and looked across the hallway through the open door of our bedroom. In the glow of a night light he could see our newest baby settled in her Moses basket. He came in to the front room where I was catching up on emails, and, with a beaming smile on his face, put his keys down and said: “I think there should always be a little baby in a crib next to our bed.”
I hold on to moments like that and hope and pray that we never lose this openness to life, even when we’re staring down the barrel of financial ruin (which doesn’t seem far off if we carry on at this rate). A third baby felt like a disaster when staring at the blue lines on the pregnancy test, but now she’s here, well, she’s a beautiful gift, and we make do.
Having three under three has taught me a few things. First, that you do what you’ve got to do. And second, that you have no idea how much you can do when you’ve got no choice but to get on with it. Three kids in a two-bed flat? OK, then. We can squeeze a cot in here, put a toddler bed there … It’ll work out. So what if bedtime is mayhem? They’ve all got to fall asleep at some point …
I find myself relaxed about the chaos to a degree that, when I think back to myself as a first-time mum, I never thought possible. Having crossed the rubicon of three, it’s as if all bets are off: we might as well have six for the amount of difference it would make now. In fact, it might even make life easier: I’d have a few more helpers around; a few more people to wave the flag for our Catholic understanding of life in the face of our appalled family and friends.
Laura Keynes is a writer and full-time mum based in London
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