Saturday, 17 September 2011

1, 2, 3...

Heather and Christina. Haidee and her sister. Julie and Joanne. Sarah and Christian. Debbie and Andrew. Dominic and Edward. Andrea and Christian. Kirsten and Eve. There were exceptions, but this tended to be the rule. Where I grew up, people tended to have two children. It was the same at school.

As an only child, I longed for a sibling. Being only one felt not only unusual, but made me unhappy.
But as my parents freely admit today, having two children would have "stretched them" too much (emotionally? physically? financially?). After I had my first child (prolonged labour, emergency c-section, postnatal anxiety&depression) I could understand this, really I could. But I longed to gift FirstSister with a sibling. And so we did. The joys of this (oh yes and the fun we have pulling them apart when fighting of course) are indescribable.

But what I want to know now was, why (apart from a few families with three children, the last of whom was often a 'surprise') did everyone we knew only have TWO children?

We found two children under two (heck, two under three, under four, under five) a challenge. For a while we didn't look beyond that. We felt stretched. But over time, hoping for another child felt possible. It felt right for us. And now it has happened, I obviously cannot imagine it any other way. We would (in the face of advanced maternal age and fertility issues) welcome more. Having a younger sibling in the family enhances all our lives. It feels to us like the way it should be.

So why, since the 1970s at least, has stopping at two been the very normal thing to do?

The obvious answer is a wider swathe of artificial contraceptive choices that people have availability and choose to use to limit family size. Add to this the increased cost of living and the demands placed on people to have two wage-earners to secure a deposit for a property mortgage and support living costs in an increasingly consumerist society. There's clearly a lot less dying-to-self going on and individualistic pursuits including big holidays and material goods taking precedence. I have heard a few people lately talking about 'getting their life back' now their children no longer need so much looking after. I understand this, really I do. Serving children is extremely hard work and even the cost of regular food, clothing and shelter is exorbitant for some families today in the Western hemisphere. And obviously having had difficulty conceiving, I know there will be people who wanted more (or even one....) children on this earth but couldn't.

But today I would like to focus on the strange creature that is:

Extra Curricular Activities!

Before I start with this, I should say that my elder girls LOVE their after-school activities. They currently do swimming and dancing (two kinds) and I am pleased that (in addition to physical exercise at school each day) they get to have a workout, learn life skills, and express themselves through music. But oh - the pain of taking the baby along too!

It strikes me that many of today's 'extra' activities (that some people couldn't live without taking their child to) are just not that simple once you have more than one child in the mix. Yesterday I spent half an hour poolside trying to restrain my new toddler from taking a plunge while the others had their lessons; on Monday ThirdSister did about fifty circuits of the little cafe they at least let us sit in through dance class, but I had to follow her around for safety's sake. Other activities take place at times when it would be difficult for us to attend because of bedtime/s. Sometimes we have to split the parenting to give ourselves a break. Some children I know go on from dancing to Rainbows (pre-Brownies) or from swimming to Beavers (pre-cubs) - aside from the variety of activites on offer, it seems to be common to 'stack' activities together so they are all over with in one night. Add to this a little weekly homework, reading, family dinnertime, baths and so on, attending to at least three children and doing this stuff is a definitely a challenge! I know there are larger families out there who simply don't feel they can do this stuff because of the cost (dance shoes and clothes have been a major outgoing for me this term), the transport, the sitting, and all the other things that life has to offer - including just sitting hanging out with the kids.

But today these activities seem to be seen as compulsory. Whereas as a youngster I tried gymnastics and ballet before settling on Brownies (the UK Girl Scout equivalent) once a week, nowadays the importance of doing all these things is put upon on mothers, in particular, from the moment the baby is born. Baby yoga, baby swimming, baby sign language, baby massage - if you don't participate in this, your baby's development will be stymied. (I saw a tiny baby clearly NOT enjoying swimming yesterday when we took FirstSister for a splashabout, but the parent kept persevering, just as I would perhaps have done with my first little baby.) Not teaching your child to swim or do extra drama, a language or join the group everyone else is joining? Bad parent!

I have to say, I have my own pressure points. FirstSister is very musical so we try to encourage singing and have started her learning some piano at home. SecondSister is talented at dancing so I'm glad we have stuck with it. Once ThirdSister starts something - who knows how it will all work out! But I have children who look forward to a library visit. There needs to be time for reading, going to see some art, as well as getting bored and having to invent imaginary games. Saturdays are a breakfast-in-pyjamas morning and YES we allow television and lazing around! I don't want every minute of my children's lives to be over-subscribed.

Yet, a lot of this is not just because of my beliefs in the type of family time together we enjoy but because I have more than one or two kids. If I was able to focus only on them then I perhaps would be more susceptible to thinking they have to DO everything instead of just BE. I do see parents hothousing their kids. And other only children I know are bored in their downtime without these extra-curricular activities, like I was; not necessarily sort of things to do, but aching for the company of other children. I do wonder whether channeling children into the art clubs, drama groups, sports teams, extra lessons and so on has become a bit of a substitute for letting children hang out as a family, just doing their own thing. And families with more siblings, can't always keep up. It's important to realise we don't have to - that we have other things we can do to 'develop' our children - without feeling we are missing out. And, although it is up to us to recognise our children's talents and (prayerfully) help draw them out, there is no real substitute for family time. Extra-curricular activities are there to enhance our lives, not to take them over to the extent that it could make us think twice about wanting more children.

Family Time. In Pyjamas!

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