According to some random online survey, the most stressful number of kids to have is three. In fact, having four is supposed to be less stressful than three kids.
When I first saw this “news” take over my Facebook feed in 2013, I laughed.
- An online survey of 7,164 U.S. mothers doesn’t exactly smack of scientific rigor.
- At that time, I had two kids, so I could definitely see how three kids would increase your stress level. But the idea that four kids would take the stress of parenting down a notch – or two notches, apparently – seemed like a hoax concocted by clucky grandmothers everywhere to get young parents to keep popping out babies.
And then God or fate or karma went and had a good laugh at me and my disbelief. In 2015, I became a mother of three.
Three Kids Isn’t the Most Stressful Number for the Reason You Think
First, let’s get this out in the open: It seems more than a little ridiculous to attempt to compare the relative stress levels of different families based only on the number of kids. And why compare families at all? With that said, the parents in that silly survey just so happened to pick “three” more often than they picked other numbers of kids.
Since I became a mom of three, I’ve been wondering why that would be.
When you ask parents to describe the transition from two to three children, you’ll hear a lot of parents lament that they can no longer play “man-on-man defense” with the kids. This is a real, honest-to-goodness thing.
Because let’s say you’re at Target with your partner, and you have one kid running out the entrance into the parking lot, your toddler picking up a dime to put in her mouth, and another kid about to climb a six-foot display of mercury-tinted mason jars…quick! There’s two of you and three of them. Which two kids do you stop?
So yes, that’s challenging, for sure. But that doesn’t get my vote as the hardest part.
Then you have the minivan issue. If that’s something you’ve been trying to avoid, having three kids all but seals your fate. But no, that’s not the worst part either.
The part about transitioning from two to three kids that knocked me on my butt was the mental bookkeeping.
Let Me Explain
As a parent of more than one kid, you can deliver a pretty decent State of the Union on any one of your kids at any time. For example, think of one of your kids and tell me how many of these questions you can answer:
- When did she last eat? Is she in danger of turning hangry?
- Does she need a potty break?
- Does she have enough clean underwear to make it through the rest of the week?
- Did she have homework today? And did she get it done already?
- Has she had enough water to drink today?
- Did she sleep well last night?
- Does she have any boo-boos requiring a band-aid, Neosporin, and/or extra kisses?
- Did she brush her teeth this morning? Did anyone inspect to make sure she didn’t just swipe the toothbrush across her two front teeth, leaving gobs of bread and peanut butter in between all the other teeth?
We could go on all day. You’re always keeping tabs on your kids, whether you realize it or not.
Not to mention you’re keeping track of all this for yourself – although hopefully you’ve outgrown needing supervision on the tooth-brushing front. And so with two kids, you keep a running status report on yourself and two others.
The Real Reason Going From Two Kids to Three Is the Hardest Transition
Sure, it’s just one more kid. But the mental bookkeeping for four total people can make your head swim.
The truth is that most people can hold only three – maybe four – things in their minds at once without forgetting things or feeling overwhelmed, or both.
My incredibly scientific theory (and by that I mean, not at all scientific) is that having a third child is the hardest transition because adding mental bookkeeping for a fourth person is like dropping an ice cube in a glass that’s already full to the brim.
My two oldest kids had a dentist’s appointment this week, and this is the actual process I went through to get everyone ready to leave the house:
- Pack an extra change of clothes for your potty training toddler.
- Open the diaper bag to check for diapers and get distracted when you’re asked to…
- Help your oldest find her shoes, which entails opening the closet door for her.
- Fill your own water bottle, the two oldest’s water bottles, and the baby’s sippy cup.
- Look for your phone. Find the baby chewing on it.
- Rummage through the pantry for a squeezy pouch of baby food because it looks like she’s hungry.
- Change the baby’s diaper one last time before you leave.
- Convince the toddler to take a potty break.
- Realize you were too late, then hand her the extra change of clothes for her to put on.
- Turn the house upside down looking for your toddler’s missing shoe. When you can’t find it, tell her you’ll just carry her to and from the car. Pray that shoes are optional at the dentist’s office.
- Remind your oldest to brush her scraggly hair.
- Find another change of clothes for your toddler just in case.
- Pick the baby up and realize she needs yet another diaper change. Wonder how one tiny body can produce that much output.
- Finally get everyone in the car, where you’re relieved to find your toddler’s missing shoe but annoyed that you wasted 15 minutes looking for it in the house.
That’s life with three kids. Almost but not quite.
What life is really like as a family of three is…
- Get to the dentist’s office, unload all three kids, and throw the diaper bag on your shoulder.
- Enjoy five minutes of zoning out on How to Train Your Dragon as your toddler dismantles all the waiting room toys and your baby picks up 27 pieces of carpet fuzz to put in her mouth.
- Catch a pungent whiff as your baby waddles by and flip open the diaper bag to see that…
- You got distracted while stocking it, so it contains absolutely zero diapers.
- Call your husband to rescue you from Poop-pocalpyse.
Why Having Four Kids Is Less Stressful
As far as I can tell, having four kids is less stressful because you realize early on that it’s just plain impossible to keep everything in your head at once – so you don’t even try.
If the theme of two kids is “Man-on-man defense” and three kids is “Death by mental bookkeeping,” the motto for parents of four kids or more is:
“Every man for himself.”
Side note: My friend Rachel has a theory that Type A moms (yep, that’s me) should have lots of kids in order to maintain their own sanity. Right now, three kids feels like “a lot” but maybe four will be the magic number?
How to Find Happiness in the Chaos of Parenting
After my family welcomed our third little one into the mix, we became a family of five with a second-grader, a toddler, and a newborn. Even though I could have used more sleep and way more coffee, we were happy. Then my husband’s paternity leave ended, and I was at home with the kids all day. As time wore on, my patience became razor thin. And one day, I just broke.
The shame burns my cheeks just thinking of that day, even now. But thanks to that experience, I realized I had to make a change. I threw myself into researching how to find happiness in the chaos of parenting. Something beyond “make time for you” and “exercise more.” Because when you’re overwhelmed and at your breaking point, you don’t need the “experts” telling you more stuff to do on top of everything else.
That’s how I discovered the secrets: 10 secrets every parent should know about being happy. After hearing from hundreds of parents in the same boat as me, I knew I needed to share what I discovered. And so I wrote a book: Happy You, Happy Family.
Click here to get a free excerpt and start your journey towards finding more happiness as a parent.
Because the truth is that happiness won’t come from a big promotion at work, or from winning the lottery, or from your kids all learning to put their toys away when they’re done playing. Because eventually, you just get used to all that stuff.
True, lasting happiness comes from a conscious effort by you to put the right habits in place.
If mental bookkeeping has you feeling overwhelmed, check out the hacks in The Secret Formula to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
Do you think my tongue-in-cheek theory about three kids is spot on or bogus? Share in a comment below!