The magic number

"They say most women have one less child than they would like" ... Jacinta Tynan
"They say most women have one less child than they would like" ... Jacinta Tynan

I'd never thought about having three children. You tend not to when you become a mother after a certain age, well aware how lucky you are to be having a baby at all.

But seconds after my second baby was born, I felt an overwhelming urge to do it all again. "See you back here in 18 months," the midwife joked as she handed me our minutes-old son for the first time, his wrinkled feet curled to meet his nose, his eyes blinking up at me.

"That would be nice," I found myself saying, speaking from the heart, as you do when you've recently emerged from an inhibition-free primal experience like childbirth.

The maternal inklings which rose up in that euphoric postpartum moment could easily be explained away by new-baby bliss, complete delirium and a rapid natural injection of oxytocin, which can make a woman partial to sentimentality over rationality. But, far from losing steam in the ensuing months of all-night feeding vigils and giving my all to two little boys born 19 months apart, the urge to be a mother again has only intensified. The problem is, in my case at least, it takes two. And my other half, utterly devoted as he is to our two little boys - and largely because of that - would prefer to leave it at that.

And so I pine for an unconceived baby, clinging to every moment with my existing two more than I probably should, conscious that this will, in all likelihood, be the last hurrah. Instead of celebrating when our three-year-old names colours, or the baby holds a cup in his own chunky hands, I ache. "Not too fast, my darlings. You have all the time in the world!" God help me when they start to spell.

It's selfish, I know. What about all the women who can't have babies at all, or can't have any more for a litany of reasons and circumstances? And here am I losing sleep over stopping at two. But is it not just as selfish to deliberately ward off a pregnancy just because you don't feel like it? To not bring another baby into the world when you theoretically could, because one or the other of you thinks it will be a hassle?

We could always flip a coin, like one friend did. She had three children and yearned for a fourth, so she suggested it to her husband, who was adamant they weren't having any more. "I couldn't let it go," she says. "I felt like I was being selfish. I've got three healthy kids. Why do I want more?"

She lost the toss, but got the baby.

"I decided not to nagm but I couldn't help myself. He finally agreed, saying, 'I think we need a fourth child because you want it so much more than I don't want it.' You can't underrate nagging." Or bribery, like the woman who traded her husband a surfing trip with the boys in return for a third child.

Another friend - whose husband refused more IVF after their twins were born - conceived their third baby naturally. Their "happy accident", they call her.

They say most women have one less child than they would like. But while it might be an irrepressible biological pull for some women to keep breeding regardless of the sense of it, they're not always the ones driving it. As we're usually left to do the heavy lifting of parenthood, with etched memories of cracked nipples and life-sucking exhaustion, women are often quite happy to keep a lid on the offspring. It can be their pie-in-the-sky men trying to convince them otherwise.

"Picture this," a friend's husband said to her when she decided she was done after one baby. "We're at the beach and the kids are playing together and we'll have our life back. It'll only be hard at the start." Having conceived at 44 through IVF, she lacked the energy to go again. "The thought of getting up four times a night, and with a toddler during the day - at my age, it's too much," she said. After her husband promised to help with night feeds, they agreed to implant another of their frozen embryos, and their second baby is due any day. "I'm still freaking out about it," she admits. "It feels like going back to the beginning again."

Oh, to go back to the beginning again. The drudge and utter exhaustion are the most minuscule trade-offs for the life-altering moments of new motherhood. Sneaking into their rooms at night to watch them sleep. Crawling along the floor in a tiger suit (me, not them), their wonderment and positivity infectious. I can't bear the thought that this will be the last time I ever breastfeed, to never again experience the breathtaking awe of looking into my new babies' eyes. They have given me the most significant moments of my life.

I haven't chucked out the baby clothes and the baby bath is only out on loan. I don't expect I'll need them. But to hang on might soften the blow. It's not as if we would regret having more children. Does anyone ever? But there's always a risk we might regret not.

This story The magic number first appeared on Essential Baby.