Dear lady in the coffee shop,
I was touched when you told my children how lovely they were. What mother doesn’t like it when a kind stranger tells her how gorgeous and charming her offspring are? I think they are too, but then I’m definitely biased. I was happy to tell you how old they were and what we’d been up to earlier in the day. I was happy to hear about your own children, who are now all grown up, and your desire one day for grandchildren. I hope it happens soon for you as I’m sure you’d be a wonderful granny.
You seemed like such a friendly, genuine lady and I enjoyed chatting to you. But then the next thing you said upset me. “I bet it’s hard work having three so close together,” you said with a knowing look. “You must have your hands full and your work cut out.”
My daughter looked confused. “Oh, we’re very lucky,” I smiled, holding her hand and giving my youngest baby a kiss. I changed the subject. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to hurt me. I couldn’t say all this to you at the time in front f my children, but I hope it will help you to understand.
What I wanted to tell you was how upsetting I find comments like yours. You’re not the first, and you certainly won’t be the last. It happens a few times a week, in fact, and it has been happening ever since I announced my third pregnancy about a year ago. Almost every “congratulations” – other than from those who already had, or who hope to have, three or more – was followed by a “you’re mad” or a horrified “oh god, there’s absolutely no way I could have a third”, even from those close to us who knew we’d always hoped to have three children. At first I laughed it off. I know most people stop at one or two and bigger families are less common these days. But the more I heard it, the more it got to me. Why is having three such a bad thing? Fine if you don’t want any more, but I don’t tell you what a shame I think it is that you don’t want to expand your family because I accept your decision as being the right one for your family and your circumstances.
I found such comments hurtful enough when they were said just to me. But that was nothing compared to the metaphorical punch in the guts when people started saying such things in front of my children – my beautiful four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son who were beyond excited when they discovered they were going to have a new sibling.
A simple supermarket trip stands out in my mind. I was left with a tear in my eye when we bumped into an old acquaintance. She introduced us to her partner, who we had not met before, and told him our children’s names before adding with a shriek, “And this crazy lady is having a third.” It kept happening throughout my pregnancy. And then when our beautiful baby boy was born five months ago, it started happening more and more.
And so dear lady in the coffee shop, and the countless others who have said such things in my children’s presence. I know you probably don’t mean it maliciously and I know you probably think it’s said tongue-in-cheek, that you’re just making small talk, or that perhaps I am being sensitive.
But how do you think such remarks make my children feel? What do you think goes through their young impressionable minds when they hear someone tell their mummy – who they think is the best mummy in the world (not that they have much experience of life with any other mummy!) – that she is mad, or crazy, or out of her mind?
What do you think goes through their little heads when they hear someone saying that having three children is too much hard work? That they, and their baby brother, are too much of a handful? Do you worry, like I do, if it will shatter their innocence or leave them growing up with a complex that they have made their mummy crazy or are causing her too much work? What do you think they feel when they hear these comments every couple of days?
Yes, there are days that are hard work. Like yesterday when my teething baby cried every time I put him down so I could try to calm down his siblings who were fighting over some toy or other. Yes, there are days when I am counting down the minutes until my husband gets home from work and I can close my eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths in pure and utter silence. But, judging by what my parent friends tell me, and from my own previous experiences as a mum of one and a mum of two, there are days like that no matter how many children you have.
I wish you could see my daughter and my son perched on the settee playing pirate ships together, or her helping him to put on his shoes, or the two of them bouncing around together on the trampoline, waving to their baby brother. I wish you could hear them singing to their baby brother and his whole body smiling with happiness, or his infectious laugh when they tickle his tummy. I wish that’s what people would comment on when they see our little gang. “Oh, how wonderful it must be to have a big family,” I want them to say. Or, “How lovely for them to have siblings so close in age and for them all to grow up together”. Because that’s how I see it. I’m not mad and I’m not crazy. I’m lucky and I’m blessed. I hope, dear lady in the coffee shop, you can see that now too.