Announcing that No3 was on his way caught everyone by surprise. We already had a full house, after all, in that weird form of Baby Bingo we all seem to play these days: two healthy children, a boy, a girl. What could possibly be the point of a third?
“Was it an accident?” asked more than one person, until I was tempted to make up some exquisitely detailed story of a burst condom, just to teach them some manners. I didn’t, of course; I just smiled in a noncommittal English way intended to convey both that the baby was very much intended and that conjugal intercourse is never the subject for third party small talk.
It’s weird, though, this notion of family planning. You can spend years – decades even – frenziedly trying to prevent conception until you find, when you try, that it doesn’t happen anyway. You can follow the instructions down to the last (French) letter and be caught out at the most inopportune moment. You can dream of girls and breed a football team; you can dream of boys and spend your life surrounded by the opposite. You can go for a baby and end up with three; you can go for a baby and end up, heartbreakingly, with none.
You can’t really “plan” your family any more than you can plan who your children will be. You can have hopes that are fulfilled, but that’s not the same thing. I look at my two younger children, and wonder that they would not be here, that I would never have known them, if their shadowy immediate predecessors had made it. I wonder who those little ones would have been. What would have changed in our family dynamics; what would have changed in the characters of the others, if brother had been sister, or vice versa? If a different little person had been in the car seat next door, across the table, running and squabbling and laughing to school? If there’d been no one there at all? There are infinite families we could have been.
It’s futile to wonder, but I still do. Even with my three beautiful children, it’s tempting to assign aspects of personality to their position in the family and to muse what difference a delay or advance of a few weeks would have made in changing their school year: their friends, their development, their progress.
It is as it is, and they are who they are: products of their genes and their timeings, of their surroundings and a million tiny influences I won’t even have noticed. As it is for everyone, as it always has been. There isn’t a recipe to follow; no pattern for perfection. Being able to control fertility in a way which our grandmothers could only have dreamed of is a gift, but the flip side is to think that we have more control over the children born to us than we do – or should. We may plan all we like, but the scariest bit of all is that it’s still, fundamentally, a leap of faith. A gamble, with love.