I came in late the other night to discover my wife watching One Born Every Minute, a Channel 4 programme featuring women having babies. I sat down next to her on the sofa and it wasn’t long before my hands were clamped over my eyes. A young woman was howling in pain as her insides were twisted into a pretzel, with all manner of unspeakable muck seeping out on to the bedsheets. As her ordeal came to an end, after hour upon hour of screaming agony, the hospital room looked like a butcher’s shop that had been blown up with a cluster bomb.
‘They should show this to 14-year-old girls,’ I said to Caroline. ‘It’s the most effective form of birth control I’ve ever seen.’
She shot me a guilty look.
‘Darling?’ she said. ‘How would you feel about having another baby?’
Now, before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me make it clear that Caroline isn’t pregnant. She was just running the idea up the flagpole. Apparently, four children under eight isn’t enough. She’s seriously thinking about a fifth. She wanted to know what I thought.
The masculine approach to a question like this is to weigh up the pros and cons in the hope of making a rational decision. Let’s start with con number one: the cost. It’s £230,000, according to the latest research. As a jobbing freelance hack, I can just about pay the mortgage and keep food on the table provided I work flat out, producing six or seven pieces a week. But another mouth to feed might be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back.
Then there’s the impact on the existing four children. They are already furious about having to share their parents with each other. With another cuckoo in the nest, they’ll get 20 per cent less attention. It will be particularly tough on Sasha, the eldest, who will inevitably be saddled with some of the childcare. That’s what happens in large families: first-born girls have their childhoods cut short as they’re press-ganged into helping out.
I’m also nervous that something might go wrong. The probability isn’t any greater this time than on the previous four occasions — apart from the slight increase in risk because Caroline is a bit older — but this is the point at which reason gives way to superstition. I can’t help thinking that we’ve been lucky so far and it would be tempting fate to roll the dice one more time.
But there are plenty of pros, too. The prospect of one more child in our lives — given how delightful the others are — is appealing. The world will seem that much richer with another person in it whom we love unconditionally. It might be a girl, too, and girls are more likely to look after their aged parents than boys. Another devoted daughter might make all the difference between a miserable old age and a bearable one.
Then there’s the status angle. Four used to be exceptional, but it’s becoming increasingly commonplace. Indeed, it’s getting to the point where four is the new three. Caroline and I have become more and more annoyed as other friends of ours have slowly caught up. Having another one would be a way of putting clear blue water between us and them. We could go back to scoffing: ‘Four? Is that all? That’s pathetic.’
Ultimately, though, it’s never a rational decision. The desire to have a child just seems to well up in you spontaneously — more so for women, as their biological clocks tick away, but it happens to men as well. It’s an impulse to people the world, to go forth and multiply. My chances of cheating death by writing a great book or achieving some great feat diminish by the day, so having lots of children is my best hope of leaving some trace of myself behind. I imagine it must be some comfort, as the grim reaper approaches, to sit in your rocking chair and survey the vast numbers of grandchildren that have sprung forth from your offspring.
In all honesty, it probably won’t be up to me. I dimly recall agreeing to have one child, but the other three followed swiftly without so much as a by your leave. Yes, Caroline’s raised it with me this time — possibly because five is such a colossal undertaking — but I suspect it’s similar to what local authorities call a ‘consultation’. The decision’s been made and any discussion is just a rubber-stamping exercise.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator