Here a funny thing that happens when your child turns two. You are supposed to have another child. Like, right away. Suddenly all anyone wants to talk to you about is when you will be having another child. Not if. When. Your lack of a second child is almost a source of anxiety for people, like a dissonant chord that has been allowed to linger without resolution.
For example, a few weeks ago I was in my hunkered down work mode (aka lightening fast typing fingers, wry jokes, case management to-do lists) when one of the house physicians on my current service came to sign me out (cue chorus of divine angels). Let me preface this by saying that I had only known this person for maybe three or four days at this point. And by the way she is very lovely and I don’t mean to single her out here because what follows is a conversation that has played itself out in one form or another with everyone from total strangers to my closest friends. So anyway, a few minutes into sign-out I mentioned my daughter off hand and she asked, “Oh how old is your child?” and I said “She’s two” and she said “Oh, when are you going to have another child?” and I said “Oh, we’ve been thinking a lot about it and we are pretty happy as a three-person family” (note here how suddenly intimate the conversation has become, because any honest answer about procreative plans is not really small talk anymore). At this point she looked a bit shocked and dismayed, “Oh, but your daughter is going to be so lonely!” to which I just said again, rather more weakly, “Oh, we are pretty happy” and she gave me another look akin to the look you might give a woman leaning over to give her toddler a big sip of her Manhattan. A look that says: “Your parental judgment is seriously impaired.”
I have this kind of conversation at least once a week these days, with grocery store cashiers, neighbors, fellow parents at daycare. Some people react as my colleague did, invoking my parental duty to provide E with a sibling. People have even used the word “abuse” in reference to only childhood which I guess makes me the potential abuser? Which is a disturbing thing to imply over a pile of avocados at the Trader Joe’s. Other people smile and say “Oh just you wait. You’ll want another one.” Which always makes me think of that old ad for potato chips: “Betcha can’t eat just one!” As if you might pad downstairs to satisfy a midnight salty-food craving and end up + 1. Some people talk about how two kids isn’t twice as hard as one kid, it’s only 1.5 times as hard, as if I’m not having another child because I’m afraid of hard work, to which I want to say a) my child is a pure delight to me so why wouldn’t I want to multiply that by two? and also b) I just worked for 30 hours in a row. Again! What absolutely no one has said when they find out I am planning on stopping at one is: “Awesome!” or “Cool!” or even “Tell me more about that.”
The fact is that I always planned on having two children. I have vivid memories of lying in bed as a five or six year old imagining the one boy and one girl child I would one day have. When we settled on E’s name towards the end of my pregnancy, I made a secret list of sibling names for boys and girls. Even during E’s first year I saved every piece of clothing for the second child. But now that E is two and more verbal every day and she can both ask and answer the question “What are you thinking about?” I’m just so excited to keep moving forward with her. I don’t want to start all over again. I want to travel with E and take her to concerts and gardens and plays and support her in every curiosity. I want her life to be full of every vividness that money and time and energy can provide. I don’t want to divide up those resources, even though I know it’s possible to do so well.
At the same time, I am beginning to realize that I need to be able to write in order to live well inside my own life, which for me means blocks of quiet daylight hours and also some time for reading and maybe even an occasional week far away from the quotidian in a new environment by myself. Which has to be on top of full time work if we are to eat and be clothed and pay off our student loans, the mortgages we have taken out on ourselves. All of which is also true for my partner. Right now, the financials kind of work out, the logistics kind of work out, and we are all of us kind of getting the things we need (except sleep and retirement savings but that’s for a later time, right?) I don’t want to tempt the gods by saying it out loud, but there’s enough joy in our household to balance out the stress, even during residency. While one of us does the dishes, the other of us has a dance party or does alphabet puzzles in the living room with E. Then we switch and one of us does bathtime while the other catches up on work email. Adding another person to the mix seems like asking too much of ourseves and the universe. Then there’s the matter of my destroyed post-pregnancy sacroilliac joint and the pain of every step for the last two years and the possibility of that getting even worse….. It just gives a person pause.
I am sad for E that she might not have the potentially good experiene of having a sibling but I think it is important to acknowledge that when it comes to that experience there are no guarantees. I know people with siblings for whom their sibling relationship is one of the core narrratives of their lives and people who haven’t spoken to their siblings in twenty years. I know people who have great relationships with their siblings, neutral relationships with their siblings, and some sad examples of horribly acrimonious and damaging sibling relationships. People often invoke the importance of siblings in the care of elderly parents and yet I know many people with siblings who have still shouldered the lion’s share of the care of their aging parents, whether due to geography, preference, or family politics. Having a sibling is no guarantee of fellowship in life’s struggles and the absence of a sibling does not preclude experiences of intense mutual commitment and support with spouses, friends, and other relatives.
But I didn’t set out here to defend my decision (that is not even really a final decision yet. Check back in five years for the final child tally!). What I wanted to convey is that we should not need to defend the choices we make about how our families are structured.
When I heard on NPR that someone had written a book on being and having an only child, I literally pulled my car over to the side of the road to look it up. I didn’t realize until that moment how isolated I felt. Even with all the diapproving looks and talk of lifelong loneliness, I don’t think I had ever fully identified the stigma associated with having an only child. The book is called “One and Only: Why Having an Only Child, and Being One, Is Better Than You Think” by Lauren Sandler and it seeks to present both a scientific argument and series of personal anecdotes that argue for the benefits of being and having an only child. While I was grateful for the author’s meticulous and thought-provoking research and her articulations of some of the joys of parenting an only child (like the smallest things: being able to call your child your favorite smoos in the whole wide world), I found myself thinking: why do we have to prove that having an only child is better or even as good as having more than one child? Do we need society’s permission NOT to grow another human being in our uteri? Which, of course, is an old can of worms…..
A few nights ago E was sitting on C’s lap and watching Schoolhouse Rock. I was sitting on the bed folding laundry when the following clip came on:
My eyes actually filled with tears. “It’s our song!” I kept saying to my two loves. Which is funny because it’s all about a man and a woman having a baby and that’s not our story at all. But it captures something that is special about our family. It takes all three of us to hold the table up! It feels good to say what I’m about to say: I am so proud of my family.
Three is not everyone’s magic number. Some people are happiest in a family of one. Some parents are raising various numbers of children alone or with people who don’t live with them. Some people can’t imagine being happy unless their family is big enough to fill the pew at church (shout out to my friend KP whose family I very much admire and enjoy following through the years on facebook!). Two adults and two kids is working for a lot of folks. Unto each and every one of these: a blessing!
I guess what I’m saying is: Next time you are tempted to ask someone if or when they are planning on having another kid (or when they are planning on marrying their boyfriend or whether they are dating someone, for that matter), maybe instead ask them: What’s your magic number? Or better yet, what’s awesome about your kid or kids or spouse or life? Have you read any amazing books lately? What is the thing you are most looking forward to today? Can you imagine the conversations we could be having with one another?
What’s your magic number?