If I Don’t Have More Than One Child, Am I Still a Good Mother?
The weight of waiting is intense, but I’m used to the sweet-yet-suffocating heaviness that sits swaddled on my chest. For the past three years, I’ve been floating in a parental sort of purgatory, debating whether my husband and I should have a second child. It’s entirely of my own making, this place of prolonged indecision and procrastination, but that doesn’t make it any less agonizing.
Sometimes I almost forget the unspoken dilemma of my heart, but its hooks are in deep. All it takes is for someone to make a pregnancy announcement. My dormant emotions will rise to the surface, and writhe around in a tangled heap.
Then my biological clock will sputter to life, sending an urgent message from my womb to my brain. Before I know it, the sly ticker tape question will begin broadcasting across the screen: If I don’t have more than one child, am I still a good mother?
The question is like a fussy newborn; it wakes me up in the middle of the night, desperate and hungry for relief. Other times it’s a clingy, persistent toddler who follows me around in search of an impossible answer.
I’ve been carrying the ghost of a second child around for a long time. Up until now, I’ve welcomed the burden, the extended imaginary gestation. But it’s no way to live: one foot in the present, one flung far into the future.
There’s nothing worse than being at war with yourself. I’ve put off making this life-changing decision, preferring to vacillate and marinate in my own emotional misery. I haven’t had any concrete answers to these theoretical questions until now—just gut feelings.
Some mornings I pull up the blinds and feel simple gratitude for the sun on my face. I watch my living, breathing daughter dance her way into the room, and my world seems full to overflowing with a sacred kind of grace. During these moments, I wonder: has the dream of a second child finally died? Is it enough to be content and thankful for the one-child family right before my eyes?
She is demanding, my little girl with her ancient blue eyes. Marvelous and anxious, she completes me and depletes me at the same time. But if she doesn’t get the gift of siblings, will she resent me? Be lonely? Grow up spoilt and selfish?
A happy mother equals a happy child. All I know is that we both deserve a chance to thrive.
I believe I have more of a chance to do right by her if I look after my own mental health. She is my mirror image, my soul mate, my everything, but when she acts up or demands too much, I need to be able to have a reprieve.
I depend on that break, that space apart. I’m grateful when my husband steps in on the bad days and takes the reins. I fear that if we add another kid to our family mix, we will just end up dividing and conquering to get by, but there won’t be much left of us.
There is no middle ground when you’re deciding if you should have another baby. Somebody will get what they wanted all along, and the other person won’t. But what do I want? Half of me has longed for a second child, and half of me has been happy with just one. But by not making a decision, I’ve unwittingly made one.
I am done living down the dark hole of indecision. I am done having children.
So that’s my confession. I’m tired of resenting my husband for being honest about his limits and taking a stand. I don’t want to talk it to death with our therapist anymore. I just want to get back to holding his hand. When I dig deep and put blame aside, I unearth some uncomfortable facts about myself, hard truths I’ve been trying to hide.
I want the cute Facebook pregnancy announcement—without the pregnancy. I want the conventional, traditional family of four—without actually having to put any work into it. I don’t necessarily want to go through nine-plus months of physical discomfort; I just want to say that I’ve done it. But for what? Societal or family pressure? Built-in motherhood guilt?
In my mind, I imagine the thrill of seeing that longed-for plus sign. But in my hazy reverie, I don’t have to go off the medications that make me feel better—and more like me. I don’t have to deal with pesky pregnancy symptoms like peeing all the time, or getting acid reflux so bad that I have to sleep sitting up.
When it comes down to it, I’ve realized that I want the idea of another child more than the reality. At the same time, I’ve wanted to feel like I have a choice about whether it happens or not. That’s been my struggle with my husband all along. I didn’t want him to arbitrarily rule something out that I hadn’t fully decided on myself yet. I also didn’t want to wake up ten years from now and resent him—or myself.
So now I’ve made a decision intellectually, but that doesn’t mean it magically fixes everything. I know I will still experience heart pangs whenever I see a newborn onesie. Sometimes I think of all those meaningful milestones not happening ever again—just being done—and it’s hard to breathe, to take it all in.
The finality of having of no more children makes a small part of me feel sad and empty. I carry around a sense of saudade. It’s a Portuguese word for the feelings of deep nostalgia for something or someone that can never be. Like my son. All throughout my first pregnancy, I was convinced I was having a boy, but he never came to be. I would see him staring at me from subway posters, silent and imploring. Let me be. Let me be. He was supposed to look like his daddy.
The more I live, the more I realize that grief is simply a profound longing. Moving forward, I will allow myself to cry for that hypothetical child sometimes, that sweet boy that never made it into a twinkle in his mother’s eyes. But mostly I will be happy for the family I already have, comforted by the fact that I am doing what’s right for us.
Deciding to be “one and done” also comes with a heady feeling of relief. The notion of reliving breastfeeding was terrifying. The fear of going back to postpartum depression land rocked me to the core. I’m not sure I could have handled my world completing imploding for the second time.
I am 39, facing down 40—a geriatric in the world of fertility. The thought of going to a clinic again fills me with dread. I don’t want to obsessively monitor my menstrual cycles or find out how many viable eggs I’ve got left.
Some mothers make a point of being present in the moment. Others worry about the trials of tomorrow and project themselves into a future yet unfurled. I’ve been stuck somewhere in between, waiting for the idea of a second child to take root in order to make our family “complete.”
But forcing it isn’t right. Maybe I just needed to let go of my original definition of what makes a “perfect family,” and focus on the two people already right in front of me. Perhaps they’re the ones I’ve been waiting for all this time, unknowingly. Maybe it’s just them, and that’s okay. Don’t they deserve my whole heart? Who’s to say they haven’t also been waiting this whole time—for me?
I can’t regret not having a second child if it saves my marriage and my sanity. And there’s a big part of me that already knows we don’t have to have two kids to be happy. We are magnificent and maddening just as we are—faults and all—just like any other family. It’s not the number of people in your tribe, it’s the amount of love you share. And in my heart, I’ve always thought there was something particularly magical about the number three.
Tara Mandarano is a writer, editor and poet based in Canada. She balances life with a tyrannical toddler by consistently reading past her bedtime. Her essays have also been published on Mamalode, The Huffington Post, Parent.co, Mogul and Thought Catalog. Her poetry has appeared in The Toronto Quarterly and is forthcoming in The Sunlight Press.