“Do you think we’ll ever have another baby?” Noah asked me. It was about 8:00 a.m. and I was standing in the front yard, barefoot, glancing at the headlines from today’s Washington Post. I’d gone to retrieve the paper and both pajama-clad kids came with me. June was trying to make her bike go forward, with moderate success. Noah was bouncing on his hopping ball. Jerked from my contemplation of the latest war news, I looked up from the paper.
“No,” I said simply. This is a completely settled question.
“Why not?” He sounded surprised and even a bit disappointed. I smiled inwardly, remembering how on the day June was born, when Beth and Andrea brought Noah to the hospital to meet her, he told me, quite decisively, “Mommy, I don’t think you should have any more babies.”
“Taking a care of children is a lot of work,” I told him, “and the more children you have, the more work. Two is enough for our family.”
“Was taking care of just me a lot of work?”
“Yes,” I answered truthfully.
“Then why did you make another one?”
“I wanted two children.” My answer sounded weak and inadequate. If the reasons not to have more kids are perfectly clear—we’re at our limit of energy, time and money, plus I wouldn’t want to do more than replace ourselves for ecological reasons—the reasons why we have let these small, loud, messy, demanding people hijack our lives are sometimes less clear. Why was it we chose to be chronically exhausted, to almost completely give up going to movies, plays and museums other than kid-friendly ones, to stop having long, uninterrupted conversations with each other? Beth and I have both noticed how since June was born we have a lot more avoidable misunderstandings, largely because we don’t have time to talk to each other about simple things and we end up making different assumptions.
We’re like the couple in Judy Small’s song “From the Lambing to the Wool”:
And at night we’d sit exhausted and I’d stroke his dusty forehead
With him too tired to talk to me and me too tired to care
It’s about sheep farming in Australia during the Great Depression, but parts of it seem to apply to parenting just as well:
And there’ve been times when I’ve wondered
If it all was worth the doing
And there’ve been times when I’ve thought
This was the finest place there is
For though the life here’s never easy
And the hours are long and heavy
I’m quite contented nowadays To have joined my life to his
There’s no way to say it without sounding trite, but what makes the draining work of parenting worth the doing is love. That’s why I wanted a second child, even though I knew it might mean not getting a good night’s sleep for several more years (and this does seem to be how it’s going). It’s also why I opted to swap the freedom of my childless life for years of sleep deprivation and diapers and ever present worry in the first place. I wanted to experience that bone-deep love you feel only for a child. I have not been disappointed in this. There are plenty of moments when our small, messy house is without a doubt, the finest place there is.
There’s also no doubt in my mind I could feel that same love for a third child, and there have been times I’ve wanted to, which makes answering Noah’s question more complicated than it came out sounding. And oddly, it was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that I’d faced it. At June’s eighteen-month appointment yesterday, the pediatrician, who has three or four children of her own, asked us if we’d have another. We said we were finished. She said, that made sense since with a boy and a girl, we had “a nice balance.” (Her youngest is a girl; the others are boys.) When she mentioned gender, I said that when Noah was born, I’d considered having two more children. Two boys and a girl seemed ideal, since I wanted a daughter and I thought it would be nice for Noah to have some male company in the family. Also, growing up in a two-child family, I often wondered what it would be like to have more than one sibling. I imagined the principle advantage would be having a choice of playmates at home. Part of me wanted to see how that more complicated sibling dynamic would play out among my own children.
It’s not going to happen, though. I know my limits and Beth’s. We’re both forty. It was harder for me to get and be pregnant the second time around. We don’t have the energy for another child; we’re living on one income; plus sometimes it seems there’s not even room for the two we have in our house. June’s bed is in our room and Noah’s room is too tiny for them to share for very long after we move her out of our room. We hope to move or build an addition in the next few years. And, perhaps most importantly, neither Beth nor I have the urge for more kids. I had to talk her into trying for a second child, and now when someone I know has a baby I don’t feel envious at all, just pleased that babies are still coming into the world and other people are taking care of them. I often hope for nieces or nephews or try to imagine what it would be like to have grandchildren, but as often as my mother jokes that she is entitled to more than the two grandchildren I have produced, there will be no new babies in the family coming from me. We are all done.
Done having babies anyway. With the empty nest seventeen years off, we have a lot of raising them left. It’s not an end so much as a transition.
After Noah and Beth were gone, the dishwasher was unloaded and the breakfast dishes done, June and I left for our morning walk. She didn’t fall asleep, so we made a detour to the playground on our way home. The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees and the leaves on the trees were mostly green, but fallen leaves on the path crackled under my feet and the stroller wheels and the dry creek bed was full of them. We came to a clearing where the ground was thick with leaves and I let June out of the stroller to play in them. After she tired of picking up handfuls of leaves and throwing them into the air, she started to walk up the path toward the playground. Instead of going to the swings (her habitual first stop), she scrambled down to the creek bed, where she picked up more leaves and dry pebbles.
I wondered idly when the water would run in the creek again. Usually this time of year it’s full of dark water, a rich brew of rainwater and tannin from fallen leaves. I don’t know when it will tumble over the rocks again, full of crawfish and water bugs and little silver fish darting in the still places, any more than I know when I’ll hold a tiny squirmy baby, related to me, in my arms. I do know, in both cases, that it’s out of my hands.