You Have to Be Born, or You Don’t Get a Present

Thursday evening I made Noah’s favorite dinner—pancakes—to celebrate the beginning of his spring break. As I mixed the ingredients, Noah sat at the dining room table doing word puzzles in the latest issue of Ranger Rick. In between urging me to comfort a doll who was “very scared,” June was running in and out of the kitchen singing, “Who’s dat girl? Runnin’ around wif you?” in her best Annie Lennox imitation. Just around the time I reached the tricky part of the operation, spooning the batter onto the griddle and making sure none of the pancakes burned while I was distracted by something else, they both wanted my attention at once.

Noah had tired of his magazine and said, “What should I do?”

June wanted to know if I could “play train tracks?”

“Maybe Noah can play train tracks with you,” I suggested. I only gave this idea about a 25% chance of succeeding, but you have to try. Much to my surprise, Noah took June’s hand and they walked into the living room. He repaired a track I had built earlier in the day and they took turns running the trains over it, looking startlingly like two full-fledged kids playing together.

Who’s that girl, I wondered, playing with my son?

Beth had Good Friday off work, which was a good thing because I had an editing job due that day and Easter and June’s birthday were both today, so we had a lot to do. Over the course of Friday, Saturday and this morning we cleaned the house, wrapped presents and dyed Easter eggs. Beth went grocery shopping, made June’s cake and assembled her slide (her present from Andrea and John). Yesterday morning I took June on some errands to get her out of the house so Beth could clean. We stopped by the video store and I picked up a couple of DVDs for her.

When Noah was a toddler we followed the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no television for children under the age of two ( In fact, we went it one better. He didn’t really start to watch television until he was almost two and a half, when I realized if I let him watch Sesame Street once or twice a week I could get a little class prep or grading done during my at-home weekdays with him. We haven’t done as well with June. Noah watches PBS for an hour most weekday afternoons, plus a half-hour of so of DVDs in the evenings at least few nights a week, and June will usually watch what he’s watching. I could have taken her out of the room, but the temptation to get some research done or to get a jump on dinner, or to relax and watch television myself was just too great. Anyway, June being two means I feel a little less guilty about it now, so I was celebrating by getting something for her to watch, chosen expressly for her. We’d never done this before. We ended up with a Maisy DVD and a one of Maurice Sendak stories. June’s a big fan of all things Maisy and she loves Where the Wild Things Are and the whole Nutshell Library and the Sendak DVD has all of those stories. June didn’t really know what we were doing at the video store, but she was excited to see the slide in the children’s area and she insisted on getting out of the stroller to go down it.

Last night, Noah hid the Easter baskets (thoughtfully provided and beautifully assembled this year by my sister Sara). Since this is his first year not believing in the Bunny, Noah wanted a role in the hunt. This morning I led a clueless June to the baskets hidden in Beth’s bedroom closet and the kids dove into them, exclaiming over the candy, bubble bath, bunny ears and stuffed bunnies. “My own rabbit!” June declared in delight, as if she did not have at least a half dozen stuffed bunnies already. Before breakfast, we fed June a peanut butter egg. Like television, peanut butter is not recommended for the under two set; and as with television, it’s a bit harder to follow the guidelines with an older kid in the house leaving unfinished peanut butter cereal and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in reach. Let’s just say it wasn’t her first taste of peanut butter, but it was her first authorized taste.

After that it was time to get ready for the descent of the grandparents. My mother and stepfather were coming for June’s party at 1:30. It was hard to know how much of the day’s preparations June understood, but on one point she was very clear. When Beth told her she could pick out balloons at the grocery store and was starting to tell her why, she interrupted, “B’oons for my birfday!” They returned from the grocery store with a butterfly-shaped balloon and one with the Sesame St. characters eating birthday cake, which June called the “monster b’oon.”

June ate lunch and napped. She woke after about an hour. Usually if she sleeps less than an hour and a half and seems cranky (and these things generally go together), I try to put her back to sleep, but my mom and stepfather were due soon, so I kept her up by reading Dr. Seuss’s Happy Birthday to You to her, over her confused and sleepy protests:

If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you.
If you’d never been born, well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?
You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!
You might be a doorknob! Or three baked potatoes!
You might be a bag full of hard green tomatoes.
Or worse than all that…Why you might be a WASN’T!
A WASN’T has no fun at all. No, he doesn’t.
A WASN’T just isn’t. He just isn’t present.
But you… You ARE YOU! And, now isn’t that pleasant!

I thought how close June came to being a WASN’T. It took Beth and me a long time to decide whether or not to have a second child and then it took about me almost a year to get pregnant. I hadn’t really decided, but I was considering calling it quits if I didn’t get pregnant during the cycle in which she was conceived.

If you’d never been born, then you might be an ISN’T!
An Isn’t has no fun at all. No he disn’t.
He never has birthdays, and that isn’t pleasant.
You have to be born, or you don’t get a present.

Well, she was born and presents she got. After Mom and Jim arrived, we settled in to open the mounds of gifts. I didn’t think we’d gotten her all that much, but somehow once Noah piled up the packages on the living room floor, it did look like a lot. June picked out gifts one by one and brought them to me to open. The first gift was a set of training pants in red, green and blue. When I told her they were special underpants for when she used the potty and didn’t wear diapers, she gave me a deeply skeptical look. We continued to open gifts. There were clothes, and books and art supplies, but the big hit was the suspension bridge for the railroad tracks that Noah picked out for her. Once that was open it was hard to get her to pay attention to yet another dress or t-shirt, though she did want me to read each book after it was unwrapped. At last we took her to the back yard where her new slide awaited. “I want to slide!” she exclaimed, and she did just that, over and over. Only the promise of cake lured her back inside.

For the record, I need to say that the fresh strawberry frosting Beth made for the cake is the most delicious frosting ever in the entire history of frosting. Here’s the recipe ( Try it yourself.

After Mom and Jim had left, Beth retreated to our room to rest a little. I followed and crawled into bed next to her. “How long do you think we can lie here before they find us?” I asked.

“Not long,” Beth answered, hearing the sound of June’s footsteps in the hall.

“Cai have some more mana?” (“Can I have some more banana?”) she asked. I got up and went to the kitchen to get it for her. As I handed it to her, she said. “Cai have some more presents?”

Happy Birthday, dear June Bug. I am so glad you are you.

Done With the Lambing

“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.

I Wish I May, I Wish I Might

About a week ago Noah and June and I were sitting on the front porch enjoying a mild, sunny afternoon. He had just come off the school bus and I was inspecting the contents of his backpack when he said, “Tengo dos mamás y un papá.” He’s in a Spanish immersion program and we occasionally have short conversations in Spanish. This sounded like one I wanted to navigate in English, however.

“Who’s the papá?” I asked.

“The man who gave the…” he paused, searching for the word sperm, couldn’t find it in any language and waved his hand impatiently. “You know,” he concluded.

“The sperm?” I said.


“Well, we usually don’t call him a father,” I said. “We call him a donor.”


“Donor means someone who gave something and he gave something, but he isn’t raising you.”

“Oh.” He was quiet for a minute. I thought the conversation might be over, but then Noah was saying he wished he could meet his donor.

I told him that when he was eighteen he could contact the sperm bank and if the donor had kept his contact information current and consented, they could meet. “Would you like to do that?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, brightening considerably. He didn’t seem at all discouraged by the prospect of waiting more than twelve years. Just the prospect of a meeting, however iffy and far in the future, seemed to satisfy him.

What I didn’t tell Noah was that though the sperm bank will not put children in contact with their biological fathers until they are eighteen, finding half-siblings is considerably easier and can be done at any time through an independently-run online registry. The next day in a very short period online, I found a posting from a couple looking for vials of frozen sperm from Noah’s sold-out donor (a strong indication, but not proof they already have a child or children by him) and a whopping seven confirmed half-siblings for June.

I have known about the registry for some time, but I never looked at it since Beth gets prickly at the mere mention of any contact with either the children’s donors or their half-siblings. Sometimes I am baffled by this; sometimes I understand. Drawing attention to the other half of their genetic heritage underscores that she has no part in it. Even though I didn’t register Noah or June on the site, she was initially irritated that I even looked. I wanted to know, though, what information was out there. It might be useful the next time Noah asks me something. Beth and I do agree it will ultimately be up to the children what, if any, contact to initiate. For now, we are following Noah’s lead. If it occurs to him to ask if the donor helped make any other children, we will tell him what we know.

Then yesterday fathers came up again. Noah had stayed home sick after waking up vomiting. After his normal fashion, however, he seemed pretty hale and hearty shortly thereafter. At two o’ clock, there was an assembly, the culmination of spirit week at his school. He hadn’t wanted to miss it, so after lunch I asked if he wanted to go to school just for the assembly and he said yes. The last day of spirit week was “Put on Your Thinking Cap” day so after some careful consideration, he put on his wizard hat. We were walking on the path by the creek, about halfway to school when he said, “Some people in my class think it’s strange to have two mothers.”

“Yeah?” I said. He didn’t expand, so I said. “I bet Jazmín doesn’t since she knows Ari and Lukas and they have two mommies. Sometimes when you’ve never heard of something it seems strange, but then when you do, you get used to the idea.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Did anyone say anything that made you feel bad?”

“No, no-one said you have to have a father. But they said some things about fathers that aren’t true.”

“Like what?”

“Like that fathers have to be strong.”

We were quiet for a little while longer and then he said, “Some people in my class have robots. I want to build a robot. Sean has one, but no-one has one that they built themselves.”

“I suppose we could look for a robot kit for your birthday. Would you like that?” Even as I said it, I wondered if we could find one appropriate for his age. If we didn’t and bought one anyway, Beth would end up doing all the work.

“Yeah.” A little more quiet. “You know, in the two times I left a tooth, I never saw the Tooth Fairy.”

“Well, she’s pretty sneaky.” He went on to announce his plans to try to stay up the next time he lost a tooth and catch a glimpse of the secretive sprite. By then we were crossing the little bridge that goes over the creek and we were in sight of the school. Noah hoped there would be a storyteller at the assembly, like the last time.

Neither of us was really prepared for what followed, however. It was a pep rally, gearing up the older students for the Maryland Schools Assessment they would be taking the next week. I parked June’s stroller next to the back row of folding chairs and we took our seats. It was hot in the room, so Noah removed his wizard hat. His curly, light-brown hair was full of glitter from the brim. Soon the rally started. The school mascot Terry the Tiger made an appearance and let me tell you that tiger knew how to work a room. Children cheered and reached out their hands to shake his as he walked down the aisle. It was as if he were a rock star, or Bill Clinton. The spirit stick was awarded to one of four classes with 100% hat participation, after their teacher’s name was drawn from a hat to break the tie. Teachers danced and performed a rap about the MSA. There was a parody of American Idol in which the contestants (played by fifth-graders) instead of singing, read their BCRs (brief constructed response, or in plain English, short essays) about the nutritional value of strawberries. The judges (played by teachers) then went over the strong and weak points of each essay, while staying in character as Randy, Paula and Simon. Noah, who has never heard of American Idol, was completely lost. I haven’t seen it, but I at least know enough about it to follow the skit. Next, a teacher quizzed students on how to write a three-point BCR (answer the question, supply evidence from the text, and extend your answer). Prizes were awarded for correct answers. Finally, inflatable sticks were passed out. It turns out they make an impressive noise if hundreds of elementary school students bang them on their palms at once while chanting “Go team! Do your best!” Throughout the rally I was in turns amused, inspired and heartbroken by all the hard work the students and teachers were doing and all the ridiculous stress placed on these tests. The stakes are high, especially at a school like Noah’s with its high proportion of poor and immigrant students. I’m not saying the teachers should be going about their preparation a different way. I just know that as we left I felt a little depressed.

As we walked home I thought about the things Noah wants this week: to meet the man who helped make him, to build a robot, to see the Tooth Fairy. Then I thought about all the tests he will have to take in the years to come. I resolved to stop at the playground on the way home and to look for a robot kit.