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The Question Of The Second Child

Would we be OK with another child when we are only barely, sometimes OK as it is?

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Before I became a mother, I was certain I’d have two children — possibly three. In our many conversations about our future family, my husband wasn’t sure about a second. “Let’s see how we’re doing with one,” he would say, “then decide.”

“I already know I want two,” I said. “I’m already sure.”

My daughter was born in the spring of 2020. We spent nearly two years on all the day care waitlists in town, desperate for help, as my husband and I both worked from home. My daughter did not nap; she did not sleep; breastfeeding did not come easy. I was totally in love with my baby, totally isolated, and totally overwhelmed. While feverish with my third bout of mastitis, at the onset of the most dangerous depression of my life, I had the thought: I can’t do this again. It would be the death of me.

We had no money to spare; no more hours in the day to work; no sleep to lose. I was so humbled, so in awe that anyone had more than one child. I didn’t understand how they were making it through the day with everyone intact. As I looked closer, I saw they weren’t. They were falling apart.

My vision of having two or more children was not a fantasy, I realized, so much as a received image of what a family should look like. Having two children seemed more inevitable than desirable. I hadn’t considered having one child as a real option — and now I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

I was very fortunate that my husband agreed. We were obsessed with our daughter, we were so happy we’d made parents of ourselves, and we were at capacity. We were a kingdom of three.

My mother says that after I was born, she felt another child waiting for her.

Three years later, a baby began appearing in my dreams. I didn’t know this dream baby; she wasn’t my daughter, and she wasn’t the pregnancies I’d lost — those had a different feeling when I dreamed of them. Soon I was having constant, intrusive thoughts about this baby, both while asleep and awake. I didn’t know this baby, but I knew she was mine.

My mother says that after I was born, she felt another child waiting for her. When I was two years old, she became pregnant with my sister, heeding the call. What was it she felt? I’d imagined it was what I was feeling now — a haunting from the unborn ether. I was afraid to ask her. If these dreams were that call, I wasn’t sure I could heed it. I wasn’t sure what that said about me.

“I don’t know if I want another baby,” I told my husband, when I could no longer keep it from him. “All my reasons for not having another haven’t changed. I just keep seeing her. I don’t know what it means. I want the thoughts to go away, but they won’t go away.”

He confessed he’d been having thoughts of his own. He wasn’t sure he wanted another baby, either, but he’d also been having thoughts.

I became obsessed with the question of how parents decide how many children to have, to the extent it’s even in their control. I began asking my friends and family, and I listened close when my clients talked about it in therapy. I never heard a straightforward story. The stories were of tense negotiation, uneasy compromises, and ongoing uncertainty — even grief and fury.

The final number, all too often, was not a matter of choice.

One of my clients desperately wanted a second child, and her partner refused to entertain the idea. The partner essentially had postpartum depression and feared becoming suicidal if she had to go through it again. (I confidently venture that postpartum depression effects noncarrying parents much more than we acknowledge.) “What if it’s better this time?” my client wonders. To which her partner answers, “What if it isn’t?” Plus, they also have a toddler now. Plus, the planet. Plus, the partner wanted to leave her career for something she loved much more and paid much less. That would not be possible with another child.

This conflict might very well lead to the end of their marriage.

A friend of mine was sure she didn’t want more than the two children she had when she unintentionally became pregnant with her third, even though she was on birth control. There were barriers to abortion access, and she says she couldn’t bring herself to get one, anyway. As she enters her third trimester, her husband remains opposed. She is deeply ambivalent.

My friend’s inaction means this baby is coming, now, no matter how ambivalent she is — just as my inaction means a baby is not coming. As long as I keep my IUD in place, no matter how ambivalent I might be, I am essentially choosing over and over again not to have another child. I could go off birth control and leave it up to chance, but I don’t want to leave it up to chance. Leaving it up to chance means I would get pregnant. I just wouldn’t know when.

We talk about how a life can never be too full of love. We also talk about how happiness comes from loving what you already have.

With great reluctance, I’m coming to accept that certainty might not be returning anytime soon. Since the dream baby first appeared, several months will pass when I don’t think about her at all, and I have no desire to change the shape of our family. Then, the ambivalence visits again for a week or two. I imagine fitting a high chair at our kitchen table; I imagine turning the office into a nursery.

Sometimes, the desire to have another is strong — it often comes as I kiss my daughter before sleep — but the desire doesn’t stay there, not for long enough.

My husband says it’s the same for him. We don’t update each other every time the ambivalence comes and goes; it’s too dizzying. But when it’s not going away, we talk. We talk about how much more money we’d need and how we have no idea how to earn it. I return to all the research on how the negative stereotypes about only children aren’t true. What matters far more than the number of children in a family is the well-being of the parents. If the parents are OK, the family is OK. Would we be OK with another child, when we are barely, only sometimes OK as it is?

We talk about how a life can never be too full of love. We also talk about how happiness comes from loving what you already have.

When the thoughts return, now, I try not to panic; I try to be curious. I ask myself: What am I needing more or less of in my life? Do I feel like I should have another, or do I truly want another? Do I just want time to slow down? (Yes, I do.)

I ask myself, “Do you wish you had another child to take care of today?”

Always — almost always — the answer is no.

Though I’m still not certain if I will have another child, I will not let fear make the decision for me. Fear isn’t a clarifying agent here, anyhow. It cuts both ways — it cuts all ways. I know as long as I love my family this fiercely, fear will be with me, but it will not be my guide.

As I write this, a Saturday morning, my daughter is outside with my husband, making fairy soup with fallen leaves, sticks, and rain water. Later, she has a playdate with a friend; I’ll take her, so my husband can go to the pool. I am tired; I am stressed about finances and the affairs of the world —but I am OK, above water. For today, anyway, I love what I already have.

Anna Hogeland is the author of The Long Answer (Riverhead Books). She’s a psychotherapist in private practice, with a master of social work degree from Smith College School for Social Work and a master of fine arts degree from the University of California, Irvine. Her essays have appeared in Literary Hub, Big Issue, iNews, Gloss Magazine, and elsewhere. The Long Answer is her first novel and has been translated into seven languages. She lives in western Massachusetts.

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