My husband’s vasectomy is scheduled one month from now, and you would think he’s losing a limb. Despite the two little science experiments running amok in our house that prove his procreative meddle, the idea of impotence scares him, as though the Sperm Police are going to arrive at our door to claim his Man Card. When we made our choice to stop at two kids, diving into the all-important conversation about which of us would “do the deed” of establishing a more permanent means of birth control, my argument centered on the fact that my southern regions have done most of this family-building work, and it’s high time my husband’s parts were held responsible. His response? “What if I want to have more kids someday?” With whom?? Where am I in this scenario??
I never gave much thought to whether or not I wanted kids. Actually, I suppose that isn’t completely true – I recall parenting pretend children named Jennifer and Jason while playing house as a kid. The irony is that my very real cousin, Jason, later married a gal named Jennifer, and I now have two children whose names both begin with “J.” These are either happy coincidences, or possibly they speak to my hidden psychic powers. The point is, somewhere inside I always knew I’d have kids, plural. An only child, I liked the idea of a big family. I pictured hearty meals shared around a giant table, talking over each other and fighting and laughing together. Something about the chaos seemed comforting, exciting, and warm. I based this theory entirely off of what I’d seen of big families in movies, and on television. The problem is, that isn’t real life.
My road to having kids wasn’t the easiest. Having been on birth control from the age of 17 for a variety of reasons, ranging from skin problems to pregnancy prevention, it’s almost laughable how astonished I was when, at the age of 27 – after sending my body a very clear message for 10 years not to procreate – I encountered difficulties conceiving. Following a solid year of trying and failing at something I felt my body was naturally made to do, I threw up my hands and scheduled Lasik eye surgery to console myself. Wouldn’t you know it, just two weeks before surgery my body chose to comply, and nine months later my son was born. I still cannot see him all that clearly without my glasses.
My first experience with pregnancy, delivery, and a newborn was solid gold. Everything was new, every moment exciting – even the awful ones. My second child arrived with much less fanfare, to two parents not quite ready to juggle a 16-month-old and a newborn. The anxiety and drama of my second childbearing experience overshadowed the joy of the first, and I found myself very much in it on my own. Although it “takes two to tango,” I was the one who pushed so hard to have a second child so quickly, and I thus bore much of the responsibility (and guilt) of bringing June into the world. Together, with the small amounts of energy and tenderness we could muster, my husband and I put our heads down and shuffled through June’s first year of life. Two years later, we’re only just now coming up for air.
Family planning is not easy. Our intention was always to have three children, and I’m only now realizing that there is more to this process than deciding on the number of children you want, then following through. It’s about figuring out how much you and your partner can truly manage, and being honest about it. It’s about facing up to the realities of child-rearing that don’t quite sync with the Norman Rockwell painting you have in your head. I want so badly to be the kind of woman who can handle three kids, but in my deepest soul I know that it would stretch me beyond my emotional capacity. I don’t know how to split my love three ways. I can barely manage two.
Still, I feel unsettled.
I’ve heard folks say that you “just know” when you are done having kids, that your family feels complete, and your heart feels full to capacity. That is not how this feels. It feels as though I have a missing limb; this third human whom I’ve spent so much time imagining and giving “life” to in my brain will never come to be. It feels as though I’ve failed him, and that I’ve failed myself, even though I know in my heart this is the right decision for us. Maybe it’s selfish. Maybe I value my independence (and my sleep) too much. Maybe I’m missing an opportunity to face down the demons of my awful temper and infernal impatience once and for all. There may be lessons I will never learn, and growth I will never endure – at least, not in this way.
But, now what? I understand the constraints of my reality. I know what I wish for my future, but I also know that it cannot happen, and it is heartbreaking. So, I focus on the positive – the extra time and energy I can dedicate to my kids, my husband, and myself. The financial wiggle room we can use to travel, do fun family activities, or plan date nights. In a way, I’m relieved. I wanted to dance naked down the street to celebrate the day our baby clothes went home with a Craigslist mom. That, plus the growing sarcasm in my voice as I talk about my kids, are obvious signs that it’s time to throw in the towel.
Halfway through his terrible two’s (almost a three-nager), the needs of my eldest overwhelm me. Yesterday, I picked him up from preschool to find that, for the first time ever, he had peed in the potty. My initial excitement at this milestone for which I’d hoped and longed was at once overshadowed by an immense exhaustion at the impending marathon of toilet training. I realized that I don’t have it in me to do this marathon three times (twice is already pushing it). There are a lot of things about parenting that I’d love to outsource, but the responsibility remains on me to weather the storm. All of it. Every awe-filled, monotonous, painful, sacred moment.
When I think of the long stretch of road that lies ahead of me, I feel better about our decision to end this, the baby making phase of our life. I still feel mildly curious about our third child – what she would have looked like, who he would have been. But I suppose what really scares me about our decision is the implication behind it. We’re getting older. We’re no longer having babies. Soon enough, our babies will be grown, possibly having babies of their own. Life goes way too fast, and at times it feels as though having another baby might slow it down, if even just for a moment. But in the end, I will inevitably have to confront my fears, accept that I am growing older, and let the time go. And really, there are so many great moments ahead, with and (Lord, let it be!) without my children. So, you see, there really isn’t reason to be afraid.