by Beth Freedman
I barely made it into the primigravida club – I gave birth to my first son shortly after turning thirty-five. But I’m a primagravida all the same, in all the ways that count. And there is one issue directly related to the age at which we started our family that continues to haunt me.
Before my husband and I got married, we talked about how many children we wanted, and we both agreed that three was a nice number. We knew, of course, that since we were older than many, it might not be that simple. But then I got pregnant very easily with number one, so it seemed we were blessed in that respect. But then week six of the pregnancy arrived, and I got really, really, really sick. I never knew just how long nine months was, until I had to endure nine months of pregnancy, throwing up every day for well over half of that time, and feeling constantly, severely nauseated every moment I was awake. During that first pregnancy, I honestly didn’t know how I could bear to put myself through that again to have another. After the pregnancy, I felt like I had PTSD – not for the labor, which was actually wonderful, but for the pregnancy. But I knew that I would have to go through it again. Having an only child just didn’t seem like an option for either of us, for a whole slew of reasons.
Then things got more complicated. When I felt I was as ready as I was going to be, and I couldn’t wait that much longer, since I was already 37, we started trying for number two. Since number one had been so simple, I fully expected to be pregnant within a couple of months. But nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened. Every month I would be on an emotional rollercoaster — sad that it hadn’t worked, but also relieved that I didn’t have to go through the hell of pregnancy yet.
After five months or so I was ready to go to the gynecologist to get help. We did every test there was to be done, but the results all came back normal. After a year without conceiving, we were diagnosed with “unexplained secondary infertility.” I had to begin to face the idea that my son might be an only child, and something about that just broke my heart, no matter how much I was dreading being pregnant again. We were about to start fertility treatments when, on our nineteenth month of trying, I got pregnant naturally.
There is an age gap of four years and three months between our children. My second pregnancy was even worse than the first, and in the end, we were actually lucky that it took that long to work, because having a three-and-a-half-year-old at home while you are so sick you can’t lift your head off the pillow is infinitely better than having a two-year-old at home. He was just able to deal with it more than a toddler would have been.
An interesting thing happened to me, though, as soon as I got pregnant with number two. I immediately started thinking about the viability of number three. Despite the amount of time it took us to get pregnant with number two, despite the fact that it was clear now that I’d have to wait until baby number two was also not a toddler anymore if we wanted another, I immediately started thinking of it as though having (or not having) a third was purely a matter of choice.
Our second son was born six weeks before I turned forty. He is now five months old, and the question will not leave my head. There are many, many reasons why I think we have had all the children we are going to have. I am forty already. I can’t risk trying to conceive again for another for three years because we wouldn’t cope otherwise — if we could even cope then. To start trying at forty-three, knowing it could take years… well, I don’t want to be that much of an older parent. We are so tired right now. It is almost all I can do to look after a newborn and a four year old. I’ve never been particularly energetic and it is taking all of my strength to get through this year, with its associated sleep deprivation. I also don’t think I can put my body through another pregnancy. My husband doesn’t think he would be able to look after two children on his own through the first four months of another pregnancy ; looking after one on his own last year, while I was bedridden, was hard enough. We keep talking about all the advantages to having two children; that we’d have more time for them, the ‘neatness’ of it, the fact that we’d still fit into our relatively small living space and our car, and so many other things. And there is the simple physical fact that if I could get pregnant again, which in itself is doubtful, the physical strain of that pregnancy and of another newborn year is just more than either of us can take.
And yet, there is something that I just can’t let go of. My baby has grown out of his newborn clothes, but something is preventing me from selling them or giving them away. I think it is the difficulty of accepting the reality, as opposed to the ideal. If we had been just five years younger, we’d still be thinking of having number three. It’s still the number of children we want. And there is a part of me that feels like I am cheating my sons out of another sibling, one whom they are “supposed” to have. This feeling hits even harder as I watch our four-year-old express his utter delight at having a baby brother.
In a way, it would be easier for me if I knew that I absolutely could not have another child (which might well be true, given how long it took us to conceive number two). But in the end, I did conceive, so I feel like I am still capable. And because I feel that we are making a choice, I am plagued by that choice. Ever since I got pregnant with number two, the issue has been going round and round in my head. We go through a particularly hard day (or night, or both) and I know that I am right, that we have been blessed with all the children that we can manage. But then I think I am being selfish, that I am not doing what is best for my kids. But then I think — what is best for them is not biting off more than we can chew, and ending up so exhausted and overwhelmed that we can’t care for any of them well. And then I end up full of self-recriminations — why can’t I be strong enough to have three? Is there another soul out there who is supposed to be part of our family?
So how do I do it? How do I give up the ideal, for the reality? It is a wonderful reality, after all. I have two healthy, beautiful boys, and a wonderful husband. I’m so looking forward to our baby growing up and becoming a person in his own right; to watching the siblings play together. I know that this is right for us, by every logical measure, but my emotions won’t quite come into line. My biggest ‘issue’, in truth, is not the “ideal” as we saw it — I am content with two children, as is my husband — but the worry that I am shortchanging the two kids I do have by not giving them another sibling.
It is possible that I might feel this way less if I did not live in a society where having two kids is unusual, and most families have three or more. A while back I read a blog post written by a woman in America, asking advice on how she could “know” whether it was right or not to have number three. Again and again, along with the very sage advice she was given by other mothers, came the caution that she would have to deal with the “inevitable” questions/comments on why she had had another. It seems that the default in secular America is two children, and more is considered… odd. Even selfish. But I’m not sure that it’s the society I’m surrounded by. I’m one of five, but I didn’t ever want five. I grew up with a lot of friends who had only one sibling and didn’t think of them as different, or lacking.
I wonder if I can work this through and come to a place where I have accepted that our family is complete. I look forward to hearing other mothers’ experiences – I imagine I’m not the only one losing sleep trying to figure it out.