Monday, September 15, 2014

(Maybe) a family of three

Photo of our family when HP was two days old by Jennifer Borget Photography
I have been going back through some of my old writing from last fall, and wanted to share this piece. Clearly, we have since decided to have another child. Moving from where we were when I wrote this to where we are today is a different story for another time, but I wanted to publish this to remind myself where we were and what it looked like for us to wrestle with opposing viewpoints in our marriage.

At just shy of fourteen months, my son mastered walking. After weeks of taking hesitant steps before returning to the more familiar motion of crawling, he now happily toddles across the room. He is unabashedly proud of this newest accomplishment, and often throws a sneaky grin over his shoulder when he reaches his destination. When he is feeling less modest, he enthusiastically claps. In moments like those, it is hard to imagine not adding another child to our family.

If you had asked me a decade ago how many children I wanted to have, I would have confidently answered three or four. Two seemed too few, more than four seemed unwieldy. If you had posed the same question on the eve of my wedding, I would have responded two or three and my soon-to-be husband would have said one or two. I figured we would end up compromising with the overlap--two. But children are not something you compromise on and today—more than a year into parenting our son—we would both answer maybe just the one.

It was responsible and productive to talk about having children before we got married, but it was a purely speculative exercise. We tried our best to imagine what it would be like and how we would feel, but thinking about it and living it are different beasts. After wrestling with the reality of the latter, it was clear we needed to integrate our past ideas with our present lives to create a workable vision for the future.

At first, this integration looked more like manipulation as I struggled to let go of my desire for a larger family. I knew that my husband was leaning toward only having one child, but I naively thought I could change his mind. Sure, you only want one child, but I really want two, so that’s what will happen. I did not say that out loud, because even at the time I could hear how selfish it sounded. Children require a lot of time, attention, and sacrifice from their caregivers. They bring joy into our lives, but they also bring stress. Despite what well-meaning strangers on the street would have us believe, the joy does not take away the stress; you have to make room for both in your life. Our son brings love and happiness to our home that would not be present without him, but acknowledging that fact does not lessen the sleep deprivation, accompanying irritability, or feeling of being spread too thin.

After months of going back and forth, we reached a stale mate.  I wanted another child; he did not.  When I got desperate to bring him around to my side, I resorted to the regret card.  You know the one--the I just don’t want to look back on my life forty years from now and wish that we had had another, and the I can see myself regretting not having a child, but not the reverse.

Oy.

If I was asking him to seriously consider the idea of having another child, then I needed to seriously consider the idea of stopping with one.

So I did. I set aside my preconceived notion that a family of three would be incomplete and sat with the idea of our son being an only child. In that process I realized that holding on too tightly to a decade-old idea of what I thought our family should be was preventing me from enjoying what our family is.

Ironically, one of the things that convinced me I could be happy stopping with one was the very regret argument I tried to use on my husband, only now I worry that we might regret having a second child, not the reverse.

I do not worry that we would not love that child; there is always more love to give. I do not worry that we would be unable to adjust to new routines and schedules; our parenting journey so far has been nothing if not a crash course in flexibility. I do not worry that we would resent the child; we are capable of dealing with our emotions in a way that would not transfer them onto our son or daughter.

But I do worry about the impact a second child would have on our family system. My first obligation is to our marriage and I fear that another child would ask more of it than I am prepared to. Yes, it is a sacrifice to put aside my desire for a larger family. But it would be more of a sacrifice to put our family in a position where the balance between stress and joy tipped in the wrong direction. If having another child means stretching us further than we are capable, then I want to stop with one. Could our marriage survive having another child? Yes--I have no doubt.  But merely surviving feels like an awfully low bar to set.

If circumstances in our life were different, this conversation might have had another outcome. But part of living in the adult world is making decisions based on the cards we are holding, not the ones we hoped to draw.

Intellectually, I came the conclusion that stopping with one child might be the smartest course for our family. But it took longer for my emotions to catch up to my brain. I needed time to mourn the future we may never have and acknowledge what I was losing.

I may never be pregnant and get to feel a child growing and moving inside of me. I may never hold a sleepy newborn of my own as she drifts in and out of sleep. I may never see another child learn to crawl, walk, talk, read, or dance. I may never witness a second child’s first day of school, graduation, wedding day, and the thousand moments before, after, and in between that make a life.

And that’s okay.

I am doing my best to embrace the journey as it unfolds with my son. Even if we have another child, all of those experiences would eventually be in the past. Time moves forward, children grow up, and all of the milestones and sweet moments become memories, no matter how many children we have. 

The longer I sit with the idea of being a family of three, the less it feels like a sacrifice and the more it feels like it could be right choice for us. When I told my husband that I was comfortable with the idea of our son being our only child, he was the one unwilling to permanently close that door.

Before these recent conversations, I always strongly and passionately argued for having another child—and soon! My enthusiasm made him feel the need to stand more firmly on the side of stopping with one lest he become swept away by my relentless attempts to persuade.

Once I stopped approaching these discussions with an obvious motive, we could both admit our doubts—his about our son being an only child, and mine about adding to our family. The tables had turned. Now he was the one convincing me not to abandon on the possibility of another child.

We have tentatively decided to remain a family of three. It is not the final word for either of us; it is more of a natural default position while we decide the best path forward for our family. I still feel the pull to have another child and find myself daydreaming about how our family would look with two children instead of one. He still has reservations about expanding beyond our current size, both logistical and philosophical. But neither of us is willing to convince the other while we have lingering doubts about our respective positions. 

I have come to accept that it is a leap of faith either way. If we decide not to have any more children, we have to let go of all of the possibilities another child would bring. If we have another child, we have to let go of our anxiety about how we would juggle the competing needs of a new child, our son, our marriage, and ourselves.

Decades from now, I am confident we will not regret our choice—whatever it may be—because neither choice will leave with some less-than version of an otherwise ideal family; it will leave us with our family.

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