By Abigail Rasminsky
The jealousy peaked when the second round of pregnancy announcements started to roll in. By then my daughter was two and I was 37, but neither my husband nor I had broached the subject of a second child. Instead, my tactics were cheap, comments lobbed at inopportune moments: I mentioned my (old) age and boy names I liked, and reminded him that we had to “get it done” before we left Europe, our temporary (family-friendly) home. When I got salmonella poisoning from eating bad chicken, I secretly hoped my symptoms meant I was pregnant. My husband prayed they didn’t.
Our avoidance of the discussion, followed by our inability to agree on trying for another, was heartbreaking. It seemed to symbolize some fundamental rift in our marriage: Almost everyone we knew had—or was trying for—more than one child. Why couldn’t we handle it, too?
A lot of what went on in my mind was projection, of course. One never knows what’s behind a couple’s decision (or lack thereof) to have (or not have) another baby. What mistakes have occurred, what deals they’ve brokered, what wounds they’re licking, what hopes or fantasies they’ve pinned on this new arrival, what plan they’re just sticking to. What disasters they’re in for.
I’ve come to believe that there are two distinct groups of new parents: those for whom having a child causes ripples through the marriage—it triggers arguments and shuffles patterns and duties around, but the marital house remains sound—and those for whom a baby is like a bomb. I’m not sure how much these categories say about the solidity of the marriage, the circumstances surrounding it, the baby herself, or the two particular parties in the relationship, but my husband and I found ourselves in the latter group.
Although we were deeply in love, a true team, we barely knew each other when we got married a year after we met. And we knew each other only a little better a year later, when our daughter was born. This isn’t unusual in this day and age—meet, mate, multiply is de rigueur for 30-somethings trying to beat the clock—and I don’t regret any of it. But appending a helpless, screaming third party to a freshly shacked-up couple does bestow its own particular set of complications.
At our wedding, my mother, who has been married to my father for almost 50 years, offered this piece of advice: “Don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.” I thought this was a joke. Obviously it wasn’t—surprise is inevitable in any long-term relationship. It’s a sometimes thrilling, sometimes bewildering part of marriage.
I’ve learned a lot about my husband in the three years our daughter has been around. He is a fiercely devoted dad, but parenting does not come naturally to him and he has limited stamina for it. Adding another baby to the mix—another mouth to feed and mind to educate, more toys, more spills, more crying in the night, more money flying out of our bank account—is more than he can take, and he acknowledges this willingly. He is also exceedingly cautious when it comes to practical matters, so unless we find ourselves with higher paying, more secure jobs, he is reluctant to stretch our budget any further.
Neither of us fully anticipated how severely our waning fertility window would intersect with the realities of my husband’s pre-tenure academic life. The infamous mandate to publish or perish, especially in this grim job market, keeps postdocs and assistant professors shackled to their desks late into the night, over weekends and on vacations, living in fear that that they will never land (and then hold onto) one of the few steady gigs left.
Nor did we foresee how completely I’d be derailed by new motherhood, how much trouble I’d have getting my nascent career off the ground once our daughter arrived, and what a blow this would be to our wallets and my ego. As a longtime feminist, I was—naively—shocked by how much of the financial load landed on my husband’s shoulders, and how much of the parenting landed on mine.
I never wanted just one child. I don’t know what I’d do without my older sister and I always—forgive me—secretly pitied single children. Weren’t they lonely? How did they stand up under the weight of their parents’ expectations, and then care for them alone in their old age?
I know this is largely an illusion—many siblings do not perform this function for one another or for their parents. Many have destructive or unworkable relationships. Friends and spouses can easily and so often do fill those voids.
In any case, having a second child for the sake of our daughter doesn’t seem like reason enough—or perhaps it just seems too precarious a motive. As all parents know, you never decide on a second or third child because the first isn’t enough. On the contrary, it is precisely because the first is entirely too magnificent for you to pass up the chance of doing it all over again.
When I got pregnant with our daughter, my husband and I wanted to create something beautiful out of our bond—and we did. That decision is now anchored in an inescapable, three-dimensional reality. Although you never know exactly who you will end up with—and a new baby never loses its sense of wonderment and magic—after the first one, you at least have an idea of what life with children will look like: that it will be both heart-shatteringly joyful and, at times, its own circle of hell.
Like all parents, I’m no longer delusional about what it means to have a baby.
So many women raise two (or more) kids on their own, or assisted only by the father’s financial contribution. I wish that I could be one of those tough women who simply declared, “I want this so much I’ll take care of it!”—the sleepless nights, the endless child care, the career sidetracked for a second time. But I am not. I know that two children would shatter any sense of order and balance I’ve—finally, precariously—found. Still, this doesn’t stop me from fantasizing about a bigger family.
And yet—perhaps this is the point—even if I were someone who was happy doing the hands-on parenting of two kids largely on my own, I would resent it. It is not the foundation on which I want to build our family. I have always been the primary parent, but I need him to be present (happy, even?) to care for another, too. Of this, I am sure.
My husband says that we don’t disagree about the vision for our family—in theory, he’d like another—but about its execution. He can’t reconcile where we’d find the time, money and energy; I feel like we’d figure it out, like we did with the first.
In either case, there’s something sad about this stalemate. It is profoundly different, of course, from the devastation caused by more complex, uncontrollable factors such as infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, or disabilities. But there is a quiet sorrow in getting down on the ground and recognizing who you and your partner truly are—what you can and cannot do, what you will and won’t compromise on, what circumstances you actually find yourselves in—and realizing that because you both have limits, this picture might need to change.
Since most of my cohorts’ second babies have already arrived, my envy and longing have dampened somewhat. The difficulty of life with two small kids is clearer. I see the ways these couples are suffering: lunatic-inducing sleep deprivation, mastitis, marital discord, working insane hours simply to pay the sitter, not a single second to themselves, feeling forever frayed and fried. Even though I now know it all gives way to something much easier and more delightful, those early months are still—if I remember correctly—the worst, and the toll they take can be enormous.
It is only in the last few weeks that I’ve started inching toward the reality that our daughter might be the only child we have, and that this might be okay. Perhaps the fight for another baby isn’t one I want to win because, ultimately, what would it cost us?
Although motherhood continues to have its occasional dark, desperate moments, I love the time I spend with our daughter. But I’ve been appreciating it even more now that I am no longer seeing her childhood through the lens of what we don’t have. I’m not trying to store up patience, sleep, gear, money, stamina, or marital goodwill for another go-round. I’m just enjoying being with her, my baby, my glorious singleton—the one both her father and I wanted more than anything.
Abigail Rasminsky is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program and lives in Los Angeles, CA. She is almost ready to put the baby #2 question behind her. More at abigailrasminsky.com and @AbbyRasminsky.
This piece was adapted from The Cut.
Keep up with Motherwell on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and via our newsletter.