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Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Big Decision

Ever since the early days of our courtship, my Old Man and I have seen eye to eye on the question of having a family. We agreed that we wanted a child, and we agreed that we might be open to more, but that we’d have to have one before we could make that call. Before I met my man, I thought it was likely that I’d end up wanting two kids, but I couldn’t be sure before I knew what having one was like. I was glad he had a similar attitude. “We’ll have one, then we’ll see.” Very sensible.

We had no idea how hard that “we’ll see” would end up being. I think we both assumed that a decision would emerge: we’d either definitely want another child, or we’d definitely decide one was enough. It hasn’t worked out that way. The conversation about whether to have another child has been ongoing ever since O. was a baby. Every time it comes up, we discover that we are both still ambivalent. Ambivalent is a word that often seems to have a negative connotation, but I mean it in the true sense of the word: ambi – from the Latin for “both,” and valent – from the Latin for “strong.” Feeling both ways, strongly, at once. In many ways, we’d really like to have another child. And in other, equally compelling ways, we want to just stick with O. and enjoy our life as-is.

We travel to the Jersey Shore by car each summer, and every summer since O. was six months old, we’ve had a “big conversation” about the 2nd child question. There’s nothing like a 15-hour car ride to give you the chance to chew at length on tough topics you treat only in passing in your busy daily life. The first summer, I was ambivalent, but felt like I was probably on my way to a yes; my Old Man was just ambivalent. The second summer, my Old Man was feeling more inclined toward yes, though still ambivalent; I wasn’t sure, but no was seeming more likely. The third summer, we agreed that “if you really wanted to, I could probably be persuaded,” but neither of us felt certain enough to do the persuading. Last summer we were both completely undecided. We discussed the possibility of leaving it up to fate. It took us about eight months to conceive O. What about six months of unprotected sex, and let the swimmers decide? We have always agreed that if we ever got pregnant accidentally, we would embrace it wholeheartedly. But neither of us felt ready to choose to give up that control, the idea that it’s a decision to be made, by us.

In having O, my Old Man and I have learned that we love having a child, that we dig being parents, and that a kid is a hell of a lot of work. O. has brought us much joy, and he’s made many aspects of our life more fun. He has also made it more challenging to spend time doing some of the things we most enjoy – reading, playing music, going out to shows and movies. As he gets older, however, he’s more able to play in a focused way while we read or cook, he can play his drums while we play guitar, and he loves spending time with his grandparents or with one of his cool teenage babysitters while we go off on our own. While we both really enjoyed O’s newborn and baby days, it’s kind of hard to imagine going back to the level of constant care that a baby requires, especially since we’d be doing it with the added responsibility of our current little kid in the picture.

For a long time, the only child issue ate at me. I myself am an only child, and though I don’t think my lack of siblings has warped me in any way, I am very familiar with the stereotype of the only child as “selfish,” “spoiled,” etc. When asked how many siblings I had as a child, I always braced myself for the response to my answer: “Oh, you must be so spoiled.” (Growing up poor and with divorced parents, this was always an especially grating assumption.) As an adult, I’ve often been told “You don’t seem like an only child” (i.e. I’m grounded and gracious and, essentially, not an asshole.) The only child thing was a concrete issue, one I could research, and research I did. I got every book I could lay my hands on that addressed the emotional and psychological effects of siblings vs. none. What little has been written on the subject tends to be in the form of scholarly books by psychologists, fairly dull stuff with copious charts and graphs. But the results of the research are consistent: only children are not markedly different than other children. Much like firstborns, they tend to be more verbally adept and more confident, but only slightly so. The parenting habits of the mom and/or dad and the innate personality of the kid have a much greater affect on the traits that kid exhibits than the presence or absence of siblings.

The most useful (and far and away the most readable) book I found on this subject was Bill McKibben’s Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families. In it, McKibben traces most of the myths that still circulate about only children to one very unscientific and poorly conducted (yet influential) study done in the nineteenth century. He also goes into the more recent research, coming up with the same conclusions I’d already arrived at. The book is thought-provoking and very worthwhile reading, whether or not family size is a pressing issue in your life. It’s worth a post in itself.

So I decided that my Old Man and I could choose not to have another child without harming our son, that having a sibling would offer him certain experiences and advantages, but that not having siblings would offer him other experiences and advantages, and neither would be inherently more valuable than the other. Still, that didn’t settle the question of whether I wanted another child. O. brings me great happiness and satisfaction, and so I have an impulse to have another child, who might bring me similar joys. But O. also demands a great deal of me, limits my freedom, requires a baseline non-negotiable investment of time, energy, and material resources. Despite my only-child status, I grew up in a large extended family; a houseful of people with shared connections and history seems like a wonderful thing to me. At the same time, I not only value but need a certain amount of time alone. One child makes that time hard to come by. I worry that two would make it nearly impossible.

There are so many other complexities my old man and I have grappled with in this decision. Will our second kid be as charming and delightful as our first, and if not, will we be disappointed? Will we be able to fully embrace whatever sex our second child ends up being, as we did with O, or will we secretly hope for a girl? (And will that affect our relationship with our boy, if we have a boy?) Will O. get along with this child, will they be close? Will his relationship with him/her be like my Old Man’s amiable connection with his sweet, outgoing sister, or more like his tense connection with his high-strung, narcissistic sister? Will he feel like his sibling is the best thing that ever happened to him, or will he claim (like one older sister I know) that his sibling “ruined his life”? Can we really afford to have another child, or will having two kids introduce financial stresses into our life that O. by himself would not? Will we be able to travel overseas with two kids?

On the other hand, will we someday regret not having a second child? Will O. regret not having a sibling? Will not having a brother or sister place undue strain on him when we’re old and need his help? Will it make it harder for him to cope with our deaths? The questions go on and on.

Clearly, we think way too much. I envy the people who just know. I also think it would be much less of a pressing issue for me if I were thirty. I know a lot of happy families w/ two kids who are seven or eight or nine years apart, and I can imagine having kids that far apart. It’s a very common family make-up in our super-educated university community (and according to a friend who recently traveled to Italy, also the most common spacing for the rare two-child family in the country with the lowest birth rate in Europe). If I were a bit younger, I would be willing to keep riding the ambivalence and see if a clearer answer emerges. But I’m thirty-eight. A slew of celebrities who can afford a team of child-care professionals (not to mention access to high-tech fertility assistance) are having babies in their mid-forties and beyond. But I am just an average citizen, with limited energy and a modest budget, and in my own mind being a mama to a baby (even an adopted baby) won’t be an option for too much longer.

Sometimes it seems like fate will decide this issue for us, whether we like it or not. Either we’ll choose “no” through simple inaction, or we’ll choose “yes” by getting knocked up accidentally (a venerable tradition in my family, and the way the majority of this world’s people come into being). I try imagining getting pregnant accidentally, to see if that clarifies the issue at all. I imagine my period eight or nine days late, and try to envision my feelings as I peer down at a pee-soaked pregnancy test. In this invented scenario, I still can’t make the ambivalence dissipate. I can see myself looking down at a positive result and being excited, and apprehensive. Or seeing a negative result and being relieved, and disappointed.

In my most zen moments, I think to myself, “whatever ends up happening, it will be good.” We are so blessed, and I think my Old Man and O. and I could make a wonderful life, just the three of us, traveling and reading and eating out and rocking out together. But I also think another addition to our family could enrich our lives and add to the fun, as well as inevitably adding to the chaos. After bringing a child I adore as much as O. into the world, I can’t really imagine my second kid being a lame person, and can’t imagine myself not loving that kid to bits.

I guess … we’ll see.

15 Comments:

Blogger DoctorMama said...

Such an insightful post.
I always sort of wanted two kids far apart, but I kind of missed the window of opportunity for that. And infertility treatment adds a whole other layer. Our conversation re: #2 went something like, "I'm not sure I could go through infertility treatment again," and my husband said, "Yeah, and then what if it WORKS?" The idea of having two small children at once just exhausts me. And not because I'm a working mom; staying home with two small ones sounds even harder. It's just not where my strengths lie, I guess. But by the time #1 isn't little anymore, I will be OLD.

It does feel nice to think of the three of us as a team. And sibling rivalry kind of sucks.

7:39 PM  
Blogger angel of god said...

God wants ye te do what's best fer ye and yer family. God wants ye te know that the whole "go forth and multiply" thing has been accomplished, so ye needn't concern yerself with that admonishment.

11:08 AM  
Blogger NanarocksWeen said...

My older daughter has chosen to have only ONE child as well. And he's perfect ;-) My younger daughter has two young sons - so I've got three amazing grandsons to play with (ages 4, 1 and 1).
I'd never tell my older daughter that she needed to have more kids. I work with college kids, and I've gotten to know plenty of "only" children - and they've all been great.

Also wanted to note - HEY, another WEEN fan! Yeah! Great taste in music, I must say.

4:06 PM  
Blogger NanarocksWeen said...

Just wanted to note - my older daughter is 36; after reading through your current post more thoughtfully, it hit me that it could almost be my own daughter writing. When she and her husband decided to start a family, HE thought three would be nice - she said "let's see how we do with ONE first." She has the exact same feelings and concerns that you write about. Their son is just over one year old now, and they have decided to stick with just one... for all the reasons you noted in your post. Great writing - and very "insightful" as doctormama said.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Orange said...

It's simultaneously so much easier and much more difficult when the choice is largely out of your hands. Two would be nice, but I'll never be pregnant again for health reasons, so one it is. Parents can definitely provide a lot more resources for one kid—the college savings account doesn't have to be split among more than one kid, and only children get more focused attention than siblings do.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Mrs. T said...

I, too am an only child and am annoyed by the "you don't seem like an only child" comments- having grown up in a single-parent home on a teacher's salary, I also was annoyed by the "spoiled" tag.
I was lonely growing up and would have liked a sibling or 2- if nothing else, to divert some attention away from me, especially during my teen years.
I ALWAYS wanted at least 2 children, which I have now. My dilemma is do we add a 3rd? In fact, when my 1st daughter was born, I wanted 4! Now I realize I just don't quite have the temperament for 4.
It's very hard to give up control of the decision and just let happen what'll happen. I know I would welcome whoever came along with open arms and I'm sure you would, too.
As far as the sibling thing? I think I know equal numbers of people who have good relationships with their siblings as I do people who have totally disfunctional ones. They would probably be that way with or without siblings.
Great post, very well said.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Esereth said...

Wow that was a good post. It's funny, I'm always a little reluctant to start reading long posts with large paragraphs (cuz most bloggers can't write them without being too wordy and dull) but yours always pull me in by the second sentence.

So poignant. Rock already doesn't want another kid (he wanted five at first) and Smudgie is only six weeks old. For the reasons you so thoroughly listed. But I kinda do. So I'll probably keep him from reading your post.

Also, thanks for the hints that it is going to get better, that there will be a time when the baby's needs aren't so all consuming 24-hours a day constant.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

This--this agonizing ambivalence--is the number one reason I'm glad I had twins. I could never have decided whether or when to have a second child. So I have appreciated that the decision was made rather neatly for me.

I love the way you write.
AND. I can't believe you're 38--you look about 14! :) My mom was 38 when she had me. If THAT tell ya anything...

But truly, here's my heartfelt opinion (since you asked. what? you didn't? oops...): Yours is a happy and loving home, with two parents who are mad about each other and centered and smart and wonderful, so allowing another child to be a part of your joyous world would be a pretty big gift. However...I probably just have residual resentment for anyone who didn't have to have two babies at once, so I'm not a very impartial judge. :D I guess I just hate to see you struggling with it.

9:48 AM  
Blogger E. said...

Wow. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I've been ill and haven't had the strength to post in the past week, but it's been kind of nice having this one up and hearing from people on an issue that has been nagging at me for some time.

I love being part of a blogging community because I become familiar with cool families of all sizes. I know several great women with who also have one child, for example (DoctorMama, Orange, and Mama Blah Blah among them), whereas in my daily life we are the only family I know with only one kid. But I also get peeks at the lives of so many families that are happy with multiple kids (including those lucky and talented moms of twins, Lisa and Feral Mom).

Anyway, thanks to all of you for the comments and the support.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous t. said...

Your journey seems very similar to the one I was on, until our "let's see what happens" approach resulted in three consecutive miscarriages. I got pregnant with my daughter on the first try when I was 39, and had an uneventful pregnancy and a fairly uneventful birth when I was 40. On my 42nd birthday, my husband and I were out and a bit spontaneous in the backseat of the car(!), resulting in a pregnancy that was lost at 9 weeks. We were then faced with the reality of "let's see what happens," basically forcing us to either take action or inaction. I am now almost 43, and considering infertility treatments...and still ambivalent about the second child issue...but now it's complicated by experiences with the roller-coaster of pleasant surprises plummeting into loss and regret. Perhaps mine is a cautionary tale...the universet gives mixed messages sometimes, and these messages can have lingering effects. I wish you and your family good luck and happiness, no matter what your decision or the fates bring you. Thanks for sharing a very common conundrum on your blog.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous undecided said...

Wow! I seriously could have written this post myself. It's like one of those songs that totally just speak to you. I am going through the EXACT thing right now. In fact, I googled, having two kids and this came up. I kind of like the idea of the universe deciding for me...but still feel like I need to be the one to decide.

I'm glad to know that others out there struggle. I wish I just 'knew' like some of my friends...

8:12 PM  
Blogger Alice said...

Very well written. Thank you. You summed up my thoughts exactly. I have a gorgeous little 4 year old son, Charlie. More often than not, I feel I will be making the right decision for myself to have only one. I think what happens to me is that I try to do best for those around me, too; my son and my husband. But deep in my core, I know to stick with one, for now, is best for me.

I am 35 years old, move around a lot, both out of desire to see the world and my husband's work. We currently live in Paris and will be moving to Munich this summer. I think this makes me feel OK to pipe-down and stick with one. Also, I am just getting into my career (late bloomer) and have stayed home the past 4 years. Not only is my energy level spent on caring for my little one, but I am eager for "me" time. All that said, I will stay where I am for now and see what feelings come my way in the coming years. At 35, in my eyes, there is still time to change my mind. Also, looking at this on a deeper level, I know my son has lessons to learn in life and his own path to follow. I have to take the presure off of myself in the decision making process and believe that all things happen out of a perfect design and I must continue to listen to my needs. Best of luck to everyone out there. Aren't we lucky to make our own decisions for us? Many women cannot. I will count my blessings.

4:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...I can't believe I came across this post. You have written down my precise feelings. I had always envisioned having two kids but when some health issues came along, I was extremely lucky to have my five year old son. Until the last few months, I have felt pretty strongly that one child was enough. After the emotional rollercoaster before conception, and then the postpartum depression, it was easy to say that I was never going to do that again. And all of the other benefits of having a singleton were becoming clear...more time, energy, and resources for the one. But now? I'm searching for stories about how other families have made the #2 decision and actually researching adoption! Something is drawing me back to my original dream of two children. It is as if the fog of the past few years has lifted now that my son is growing up and becoming more independent and I have my depression under control. As if that wasn't bothersome enough, my son has begun begging (and I mean begging) for a sibling. I knew he would eventually ask about siblings, but I thought it would happen when I felt strongly about only having one so it would be an easier conversation. Thank you for posting this. It's comforting to know that I'm not alone in these worries.

Ben's Mom

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Millicent said...

What great posts! My situation is slightly different and would love some insight as well. I will try to keep this short and sweet.

I have been running a very high baby fever for the last couple of years. Our son has just turned 5 yrs old.

My husband and I have had the more children discussion so many times! He says he never wanted any children (which comes as a surprise to me - as I'm sure this was discussed before marriage! Six lovely years to-date) He believes he has comprimised my want for 2 or more by having one.

We live very far away from any family (approx. 3,000 miles)so I understand that the first time around was tough without any support. Our son is wonderful in every way and we had no issues with the pregnancy or afterwards. Although there is no guarantee that our second would be as perfect (but I'm pretty sure s/he would be!).

I have 2 siblings and he has 1. I am very close (as close as I can be over the phone) with my family but his family is very independent (every man for himself sort of thing). Anyone outside of me and my son really don't have any effect on him. Don't get me wrong, he is a great man and a wonderful father, just not an immediate family kind of guy.

I have done lots of research about only children vs. siblings and understand that having another so my son has a sibling is not really a good reason. And by no means would he suffer in any way regardless of siblings or not. Maybe because I have such a beautiful relationship with my siblings makes me feel guilty to decide for my son if he should not be given the opportunity of a sibling.

Money, money, money - another issue. We are very financially stable and both my husband and I have great, well-paying jobs. Another obstacle - do I want to jeopardize my career at this point? I am confident that I could easily get back on my feet after a second child but not sure if my husband shares the same confidence. As he says, we have worked damn hard (and we have!!) to get where we are today and why would we voluntarily go backwards.
I don't see a second child as going backwards (ok maybe in the early stages of going back to sleepless nights, diapers, feedings, etc.) Perhaps the fear of my crabby, zombie demeanor when I don't get my beauty rest is on the top of my husband's list! Come on...it's not that bad :)

What about my thoughts that what if something happens to us...leaving our only son with the burden to deal with it all alone. He has no cousins and most likely never will (my older sister does not want kids, she prefers dogs - my younger sister is bi-polar and has very poor relationship management and will be lucky to find a man decent enough to marry let alone have kids with - and my husband's sister is a lesbian).

Often times I feel very sad that I may not be able to give my parents and in-laws the grandkids they yearn for, as I appear to be their only hope. Maybe I am thinking about other's feelings too much.

Does any of this make sense or am I completely off my rocker? I tend to hold in my feelings a lot and let them stew since they are usually not understood by my spouse. Guess the pot is over flowing and I need to know if my feelings and thoughts are way off base. Maybe my husband is right and I am just taking an approach that is too emotional?!?!

I have thought about stopping my bcpills and going with the accidental pregnancy route but just cannot bring myself to be dishonest with my husband. I know that there never seems to be the right time for another child (he could finally say yes and what if it takes a very long time as opposed to the quick conception of my son.

He had said "yes" after our last lengthy discussion a month ago but when I mentioned that I would stop my bcp after this cycle...he immediately put the brakes on saying "I said yes, but I thought you meant 2-3 years from now, not now). Guess I wanted to jump on the decision before it changed back to an "absolutely no way". Maybe he is hoping that the longer he can hold off my desire for another, I will get to the point where I say no.

Final thoughts are that in my mind having multiple children is like a reward for finding your soulmate and working at making your relationship with your partner completely compatible through all of the ups and downs life throws at you. Sharing the incredible experience of raising children no matter the material possesion upheaval.

Am I crazy? Thoughts anyone?
Sincere gratitude,
Millicent

3:11 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Thanks for your comment, Millicent! All of your reasonings make sense to me, and of course I can relate to your ambivalence. We ended up going for #2 and have not regretted it (as the last year and a half or so of posts illustrate). But I really think if our older child O. had cousins at all close in age (he has none at age six, and none on the horizon), I would've been more likely to stop at one...

I've been considering a follow-up post to this one, now that the decision has been made. Your comment reminds me that I need to write that.

5:29 PM  

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