As I was waiting to be seen by my midwife at my six-week postpartum appointment, I picked a book called Your Second Child from the office library’s single shelf. Graham was napping, so I had a chance to read the first few pages of the book. The book asked me to consider non-judgmentally if I might possibly enjoying taking a nap or a shopping trip more than I would enjoy taking care of a newborn and her older sibling. Yes, but that’s always been true. (Just kidding. They’re just such disparate pleasures.) Your Second Child emphasized that a reader who decided she would rather spend an afternoon shopping than rocking a baby to sleep shouldn’t judge herself harshly. The important thing is to be honest with oneself.
The book I’m on my way to completing today (at my pregnancy reading pace, a time when I routinely read two, sometimes three books a week) is Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, which I recently called a memoir but which he calls “a personal history.” Franzen writes so tenderly about his family, even about his parents, which surprises me somewhat: I generally expect artists to harbor deep resentments toward their parents, and Franzen in particular is famous for being an asshole. But about his mother and father Franzen is sweet without seeming insincere; he writes: “I was cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocooned. I was the late-arriving son to whom my father, who read to me every weeknight, confided his love of the depressive donkey Eeyore in A. A. Milne, and to whom my mother, at bedtime, sang a private lullaby that she’d made up to celebrate my birth.”
It moves me in the best way to read a great writer appreciate her family, and the more children I have, the greater the odds that one of them will grow up to be an author who writes sweet things about me. And, of course, I want a girl. I want Graham to have a sister.
It’s true that the question “To have more children, or to not?” shouldn’t be answered according to a mood I’m in for an hour or two. But it also seems true that the question shouldn’t be answered only in accordance with a longer-felt disposition. Even if I feel convinced for ten consecutive months of same feeling—that I do want another baby, or that I don’t—there remain at least two other important questions to ask, ones that have to do neither with my interior state (of emotional preparedness) nor with external facts (of financial preparedness). They are questions that have everything to do with Graham:
1. Will Graham want a sibling?
2. Would Graham be benefited by having a sibling?
I think the answers are:
1. Yes, probably at least occasionally
2. Yes, almost definitely
Anytime I witness someone being a jerk in public, I always assume that he is either an only child or rich. I once had a mixed doubles tennis partner who was such an arrogant winner and such a sore loser that I could not believe that he WASN’T an only child. If I were saying the same things about children with siblings, they would probably laugh. But any only child reading this is probably offended. Only children are like that.
So I feel motivated to have more children because I think Graham would benefit, but I also feel motivated in a why-not sense. Why not have more children? It’s not as if I have any time anymore anyway, and while Graham is young I don’t plan for that to change in any significant way.
But then yesterday it happened: I read one hundred pages of a book.
It may seem that given my uncertainty the obviously best thing to do is wait and keep considering whether having another child is actually something I want. But waiting isn't a wholly unproblematic solution: Graham is almost fourteen-months old, and his starting school right now represents to me my earliest opportunity to have a meaningful existence outside the home. The longer I wait, the more delayed an outside-the-home existence becomes. I'm not so eager for it that I want to throw Graham into daycare right now (an option we can't afford, anyway), but I'm not so content to stay home that I want it to be my reality even when I'm in the middle of, or deep into, my thirties.
I really don’t think there is anything wrong with only children—not in principle, anyway, but perhaps in practice. I have only children cousins and friends, all of whom are wonderful people. But Aron and I are so in love with Graham, and we haven’t figured out how to pretend not to be for the sake of keeping Graham from becoming an arrogant rotten monster. We actually TELL him: “You’re so cute, Graham,” and “You’re so funny, Graham,” and “Graham, you have such hot dance moves.” We either have to learn to temper our utter adoration, or we have to have another kid so that Graham won't grow the overblown confidence characteristic of boys who routinely enter and win handsomeness pageants. (I'm pretty sure handsomeness pageants are real things.)
Are these things I actually believe? That you can ruin a child by loving him too much? That you can ruin a child less by forcing him to be a big brother?
In a sense I think Your Second Child is right: I have enjoyed reading over these past two days more than I would enjoy taking care of a brand new human. But that's just one axis of a question comprised of so many different axes. I can't compare the fulfillment Graham brings to me with anything else. It's not as if raising Graham brings me as much joy as reading one hundred good books. Last night Aron and I watched a TV show on Hulu, and there was an advertisement for something (I don't remember what) that featured these super skinny French girls. (They may not have actually been French, but the vibe of the ad was Parisian.) There is no doubt that these girls have elbows and shoulders. If you look at me, it's possible to doubt that I have elbows and shoulders. They are hidden under a thicker layer of skin. I don't want to want to be skinny, but I want to be skinny. Getting pregnant is antithetical to getting skinny. But you can't fairly say that wanting to be skinny cancels out a desire to have a child. I think the would-you-rather game that Your Second Child asks readers to play is perhaps helpful but certainly not conclusively answer-providing.
Doesn't it seem like "Saturday Night Live" could have a recurring skit with a couple that is always announcing that they might be pregnant? The man would say, "We have big news!" And the woman would say, "We might've conceived last night!"
I take from the real-life infrequency of these sorts of announcements that there's something not quite appropriate about them. I both hope and fear every month that I'm pregnant. Aron and I tend to have sex like people who wouldn't mind getting pregnant again, which is the kind of people we in fact are. Because I both hope and fear getting pregnant again, negative pregnancy test results both relieve and disappoint me. I told my oldest sister, Amanda, that I am both relieved and disappointed each month when it turns out that I'm not pregnant. Amanda, the mother of three of my favorite kids in the whole world, told me that I should only ever feel relief. "Those negative pregnancy tests are dodged bullets."
I believe her, and yet ... I kind of want to get shot. Even when I'm not in the mood to be shot I still kind of want to be shot.