Four kids and I am done. I complain about having twins, but an unsung benefit of numbers three and four coming in one fell swoop is a degree of closure I might not otherwise have had. Barring any unforeseen disaster, there are no more babies in my future. I will say it loudly and I will say it for the record.
I had always wanted three children. Three is the new black. My second son never felt like the last and I never treated him that way either. I didn’t coddle him in his infancy the way you might if an air of finality informed every milestone. I was careful to leave open the possibility of another kid in the looping conversations mommies have with each other, endlessly, on this topic. And most telling of all: the baby clothes were not shipped off to the charity shop like they are now, great big heaps of them stuffed into bin bags without a second look. No, back then the bodysuits were laundered and labelled and stowed in the attic, boxed away with hidden hopes of another life yet to be made.
I fought hard for that life. Not in quite the same way women with infertility struggles do – a situation for which I have an unimaginable amount of sympathy – but in the way that happens when a husband and a wife don’t agree on when enough is enough. It’s not uncommon. Women are notorious victims of baby lust, even those who don’t actually want another one in practice. It is the idea of the baby, rather, that fans the flame. The smell and the softness and the tiny toes and the weight like a sack of potatoes in the crook of your arm. It is the thrill of creation. There is something addictive about bearing and birthing tiny new people that most men are immune to. Lucky them.
We conveniently forget the months of retching in the kitchen sink. The contractions, the stitches, the scars. The tiredness so heavy it feels as if the passing of each day is like wading through a sea of molasses. Well, we don’t really forget, but we sideline these things with the same strength of mind and purpose that enabled us to endure them in the first place. Our husbands, on the other hand, remember it all too well. And they don’t want to go back. They are finished with raging hormones, with poo the color of sweetcorn, with a day that starts at 5:12am. They want to move forward again, at full speed, and in lots of ways you can’t really blame them.
Time ticks on, though, and decisions have to be made. Ours was made one lunchtime in May over hamburgers and tears. I don’t know how other couples navigate the rocky terrain of major marital disagreement, but we boiled it down to this: my desire for a third kid was greater than my husband’s desire not to have one. He was okay with the idea of another child. Another baby? Not so much. He had been a hands on dad when the first two were born and he just didn’t have it in him to do it again.
Oh but wait, I said, as if I were the first person on earth to see it so clearly. Babies turn into children! Amazing! A year to muddle through, a year and half tops, and then we can begin moving forward again with the right number of people at the dinner table. I believed, I genuinely believed, that I was strong enough to bear the brunt of the last baby by myself and I offered this strength to him as the solution to our problem, wrapped with a red ribbon. And he took it, which was his gift to me.
But where there is conception, there is risk. With the discovery of a second heartbeat, the ‘Ketchup’ deal, as we called it in honor of the restaurant at which it was made, fell to pieces. Swiftly, painfully. I stuck to my word, as best I could, through the debilitating pregnancy, through the morass of the first twelve months, but life with two babies is materially different from life with one no matter how strong you think you are. We got a nanny and my husband steered clear of the wreckage, though to be fair to him not as much as he would have had there only been a singleton. I didn’t resent him for it, I wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on.
Now we have more kids than either of us wanted. Enough was enough one baby ago, but my ovaries apparently didn’t get that message. So it goes. Most days I am awash with relief that our family is bigger than I wanted and not smaller. It is a sense of peace, I realize, that is not to be taken for granted. I am struck by this, again and again, whenever I see a friend with longing, with lingering doubts, a friend whose months are still shaped by the rolling rhythms of her menstrual cycle because she doesn’t feel quite ‘done’.
That used to be me. And now, after years of careful attention to the quality of my cervical mucus and to the length of my period, it doesn’t matter anymore. There is a great relief in this, but there is a sadness too. The waning of fertility – whether by nature or by choice – is a mark of age from the inside out, different from slackening skin and greying hair, but difficult just the same. Maybe this is why so many women entertain the possibility of another child, however vaguely, however unlikely, however much their husbands shake their heads: so they can stave off the moment of knowing for certain the end has come.
I am no longer one of those women. For me, there is only the reality that I will never go through the process of having another baby again and, with it, the closing of the curtain on a period of time that has been the most defining of my life so far. Who will I be when I am no longer the mother of small children? I guess I’ll find out soon enough.