At 30, my friend Lisa had two toddlers, a workaholic husband and an interrupted career as a pediatrician. Exhausted from being a full-time mom, she looked forward to the time when her kids would go to school and she could resume her career, or as she used to say, "Regain my sanity and get on with my life."
Debi Pomerantz and her husband Mike Mendelson with
their kids, from left, Zane, Anya, Coby and Bailey Mendelson.
Photo courtesy Debi Pomerantz
When her husband suggested having another baby, she balked, telling him she would agree only if he would carry it and stay home until baby No. 3 was old enough to go to school. Needless to say, there was no third baby. Ten years later, Lisa has two teenagers, the same husband, a flourishing practice and from my perspective, all signs pointing to a lovely life.
But one night on the phone, she confesses to me about the "voices" -- the voices in her head that keep telling her she feels empty. I tell her the story about the man who picked up radio signals via the fillings in his mouth. She ignores me and tells me she knows it's about wanting another baby. That she wants to have another kid, and it's too late.
I gently point out that lots of 40-year-old women have babies, and she mourns the fact that although her body might be able, her mind and the rest of her family is not. "A baby at this stage would wreak havoc," she says.
I hang up the phone and remember her conviction all those years ago, her certainty that she didn't want any more children, could not have any more children. Who could know in the aftermath of what seemed like the right decision, that she would regret it all these many years later. That now, when there's more money, settled careers and more time, the opportunity would be gone?
Although her decision had been made years ago, she was finally mourning the knowledge that there would be no more children for her. She was done expecting, yet hadn't known what to expect next, nor did she know what to do with what she was feeling.
What to expect when you're done expecting?
It's a question that got me thinking about the factors that go into making the decision to be done. Is it money? The amount of love you think you have to go around? Two parents who can't agree on what they want? Or, in Lisa's case, pure physical exhaustion?
Once that decision is made, what are the emotional ramifications that often are felt long after the decision has been made? What do you do next? Who are you?
I had questions, and through the magic of the Internet, I was able to ask them of women all over the country. Why did you decide not to have any more children? Have you ever regretted the decision? What did you do/how did you feel when your last child started school? Do you think you are defined by your children?
The responses I got were varied, running the gamut from "I could barely afford the one child I had" to "the decision was made for me after my husband ran off with our neighbor."
The truth, of course, was there were many stories of women with fertility issues who could only have one child and women with fertility issues who ended up having three and four. Many, like Lisa, regretted the decision to stop at one or two long after the stork had made its last drop.
For some of these women, it was truly empty-nest syndrome. For others, it was about feeling their families were not complete.
And then there were still others like Jill. Jill had three children, the youngest being 6. She was on the fence about having another baby, but the window was closing, and she knew she had to make a decision.
An "accidental" fourth pregnancy ended in miscarriage. But this sad time helped define for her what was at the root of her "baby wavering." She realized she didn't want another baby; she just wasn't ready to be the parent of grade-school kids.
She understood the toddler thing. She could easily relate to the 4- and 6-year-olds. It was the 9-year-olds that scared her, and the thought of being a parent to teenagers terrified her. But that wasn't a reason to have another baby, and so she closed the store.
And Jill is OK with her decision. Some women wrote me of feeling angry that they wanted another baby and their spouse didn't. And some women wrote me of feeling angry that having another baby was not financially viable. And there was Gail, who after the death of her oldest child regretted only having two.
And many women, some in their20s, some in their 30s and many who had finished having babies years ago, wrote of feeling sad. Sad that the period of life when their children were small was long over or just ending.
Many felt a little lost when it came to figuring out what their next step was supposed to be. When your last kid goes to school, are you supposed to get a job, do volunteer work, finally get back to the gym? For stay-at-home moms, what happens to that huge space of time that had previously been occupied by gym classes and mornings at the park? And if you've always worked, is there freedom or any less anxiety in finally knowing your baby is in school instead of day care or with the nanny?
My husband and I have four children. The decision to have four and not three or five was made early on. Somehow, it was the number we both agreed on. Or rather, it was the number we agreed would be the smallest number we would have.
Our shared propensity toward having a large family came from our own very small families. Growing up as observant Jews, we were each frequently surrounded by friends who had two, three and four siblings. We each had one, and as adults, we both felt we had missed out on something.
One of Judaism's basic tenets is p'ru r'vue, be fruitful and multiply. The high value placed on family is taken very seriously, especially among Orthodox Jews. And while I cannot say that I felt pressure to have more children because I am observant, I certainly have encountered larger families regularly and am certain this shaped my own desire. My husband and I wanted to give our children what we felt we never had -- the camaraderie of a large family.
Thinking about my own reasons for having a large family got me thinking about two of my friends, Leslie and Rebecca. They, too, have chosen to have large families but for vastly different reasons.
Like me, Leslie was raised in a traditionally observant home. We grew up together and spent our early 20s in New York, where I ultimately introduced her to her husband, who was observant but had been raised in a culturally Jewish, nonobservant home. I don't speak to Leslie much anymore but hear news of her through other friends.
She goes by the name of Golda now, and my friend Dave is Dovid. They live in Monsey, N.Y., in the middle of a Chasidic community, where her children attend a Yiddish-speaking cheder. She is pregnant at 41 with her eighth child, and I know there will be Nos. 9 and 10 if God wills it. They do not believe in birth control, and so her decision to be done having children will be no decision at all, rather it will be her body telling her it is done.
Whether or not she looks upon this as pressure, I don't know. And I wonder when she is finally done if she will feel sad or relieved.
When she no longer has any children in the house, will she enjoy the silence or wish for more kids? As one who has spent her entire adult life giving birth, her expectations for when she is finally done will be very different from those of someone who chooses to be done.
And then there is my friend Rebecca, the proud, exhausted mother of five teenagers. Although she loves all of her children madly and could not imagine a day without any of them, she is the first to admit she bowed to the pressure she felt.
Rebecca grew up in a family of six kids. Each of her siblings have at least four kids, and they knew this was expected of them, so they followed suit.
Rebecca did not grow up in a religious home. Hers was clouded with memories of the Holocaust. Both sets of Rebecca's grandparents were survivors, and she spent her childhood celebrating each family success with refrains of "see, those bastards didn't kill us."
During her formative years, both of her grandmothers repeatedly told her and her siblings that it was their duty to the family and to the Jewish people as a whole to have large families. After Rebecca had her fifth child, a number she thought to be more than acceptable to her now-dead grandmothers, she breathed a huge sigh of relief.
I remember when Rebecca's youngest went off to kindergarten. She did not stand in the doorway waiting to see if he would transition, she went running to the nearest ad agency and got herself the copywriting job she had given up when she was pregnant with her first. She is now the vice president of that agency. When she was done expecting, she expected her life to change -- and it did.
For my husband and I, the window for having more children is open only about an inch right now, and I'm pretty sure we're going to let it close. I am also only 41, but there are days I feel 20 and many more days when I feel 60. And while you learn to exist at a certain level of sleeplessness, I am tired and can't fathom staying up with an infant right now. We both work, and how much can we really give to another child?
But truly, my heart could take 10 more. And so, as my baby rushes to catch up to his brother and sisters, unlike my friend Rebecca, I can't help but think: What do I do now?
I gave birth to four children in four and a half years. That pretty much means I was pregnant for four years running. That's a long time to feel bloated and cranky and more exhausted than anyone should ever have to feel.
I didn't glow. I complained constantly and hated every minute of it. For me, the only upside was the beautiful little creature that came at the end of each of those periods. And even though every single miserable minute was etched in my brain like nails on a chalkboard, I realize that being pregnant so consistently defined me.
Even though I have always had a job, in my head I have never allowed myself to be defined by my career. But here I am, admitting I was defined by these pregnancies. And I know it is because I liked that people thought I was crazy to keep having kids one after the other.
It was chaotic (still is), but it wasn't hard. It made me feel powerful and incredibly competent to know that I could carry baby number four inside me and still deal effectively with my 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds. And that feeling has remained throughout these past few years as I have directed my children through toddlerhood. And I feel it every time we take our four young children out and inevitably someone says, "Are those all yours?" Yes!
But as my children grow older and more self-sufficient, that feeling of competency as a defining factor wanes. The reality is, they don't need me as much or in the same way. And I feel a little sad, which I expected, and I feel a little lost.
I am not afraid of letting my children grow up, just a little afraid of who I will be without the worrying of where my children are during the day, whether they can make it up the stairs by themselves, whether water was left in the wading pool and is anyone outside? I don't know who I am anymore. I'm not who I was, and I can no longer be who I have been for these past five years -- my children no longer need that mom.
But I also notice something new happening. As my small children become real people with self-planned play dates and afterschool activities, as well as the ability to read and offer real opinions, the fog is starting to lift. My sleepless nights, which lasted for a good six years, are fewer.
Three of my kids can buckle their own seatbelts, and we almost never have a stroller with us. We have just about completely given up sippy cups, and the high chair hasn't seen our dining room table in months.
Our lives are changing. My life as a mother, certainly, but also our life as a unit, as a family, is in a period of redefinition. I can see the time when we won't need a diaper bag, just a backpack to carry the unending supply of food my children seem to constantly crave. Maybe a bottle or two of water, and we'll definitely always need our wallets. But there is a new day upon us. I feel excited. And this I did not expect.
We are planning our first real vacation -- not to visit family, but to go play somewhere. And I am looking forward to it. I am not dreading the long plane ride (or the people on board who hate kids -- you know who I'm talking about) or worrying about how my kids will behave. Instead I am looking forward to watching them experience new things and enjoying each other in different environments.
And I realize I have learned a few things about myself along the way. I am never going to get my prepregnancy body back, and I should get rid of the entire wardrobe I have sitting in the garage. And I am never going to be the person I was before I got married and had kids. And not just because I no longer have the freedom to see three movies in a weekend or sit on my couch and read all day, but because I don't want to do those things. OK, sometimes I do, but I can also admit I enjoyed "Nim's Island," and there's nothing I'd rather do than lay on the couch while my 6-year-old reads "Ramona the Brave" to me.
I didn't get married until I was 32, and I clung fiercely to my independence. I refused to change my name and held steadfastly to my own checking account. I wasn't going to be an extension of my husband any more than I would allow myself to be defined by my job. I was so much more.
And then I started having kids. And I fought every step of the way, argued with my own voices -- how do I maintain myself in the midst of all this chaos called family. And it is only with this moving forward, only with this new excitement about where we are going as a family that I realize I can still be me; I can always be me. I'm just a different me.
And at the end of the day, who are we kidding? Of course we are defined by our jobs -- we spend 40-plus hours a week doing them. And of course, absolutely, we are defined by our children. How can we not be? We created them.
The key is realizing that this is not our only definition. We can still be our glorious selves. We can be mom. And we can be a sounding board for our girlfriends. And we can be career women. And we can be a girlfriend to our husbands on date night. And we are not solely defined by any one of these. We are completely defined by all of them.
So what am I going to do next? I am going to raise my children, push them out the door and grow old with my husband.
Debi Pomerantz is am L.A.-based writer. She is currently working on a book examining the issues surrounding What to Expect When You're Done Expecting in greater detail. Visit www.DoneExpecting.com or e-mail Debi at firstname.lastname@example.org.