July 9, 2008
What to expect when you’re not sure you’re done expecting
How to handle it when your body says "no" to more children but your heart says "yes"
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?