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"
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.
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