Friday, September 3, 2004


Snip by Marrit Ingman
Photo by Sarah Patton

Any minute now my husband is going to come in here and ask me to help him shave his scrotum. Sigh. And then I'll put him in a diaper and spank him. Not really. (Unless he asks nicely.)

He's going in for the vasectomy tomorrow. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to think about that. We've talked and talked and talked about this. We're both agreed that it's the Right Thing for us. Still I feel kind of weird. I know exactly why. What if something happened to my son?

"Yeah, well, what if?" my mom said. "It's not as if having another child would mitigate your loss." Okay, she didn't say "mitigate your loss" exactly. But that's what she meant. And the woman knows whereof she speaks.

My older sister (and only sibling) died when I was nine. My parents never pressured me to make up for that, but I always felt like I had to. I was old enough to recognize how sad they were, and I wanted to ease their grief by being "good." That's part of the reason I never really acted up. The other part was that I wasn't the acting-up kid. That was her. She was the one who wanted to wear makeup "too young" and did stuff that seemed to presage adolescent flamboyance and extroversion. I was the little dork who did her spelling homework. I sincerely enjoyed it.

Then a few years ago I saw "In the Bedroom," and I remember quite well the scene in which the parents questioned their choice to have only one child. They had wanted to balance child-rearing with their careers. Was that selfish? They regretted that decision now, placing their hopes and dreams in a child, a child who did everything right but was still mortal and frail after all.

Yesterday we hung pictures in our living room. We have a giant portrait of our son in the center of the arrangement. Will he grow up to curse us for putting him in the middle of our lives? Will it be too much pressure?

Maybe so. Maybe not. Maybe sometimes. I don't know.

At least once a day I wish I still had my sister in my life. It's hard to draw the line between those feelings and my feelings about having one child.

At the same time I have to listen to the wisdom of other mothers like me.

"He's the fourth," said the woman buying all-cotton sleepers at the store with me.

"If he'd have been my first, he would have been my last." Her kid had asthma and eczema and allergies and all that jazz.

My step-cousin Chad is the same way. Reflux and eczema, tons of energy, even now at age nine he hardly sleeps at night. He's a strange child. Smart and odd. We call him "the Tarkovsky child" because he's like a wise fool. He locked us all out of the house one year at Thanksgiving and laughed and laughed. He does not do his older brother's spelling homework. He is a magnet for calamity. Spiders bite him and his face swells up. He'll probably get struck by lighting or a meteorite. Just one of those people.

"If he'd been my first there would have been no more," his mother said to me once we were all back inside with the turkey. She pointed her fork at me. "No more."

"I was the pain-in-the-ass kid," a friend of mine told me. "Allergic to everything. Mom stopped after me." No ill will there on my friend's part.

Yet it kind of sucks going into the second half of life an only child. My husband and I have two sets of aging parents with chronic health problems, and I'm trying to imagine all four of them in the house with us losing control of their bowels. Then again, it's not as if having a sibling is a guarantee of help. My mom busts her ass taking care of my grandmother, who has dementia and congestive heart failure, while my uncle goes to Belize.

Even when it's the Right Thing there is still a sort of grief involved. I'm sorry that my son will never have a baby brother or sister to hug. Or tease. Or elbow in the ribs. I had that and I lost it. I wish I could know my sister now. I think she'd drive a Miata and wear stiletto heels. Drink girly drinks. Work in marketing. I think she'd be kind of a hoot yet different enough from me that we'd argue about politics and gender and dating and life.

I worry that my son won't have a tribe of people. Even if we knock ourselves out bringing people into his life, they will never be there permanently the way family is. They will move away, get new jobs, go back to school, become busy. Your family is there even if you wish they'd go away.

Sometimes I feel irrational and angry. My kid is a good kid. He's smart and nice and thoughtful. He'd be a good brother. Why do we have these fucked-up allergic genes? On those moments—and I am not proud of this, but I won't lie—I turn to his father. It's your fault, I think (and sometimes say). My people are hardy. Your people are frail and sensitive to mold. They go into cardiac arrest when you put Betadine on them. Not my people.

But of course it is because of his father also that he is a smart and nice and thoughtful kid.

So we will go forward and do what we can. I don't think our marriage and our sanity could survive having another child. We know our limitations and we respect them. We believe that being sane, happy, loving parents is the best thing for a kid. This is our choice. We stand by it.

But I still wonder.

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