Ten years ago, my husband and I were in the midst of our premarital counseling, guided by the pastor of my childhood church. In preparation for each session, we filled out questions in a little booklet, challenging ourselves to consider how we planned to approach conflict, finances, and of course, family planning, as a married couple. Did we want children? How many? How long did we want to wait before trying to grow our family?
As one of three siblings, I liked the idea of three kids. My husband, as one of two, liked the idea of two. We are both 2-3 years apart from our sibling(s) and agreed that we liked that age gap. But I always said, somewhat jokingly, that when we got to that point, “Let’s start with one and see how it goes.” That, plus “the five year plan is to ask us in five years” let us comfortably sit the idea of childrearing on the back burner for the time being.
Five years into our marriage, I began to feel the puzzle pieces shift into place. I finally felt “ready,” that indescribable shift from feeling completely freaked out by the idea of having a baby to thinking that maybe it would be okay. The fact that we followed through on “the five year plan is to ask us in five years” was an unintended irony; I thankfully never felt pressured by that imaginary clock or anyone in my life.
The expectation that I would someday be a mother came to fruition fairly easily, all things considered. Pregnancy was neither glowing nor traumatic; I battled morning sickness during the first trimester but felt like that was par for the course. My epidural worked gloriously and I only pushed for 30 minutes. We had our ups and downs, our sleepless nights and crying days, but it largely looked like all the targets were lined up and we knocked them down.
But when my son was about 18 months old, the weight of another expectation began to loom large in my mind. If we wanted to hold to our plan of a 2-3 year sibling gap, I needed to think about getting pregnant again, and soon. The only problem? I was NOT ready. My mind could not and would not recreate that feeling of “let’s go for it, it’ll be okay.” My type-A planning personality was coming into jagged conflict with the gut-deep knowledge that I was not prepared to have another child.
Of course, in the throes of this period of shifting expectations, it didn’t seem so clear cut to me. The first signs of trouble were the tears - mine, lots of them, at random times for seemingly random reasons. My mom and husband voiced their concerns, suggesting that maybe I should talk to someone. For a few weeks, I said I’d think about it, then got back to the business of crying out my immediate feelings and restoring a level-headed mindset for another few days. But when the tears came back, again and again, I knew it was time to try something new.
That first call, that initial email, the admission that I needed outside help, was the hardest. I had already delayed reaching out for a few weeks, but finally hit “send.” My cry for help went to my church, which has a program called Stephen Ministers. Stephen Ministers are lay-people who go through an extensive training to be equipped to walk alongside people in need of a listening ear. They’re not therapists or counselors, but in my mind, are sort of a pre-therapy stepping stone. If they felt I needed professional help, they would make that recommendation. But for now, I would be matched with someone who would come to my house once a week to just listen to me word vomit, offer their perspective as a Christian woman, and pray for my hot mess self.
I don’t remember much of my initial meeting with the program coordinator, who asked questions about what I was struggling with so they could match me with a volunteer. What I do remember is sobbing in our church library, surrounded by used tissues, trying to articulate that life was just HARD, though by most external measures there was nothing wrong. I do remember saying something to the effect of “What if I come out of motherhood, and the cost is ME?” What if a few years down the road, there is a happy, healthy child, but nothing left of Hannah? It sounds very dramatic to write that down in such stark terms, but I’ve browsed enough of the internet and social media to be confident that many of you will know exactly what I mean.
I met with a wonderful woman named Cindy for about seven months. It was in those meetings, consisting of me rambling on the couch after my son’s bedtime, that I began to unpack just how deeply my long-held expectations were weighing on me. I’d always thought I wanted 2-3 kids with a 2-3 year age gap. Turns out, I didn’t want that. So simple, but jarring to the core, and hidden behind the stress of everyday life. Some of my friends who gave birth to their first child the same year as me were pregnant again. They were obviously ready, so why wasn’t I? When would I be ready again? Would I ever be ready again?
Spoiler alert, I still don’t have the answer to that question. My son is 3, and still my only. I don’t feel like a seat is missing at the table, but I’m also not ready to declare myself one and done. Am I selfish for finding joy in the fact that things have gotten easier as he grows, that there is now more room for “me” amidst the “us?” Is it wrong to place my relative contentment with our current situation above a potential sibling bond? I know that if I were to be surprised with a second child, I’d find a way to manage (probably by getting connected with another Stephen Minister a lot sooner). But if I don’t want to intentionally have another, is that wisdom or fearful self-centeredness?
Am I denying my son a sibling connection, or giving him the gift of my undivided attention and resources? How will I feel when he’s grown, if there are only three of us around the Thanksgiving table? Yet maybe, as Cindy offered, God has called me to be a mom of one. Maybe because there is a great challenge yet to come, or maybe because that’s simply what’s right for our family.
It can be frustrating to live in this state of limbo. I’ve pretty well released the expectation of a 2-3 age gap, thanks in part to the simple march of time, but haven’t quite figured out whether I want more children or not. The pressure of the decision is coming from no one except myself, which is a lot harder to buck off than external comments. Some days, I’m comforted by the thought that I never have to potty train again if I don’t want to. I try to find contentment in the sweet moments with my son and not get too caught up in what future Hannah might think. For now, we’re still living in “let’s have one and see how it goes.”