The decision of whether or not your family is complete can be a difficult one, polarizing partners. It is the rare couple that knows and agrees when they are finished having children. How do you know when you are done, and who gets to decide?
It is more personal than asking what candidate I voted for in the last election, more probing than how much money we make, and yet I am asked frequently by my family, my closest friends, another mother in the park or the person behind me in the checkout line, “Are you done having kids?” It is not the question that bothers me; it is something I think about often, but the best answer I can give is a cagy ‘depends who you ask.’ We have two sons, ages 4 and 1 and to be fair to my husband, I should say that he has already compromised once—he wanted 1, I wanted (and still want) 3. And we’re not alone. Many couples are torn on this issue, made more complicated by the multiple arguments in both directions and the gravity, the irreversibility of the decision.
The time-money conundrum
Do we have the resources of time and money to add another person to our family? There is the family with one child who can afford to shower every resource, every luxury on them and for whom the thought of anyone, even a sibling, casting a shadow over their Only is unthinkable. Then there is the family with six children who accepts that they will go to college on scholarships, believes that the gift they are giving them is lifelong sibling relationships.
In an unofficial poll of my friends, I have come to the conclusion that every family has a max-out point, where their temporal, financial and emotional resources are tapped out. Until this is reached, someone in the relationship wants to fill the void. You know Mother Nature and her abhorrence of vacuums. My cousin, pregnant with her second and probably final baby said her accountant husband showed her a chart that illustrated how for each child you have, you can add seven years to your retirement age. I don’t worry so much about money, (well, we always worry about money) but I worry about love, that I have too much of it. I am afraid that my two sons will sizzle under the white-hot tractor beams of my burning affection and attention. Another child, I believe, will help to dissipate some of the glare of the spotlight.
The Thanksgiving issue
Picture this: my oldest son driving home from college for Thanksgiving weekend with his new girlfriend and she says, “So I’m going to meet your family—tell me who will be there.” And he says, “Well, my mom, my dad and my brother.” That’s not Thanksgiving with the family! Thanksgiving is my parents, my extended relatives, my four siblings, their spouses, their kids, any extra in-laws or random college students staying for the weekend. It is big dogs stealing food off the table, cats curling on your back by the fire, gorging yourself on roasted chestnuts and everywhere, underfoot, children, the peaceful din of chaos. My husband is the only child of two classical musicians. Thanksgiving meant a concert with dinner at a restaurant or maybe Grandmother’s afterwards. How does your vision of Thanksgiving shape the size of your family? Does your picture of family holidays include lots of members, lots of animals and general mayhem, or is there more control, more quiet, less chaos?
Nita J. Holmes, a marriage and family therapist says, “Never underestimate the power of the unconscious or even conscious loyalties that one has to his/her family of origin. Even when we can rationalize a better way of doing things there is a piece of us that longs for the comfortable old pattern we know so well from our past, that family system we grew up in. Poor or exceptional, it was ours.” She compares the family of origin attachment to the old worn out blanket we held on long after we grew beyond the toddler years. “The blanket no longer has enough material to keep us warm but we continue to cling to it because its what we know and it makes us feel safe and in control.”
Fear of the unknown
“We have two great, healthy kids? Why do you want to take the risk that the next one might have problems, or worse, could be twins?”
Pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood are not risk-free—how many times should we roll the dice?
The counter argument for me is what if we had let fear stop us after our first child, who was born with several serious health problems, from having a second? What would our life be without our second son, Max?
But without both partners on board, this baby and the outcome become the responsibility of the partner who pushed. What if we throw caution to the wind, have the baby I want, and what if it is healthy, thank goodness, but cries inconsolably for the first six months? Every screaming moment, I will feel my husband’s eyes boring into me with the silent accusation, ‘this was your idea.’ How much should you let fear of the unknown dictate your decision?
The gender question
Everyone knows a large single-gender family, the boys’ basketball coach who ended up with enough daughters to start his own team in the quest for a son. Is it fair to the child, to the family, to have ‘just one more’ in hopes of a boy or girl? Is this where the ethics of sperm-spinning, of selecting for gender for personal preference comes in? Can we do this? Should we do this?
Baby-craving; It’s not just for Moms
Jane, a 31-year-old mother of four says that her husband confessed that his late night Internet browsing of dog breeds to find the best puppy was just a replacement for him wanting number 5. Oliver, a 28-year-old father of 2 cancelled the vasectomy appointment his wife scheduled the day before. When his wife warned him of the huge cancellation fees they might incur, he told her “I would pay $25,000 to have the opportunity to have one more baby with you.” Male voices like these give women like me pause over the benefits of polygamy or communal living. But when the roles are traditional, when the woman is responsible for carrying and giving birth to the baby and the majority of the care to follow, should the male voice carry less weight?
No compromise or return policy
Unique to most marital issues is the lack of opportunity for compromise or a trial period. When one partner wants one more baby and the other doesn’t, somebody will lose. It seems that the ‘no’ vote has to win, as it is unfair to bring an unwanted child into the family. The contrary argument is that once here, the reluctant partner would undoubtedly fall in love with this child and even be unable to imagine life without him or her. And how can a couple move towards resolution when there is one partner who will be happy if nothing changes? Where is the motivation of the partner who thinks the family is complete to hear the other’s point of view?
Kelly, a labor and delivery nurse and mother of two has finally conceded that for the sake of her marriage, her husband’s professed inability to be able to handle a third child will be the decision. “I love my husband, and I really hear that he doesn’t feel capable of having another child in order to be the father he wants to be to our daughters. But I don’t feel that way, and I don’t understand it,” she says. “He knows that this is selfish, and he knows that he is going to have to experience my grief process. A big part of that is going to be anger.”
The experts speak
Kevin Roth, a Marriage and Family Therapist says, “How you decide is key. Important issues like family size may need the assistance of counseling. Because so much is at risk, emotional reactivity can be high on this matter, making it extremely difficult to want to hear where your partner is coming from. People are meaning makers, that is, we assign meaning or motive to another’s behavior in order to make sense out of it. When a spouse does something that you find hurtful, your tendency will be to come up with a story to explain their behavior. This explanation will fit your personal narrative, which was shaped by early life experiences. Left unexamined, your narrative or story can create big problems in a relationship. The most frequent missteps come when we unconsciously turn our partner into a parent or we regress and become a child.”
He encourages couples to find the right person to help them hear each other. “A good therapist can offer the relationship a presence that lacks emotional attachment to your issues. This does not mean that a therapist would handle their own issues any better than you, but that your situation does not involve their partner! Good therapy can also provide a safe container to process important decisions. It’s a simple maxim; a good process will achieve a good outcome.”
Mark Carlson, a couples counselor in Southampton, PA adds that one tool partners can use to hear each other is to talk about the issue in terms of all of the five senses. For one, ‘baby’ might sound like soft coos and first words, where the other person sees the word ‘baby’ and hears the screeching wails of a colicky newborn.
Will I Ever Be Done?
I have a feeling that there is someone else waiting to join our family. I see this baby in my dreams, another crazy combination of our genes. I witness the changes our dynamic duo undergoes to become a triad. If given the chance to experience it all one more time, the sweet bubbling movements inside me, the delicious nine months of anticipation, meeting that perfect, wrinkled face for the first time, breastfeeding in those lovely pink dawn hours, seeing my husband tumble headfirst into love with our child, deepening the bond between us, if I could experience this just once more, I think I would be able to be done. But my husband’s very real fear is that I am one of those women who may never be done. I mourn the chubby toddler cheeks disappearing into the angled face of a child. Even as I relish each achievement, it stings to watch the babies I carried eat their sandwich crusts into gun shapes and shoot at each other over the lunch table. What if I become the middle-aged woman who can’t throw away her pack and play, just in case? I think he is afraid I will never be done having babies, when our family doesn’t need more children. What can I say to that? Perhaps I am just in love with the newness of it all, of the prospect that with each new life that we bring into the world, we have the potential to be a part of creating something grand. Perhaps this child will be the one to cure cancer, or simply the one to carry my husband’s problem solving skills, his athletic prowess, my creativity and sensitivity, into the next generation. Maybe I am just craving to the way a baby feels when it falls asleep on your chest, heart to heart, full of trust. Maybe I am addicted to the surge of optimism that surrounds that new life, and the possibility, and the hope…. But aren’t we all?
Chandra Hoffman, now mother of three, continues to ponder this topic with her husband while they both thoroughly enjoy their two sons and young daughter. Her first novel, CHOSEN, will be published by HarperCollins in August.