Wrestling with Control

Two very different pieces about having children made me catch my breath this week.

Mandy, my friend and 2014 Listen to Your Mother: Raleigh-Durham cast member, had her first piece published in Mamalode this week and in it she muses movingly on the pros and cons of having a fourth child:

I want my two living children to have another sibling.

I want them to have the playmates I never had growing up. (I am one of four, but my siblings are from my mother’s first marriage and are much older than I.)

I want them to have a larger support system when they get older and have to deal with their aging parents.

And, more than anything, if through some terrible and cruel fate, we lose one of them, I don’t want the other to be left alone. Our daughter was only 17-months-old when she died—we have decades left during which something could happen to one of our two living children.

I want my two living children to have another sibling.

And concludes:

What I understand now is that I am not in control of very much at all that happens to my children, and in order to manage my fear, I must accept how little control I have.

And then there was this article making the case for having an only child by Wendy Thomas Russell.  One-and-done by choice, Thomas Russell aims for a bit of levity with a not-so-funny Top 10 list about why having one child is great, but she makes a similar point as Mandy did:

Listen, I’m not saying the only-child scenario is a perfect one. I’m the first to acknowledge that there are some disadvantages to capping our family tree so soon.

Once, at a hotel in San Diego, Maxine, then four, found a friend and began skipping along the concrete rim of a courtyard fountain. The rim was plenty wide and not much more than two feet off the ground, but my husband was hovering. Every 30 seconds or so, he reminded Maxine to “slow down” or “be careful.”

At one point, he turned to me. “I know I’m over-protective,” he said, “but I can’t help it. She’s our only one. We don’t have a backup.”

And it’s true: If we lose our daughter, we lose everything. It’s like we’ve put all our money into one stock without knowing whether it’s a high- or low-risk investment. Parents who have two or more children are diversified; the experts would surely agree that’s a smart way to live, right?

Smart, maybe. But it’s not foolproof.

There isn’t, and would never have been, a replacement for my Maxine. A second child could not lessen the grief of losing her. Perhaps the distraction of a second child would help me get up in the morning during those early months — but I don’t believe in bringing children into the world to act as a distraction in the case of some theoretical tragedy.

Having a child is a risk of the heart. Every day we parents get to experience the unrelenting joy of watching our children drink from the fountain of life while crossing our fingers that they don’t fall off the edge. We all do. Whether we have one child or five.

Both pieces were kicks in the gut. I’m thrilled and happy for Mandy but envious as hell. And it isn’t only she I envy; there have been many pregnancy announcements in the last year that have roused my green-eyed monster. Let me be clear: I can be envious AND happy for them at the same time. But I still feel the hot wash of shame in admitting I am envious. There seems no room for that emotion in polite society. And while it is inappropriate and inaccurate to say someone “deserves” good fortune (what is the criteria for that??), my shame at my envy is more acute with Mandy since she has had some truly horrific experiences. It feels churlish to feel envy even though my envy is more about me than it is about her.

Like the author of the second piece, I suppose we are technically “one-and-done” by choice as well. It doesn’t really feel like a choice though. Not when we consider our ages, our jobs, the huge cost just to try, and the fact we have a young child to whom we want to give a good life. And he will be 6 soon. At what point is there a diminishing return at having a sibling? Which leaves the other option as doing nothing, which is painful since we have 5 frozen embryos. Six-year-old frozen embryos.

I researched definitions of choice today because again, it doesn’t really feel like a choice. I discovered there is something called Hobson’s Choice, meaning that you really have only one option: accept it or don’t. That seems to be accurate – either we try for a sibling or don’t – but it doesn’t convey the weight and variables involved. Then I researched dilemma. Dilemma means two possibilities, neither of which is acceptable. That definition gets me closer to how I feel. It acknowledges the major hurdles we have to try for a second child as well as the cavernous hole I feel about not having a second.

Of course, this is an academic exercise. We try so hard to define different types of choices in order to make sense of our world, to reassure ourselves we have an iota of control. In fact, control is an illusion. We like to think we have broken the world to our will like a stubborn horse, but the joke is on us.

Both of the pieces I linked to are ultimately about control and our lack of it. What I am angry about is our inability to control our family building and what our family looks like. The fact that we had so little choice in how things turned out, so few options.

But that’s me. Us. Others may feel and find that lack of control and the illusion of choice in other areas, other pain points.

I cannot control much, but I can try to start making peace with that realization. Focusing on what we do have instead of what never will be.

That’s a choice within my power. In truth, it is freeing to know so much is beyond our control. That frees us from blame and fault. And guilt, that ever-present foe.

I don’t know about you, but I could use a life with a lot less self-blame and guilt.


  1. Powerful pieces, both of them. I don’t envy your dilemma at all. I mentioned on FB that sometimes we think we want to try for a 3rd b/c of the sentiments expressed in that first article (well, not only because of that, but it’s the only reason compelling enough for me to even consider going through the emotional mess of TTC and if that is successful, the physical mess that is how my body (doesn’t) handle pregnancy)… at any rate, I wish our path for this was more clearly laid out, because it’s so damn tough to have to realize we don’t have a whole lot of control over it.

  2. Control. I struggle so so much with the lack of control I have in this matter. Choice. Dilemma. Control. I applaud the academic exercise of trying to define it all. But at the end of the day it all just sucks balls.

  3. Control, what a key point in all fertility discussions. My decision to stop pursuing treatment was a way for me to take control of my body and my life. ART itself is an effort to exert control over fertility which can be suppressed rather easily, but not bolstered very well.

    I’m sorry to hear about your six year old embryos – I had not known that before 😦 And I too can admit my envy. You’re not alone (((HUGS)))

  4. Oh man, letting go of the illusion of control is the worst. I struggle so much. I’ve been resisting deciding what’s next and if we are done with building our family or not because… well, because not deciding is itself a way to feel in control. I hope you have peace with whatever is next and that the guilt goes away. Pesky guilt.

  5. I had A LOT of feelings reading that post by your friend from LTOYM and I want to write a post about it myself soon. I hope it doesn’t fall by the wayside of my life right now, because it was something I processed for a long time after I read it, especially after I ready Josey’s comment on your FB posting of it. So yeah, I get that this churns up a lot of feelings, though of course mine will be different from yours, though in the end I guess they aren’t–because in the end it really does come down to a need to cede the control we never had, or I guess to cede the belief that we have control, that we can create contingency plans and that all will be well if we just do or accomplish A, B and C. It’s so excruciating to accept that we have no control, but I try to, little by little, each day. We’ll see if I ever get there.

  6. This post. I don’t know what to say except that I love it. Though we want to have another (and secretly I worry about many of the things in the first post), we keep being met with stumbling blocks – some of them our choices but choices we feel are the best for our family even though the have, so far, prevented us from expanding our family again. Dilemma indeed.

  7. This resonated with me because I have been thinking a lot about choice lately. We really emphasize individual choices as the basis of life in secular Western culture. Especially around family building (this excludes people who follow religious proscriptions against birth control). As a sub-fertile couple, we can choose to not have children, or not have more children, obviously. But is it still a choice if we can’t also choose to have children or more than one? Because for infertiles and sub-fertiles choose/want does not equal GET. While I’m all for good and thoughtful choices in life and especially around parenting, the emphasis on choice rings hollow for me. I’m not ready to become a fatalist, but at the same time my life and my family are shaped by things other than my choices, and it feels wrong to put personal choice up on a pedestal.

  8. Girlfriend, you are speaking my language. I am newly pregnant after 5 years of beating my head against the wall of unexplained IVF failure, and I spent more time than I’d like to admit raging at the cosmos because the lack of control over my own fate was so maddening. In this zone, where you can’t just lay down and make a baby, easy peasy, there are so many impossible choices that we navigate best we can, but you’re right when you say that some of that precision is just an illusion. I wish you peace and foresight with the choice you presently face, and I’m glad Mel nudged me in your direction with the Round-Up this week 🙂

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