siblings

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.