By Denise Ullem
Six years ago, when my husband and I finally decided that we would have two children—not three, not four, but two—it proved to be one of the hardest choices. Our conversations over many months ranged from the pragmatic reality of college tuition to the emotional, procreational pull of life. My husband finally said to me,
“You know, babe, one of the children does have the to be the last.”
* * *
My alarm chimes into the early morning. I stretch into the darkness, wince at the time and hoist myself out of my cozy cocoon. One of my bedroom windows looks east; I gaze out onto the pink hues of the rising sun as it outlines each barren tree. I slowly walk to the hall and receive a bear hug from Abby, who’s ten. Her blond head tucks just at my shoulder. I pull her back and soak her up; as I beam at her, she blossoms and her smile takes over her face. “Good morning, sweet one,” I whisper.
“Morning! I’ve already read for 20 minutes and I’m going to eat breakfast.”
She bounds down the stairs.
I then enter the stark contrast of Henry’s room. He’s seven. His rumpled bed holds him as he stares out his window at the same, barren trees. Molasses runs through his veins; he is slow and sweet. His pajama-clad arms reach up, exposing the pale, almost bluish white of his wrists. I bend down and his flanneled, heavy body snuggles into mine. I soak him up. As I head downstairs, I trail a litany of reminders, Socks, Underwear AND Teeth, H.
Henry and I drive Abby to school. The sun has progressed in its journey and fills the morning with silvery light. Abby hops purposefully from the car, carrying her instrument and her backpack heavy with homework. She pauses and turns back toward me. A quiet smile passes over her face and she thanks me for the ride. She strides away. Away to her independent day.
Henry and I head home and ride in our usual companionable silence. We have about 20 minutes before his bus comes. He is, of course, hungry again. He shovels in a second bowl of oatmeal before we walk to the bus stop. The silvery light has shifted, now holding more promise of a sunny day. The yellow bus pulls up; even I feel small as it lumbers in front of us. Henry hugs me and then climbs up the steep, black stairs. He sits and immediately looks out the window. We wave and I throw kisses at him. He throws his own back. Squinting, I think I can see the faint crevice of his dimple and the broad span of his smile. The bus grumbles and drives away. I wave and he waves well past the time when we can see each other.
I swallow a lump. The same lump that arrives each and every time that bus departs, rumbling down our street, carrying Henry into his own, independent day.
I head into mine, too. Alone. No hands to hold or buckles to do, no bickering to deal with, no mad-dash bathroom runs. I make a quick trip to Costco. Every warehouse corner I turn reveals a young mother and her adorable baby, some old enough to ride shotgun in the cart’s passenger seat. One mother has two in the cart and one in a stroller. The round baby in the stroller reaches up to his mother, wanting more of her, more food, more. I envied her. His outstretched arms shortened his sleeves and revealed the chubby, pale skin of his wrists. I watched their profiles, his round cheek to her chiseled one, his youth to her experience.
Most days, I offer conciliatory and sympathetic smiles to those mothers-of-younger children. I usually adore my solo trip to the store with only my own desires to address. But this day, a subtle sadness creeps in and carries whispers and hints of the other children I know I won’t have, and the days I used to have with my own Abby and Henry, now off at school. Tears surprise me as they pour from my eyes. Head down, I push my cart, filled only with assorted sundries (nary a diaper to be seen!) to my empty minivan.
The memories flood. Henry’s supreme roundness and silky, chubby wrists. Night feedings with Abby as the moon cast a pale glow through her nursery windows. The sound of Henry nursing and the pink flush of his round cheeks. Abby’s cherub ringlets and her determined, two-year-old fervor. And their thighs. And their sweet baby breath. Oh, the sweet victory of a first smile. The warm weight of each of their bodies, hearts beating in tandem with mine.
I am never going to be pregnant again. Never again will I sit perched on the edge of the toilet seat, waiting (hoping!) to see the two pink lines on the stick. Never again will I scrunch up my face, wondering if that faint second line can truly be considered a line. I’ll never again take a second pregnancy test, see the two pink lines, get excited and then wonder what the two lines actually mean, then scramble for the instruction pamphlet to vet the fact that two pink lines do, in fact, equal pregnancy. I’ll never again keep the quiet, transformative secret of this little life growing within. I won’t ever again get to utter the words, “I’m pregnant.” Never again will I watch the heel of my baby push out of my abdomen, a brush with ancient mystery and tradition. The signals of my baby’s arrival will never again rack my body. Never again will I experience the fullness, the fecundity, the rush, the emotion, the connection to bigger world, coursing with life.
But I was there. I did it—those moments were a part of my life—I held those chubby wrists and fulfilled their owners’ demands. I pushed that Costco cart laden with warehouse-sized diapers and babies of various ages. I changed Henry’s diaper blowouts on the seats of my car while listening to Abby’s urgent pleas of having to go the bathroom RIGHT NOW.
Now, all the wrists in my house are slender and lean. The demands have shifted but, I remind myself, I still sit firmly in the thick of motherhood.
I doubt the decision to stop at two will ever feel exactly right, but, my husband was right—one of the children did indeed have to be the last. Maybe my yearning for another child is just the tick-tick-tocking of my biological clock. But maybe, just maybe, it’s also my intense gratitude for the miracle of this world, this life and these two children whom I get to call mine.
Denise Ullem lives in the Midwest with her husband and two children. On her blog, universalgrit.wordpress.com, she writes about the beautiful and harsh universalities of being a woman and mother. She is also a contributor to the Huffington Post.
Read Denise Ullem’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.