Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose
By Jennifer Berney
A friend of mine once observed that I was “deeply monogamous” by nature. She said it one day while I was talking about my dogs. It was odd, I remarked, that even though my partner and I had adopted two dogs in the years we’d been together, and even though I fed and cared for both, I only thought of one of them as mine.
“That’s because you are deeply monogamous.” She said it offhandedly, as if it were something she’d always known, and it struck me that she was right.
At the time, I very badly wanted to have a child, and her comment haunted me as I planned my future family. If I was monogamous by nature, prone to focusing my affections on one object at a time, then perhaps it would be a mistake to have more than one. If I had two children, would I see them the same way I saw my dogs? Would I feed them both and clothe them both, but allow only one to sit close to my heart?
When my first son was born, several friends warned me that a single child would not quell my biological urge, that I would crave baby after baby the same way I craved chocolate after dinner. But this did not turn out to be true. As Harlan grew older, I sometimes felt a twinge of nostalgia for his newborn smell, his wispy hair, but for the most part I felt capable of moving on. My body had filled its quota. I could have stopped. But I didn’t.
Though my own biology didn’t pull at me, something else did: I wanted Harlan to have a sibling. The tug of this was gentle. It was a voice that I put off for years, but it was insistent. You have big expectations, it whispered. It might be better to spread them out between two children. The voice urged me to consider my own siblings—two sisters and two brothers—and the way they helped me understand my place in the world. I didn’t want to deny my son that sense of self-knowledge and belonging.
And so we conceived our second son. As he grew inside me, his brother spoke to him through the wall of my belly with ardent devotion. But the moment he arrived, I felt instantly torn. Harlan, who was now four, still hadn’t learned to sleep through the night on his own. Every night he’d wake and call for me, but I couldn’t come to him. I had to stay in my own bed to hold and nurse the baby. My partner replaced me.
In the daylight hours, Harlan would ask things of me, like to sit at the table and draw with him or help him make a puzzle. I couldn’t do these things because I was holding the baby, or nursing the baby, or changing the baby’s diaper. It was disheartening: Harlan had finally reached the age where he was an engaged conversationalist, a steady companion. These were the things that I had looked forward to, but I could no longer fully enjoy them.
At the time, I reassured myself that this era was temporary, that this is simply what it meant to have a newborn. But now, two years later, this reality persists. I cannot, for instance, play Candyland with Harlan while his brother Andy is home, because within minutes he will disrupt our figures and toss the cards across the room. If given the chance, Andy would tear the board along the seam with his brute strength.
Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.
But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others. These days when I put on a favorite album, my two sons dance across the living room, shaking their booties and kicking the air, and I laugh from a bright place that would have been unfamiliar to me in the years before I was a parent.
Every morning, Andy stands outside Harlan’s door and fiddles with the knob, crying “Bro-Bro? Bro-Bro?” until I carry him back to the kitchen. When Harlan finally wakes and emerges bleary-eyed from his room, Andy coos his name and leans in for a hug. Sometimes I stand from a distance and admire their devotion. Other times I get down on my knees to join the embrace.
Even when things are hard—when Andy dismantles Harlan’s Lego rocket ship by chucking it across the room, and when Harlan slaps him in retaliation, I feel grateful for conflict as a teacher. “I hate your attitude!” Harlan shouts at his oblivious little monster of a brother, and I laugh at these hot moments, where both children must come to terms with the fact that the world won’t always bend to them. This is a lesson I want them to learn.
Every day I remind myself that this is the life I’ve chosen, a life of two children, both of them rowdy and loving. It’s a life that, quite frankly, my introverted, monogamous self was not designed for. But though it is an awkward fit, it is indeed my life. These are indeed my boys. Several times a week they prove it by attacking me on the couch and making farting noises against my bare belly, the same belly that now jiggles and sags from having carried them. My boys giggle wildly at their antics and my body.
It’s too much—all of it: the kisses and the screams, the dancing and the fights, the sleepless nights and the cuddles in the morning. It’s a life that stretches me beyond what I ever would have imagined. These boys have twisted me into a woman I barely recognize: a woman who’s aged visibly over the last three years but willing (mostly) to let go of her vanity; a woman who can be stern and loving in alternate breaths; a woman who finds the frayed end of her patience daily and either fails or succeeds at remaining calm.
The life I didn’t choose would have been rewarding, I think. It would have been restful, and sensible. But richness and growth, spontaneity and joy, those come at a price too.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.