By Mandy Hitchcock
First, we took down the baby gate, leaving the wall scarred and torn. I walked up and down the stairs unencumbered, startled at the ease with which I crossed their threshold—no fumbling with a latch rickety from years of use, no extra seconds spent ensuring the gate was locked behind me. I felt liberated, as if the gate’s purpose had been to hold me back rather than my two small children. But on the outer edges of my consciousness, in that place that I notice only when it’s silent, I felt unsettled.
Next, I gave away all the baby clothes, then the baby gear. A few things remain—personalized gifts and handmade blankets that we’ll keep, and the stray teething ring or rattle that we sometimes find buried at the bottom of one of the many diaper boxes scattered around the house to hold toys.
Then we moved two-year-old Ada from her small nursery upstairs beside our bedroom into a room downstairs and across the hall from her four-year-old brother Jackson. We disassembled and reassembled the crib for the umpteenth but final time. As I passed the used-to-be nursery on my way to bed that night, I was startled by the open door and the dark, empty room where just that morning I’d plucked Ada from her crib and diapered and dressed her. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I felt a slight chill waft out of the gaping doorway.
And finally, my husband had a vasectomy. When I got his email about the appointment, I cried. I grieved, not only because we will have no more children, but because the two children living in my house are the only two children who will ever live in my house, even though I am a mother of three.
My oldest child Hudson died of a sudden and aggressive bacterial infection before her younger siblings were born. She was seventeen months old. Today she would be seven years old.
My husband and I always planned on having three children. It seemed like the right number to us—two not quite enough, four a touch too many. My own three siblings were so much older than I was that I was practically an only child. I’d always imagined a large-ish family—loud, fun-loving, squabble-prone, and fiercely devoted to one another. I pictured the five of us huddled together on the couch with a large bowl of popcorn, fighting over which movie to watch. I imagined us crowded into a packed car as we made our way across the country to fill our national park passports with stamps, pulling out of every campground shouting, “We’re off . . . like a herd of turtles!” I saw myself presiding over big gatherings years down the road when my kids and grandkids would come home for Christmas, little groups of cousins tearing through my shabby but well-loved house.
Little did I know how hard it might be to bring to life the filmstrip that had run through my head for so long. I got pregnant so easily the first time that I almost felt guilty—some of our friends had tried for so long to have a child. But now, eight years later—after one lightning-fast and ultimately fatal infection for our first child, a cancer diagnosis for me bookended by three more pregnancies, the final one ending in miscarriage—we still have only two living children.
Our decision to get pregnant that fourth time was tortured. Though we’d always wanted three living children, we were older than we ever thought we’d be while still having children, we were exhausted from nearly seven years of parenting very small kids, and we were ready to move on to a new phase of our lives. But we hadn’t let go of the idea of three kids under our roof. The notion of three became more urgent for me after our daughter died. I could not shake the fear that we might suffer the terrible fate of losing yet another child. I dreaded leaving one of my children alone with grieving—and later, aging—parents. We left the decision to fate, and when, unsurprisingly, I turned up pregnant, I thought I’d resolved any doubts I had. But the pregnancy never felt quite right. Perhaps it was my body’s way of telling me that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, but when the baby died at nine weeks, I had the brutal realization that as much as I wanted three living children, there was no point in trying to have another baby. I was trying to fix a problem that couldn’t be fixed. No matter how many children I had, I would never have the family of three I actually wanted, because I would never get my oldest daughter back.
Acceptance of this truth has come in long and painful stages. With each piece of baby gear I give away, each little shirt I picture on one of my own babies for the last time before packing it up, each time I buckle only two kids into the backseat of my car, I loosen my grip on the fantasy that my family will ever feel complete.
And some days, I am grateful. Some days I feel so overwhelmed with these two in the house that I can’t imagine how anyone manages with more. On those days, I don’t know what we were ever thinking hoping for three, and I feel relieved we decided not to have another. But those days are also the worst days, because if the world were different and if we’d have stopped at two in the first place, that means that my youngest daughter is alive only because my oldest daughter is dead.
I cannot win this battle no matter how I look at it.
But most days, I mourn the family I’ll never have. When a neighbor dropped by to pick up some baby items I was selling, I smiled when I peeked into the open back window of her SUV and saw two car seats—one facing forward, holding a chubby-cheeked, red-headed girl, and one facing backward, holding a sleeping infant. But then she opened the rear liftgate, revealing a booster seat in the third row, overflowing with a gangly, red-headed boy. I asked her how old they were, already certain of the answer. Five, three, and five months, she replied.
Almost exactly the ages my kids would have been a year before had they all been living and filling up the back of my minivan.
That oldest sibling, that long-limbed kid in that tall booster seat in that third row. The epitome of everything I was giving away when I accepted his mother’s two twenty dollars bills.
As time flings me into the next stage of my life, a life with no more children, a mother of three with only two, I feel much like I did when I took down the baby gate: conscious of the scars, but resigned to co-existing with them; freed, but not at all certain that I want to be.
Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in Brain Child, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.