“And you’re both sure that three is enough.” The nurse’s words are a statement, not a question, and they sound distant and sluggish, as though they’ve traveled through a tube of jelly to reach my ears. I don’t think about what these words mean, but focus on the yellow-brown paste smeared across the thigh of my jeans. Peanut butter, from the boys’ sandwiches at lunch? Or Play-Doh, from my daughter’s pizza-making kit? I pick at the unidentified glob, sticky flakes lodging beneath my fingernail.
“More than enough,” my husband says with a laugh. “We’re already in over our heads.” He squeezes my hand and I look up. The nurse is staring at me expectantly, her blue eyes magnified by round, black-rimmed glasses.
“I need to document that you’re both in agreement,” she says, “and then I can go get the doctor.”
She’s torturing me. Isn’t it proof enough that I’m sitting here next to my husband, holding his hand? I keep my lips pressed tight, because opening my mouth would release the sob wedged in my throat. But I nod vigorously, because that’s what you do when you’re in a vasectomy clinic and you’ve got three children under six and your husband is done, done, done with babies. He squeezes my hand a second time, but I pull away—kindness will only weaken my resolve, and I’m determined to be strong.
Thankfully, the nurse is already gathering her paperwork and bustling out of the room. “The doctor will be with you shortly,” she says. As the door closes behind her, I dissolve into tears.
My husband first brought up vasectomy three years earlier, just before our second son turned two. The timing was poor—I was still reeling from an unexpected pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. That almost-third baby left my husband feeling like we’d dodged a bullet, and me mourning an irreparable hole in our family.
“It’s finally getting easier,” he said one night, pausing the electric toothbrush and gazing at me in the mirror. “You’re getting more sleep, the boys are starting to play together. Someday we might even get our bedroom back.” I tried to read his expression—was that a come-on? I’d forgotten what innuendo sounded like. But before I could follow up with a bedroom joke of my own, he hit me with a gut-punch.
“Two kids feels right. Maybe it’s time to call Dr. Snip.”
Too stunned to respond, I slipped out the door and into our darkened bedroom. Stepping around the flotilla of mattresses on the floor, I admired our sleeping toddler, his dark curls splayed out across the pillow. When did his legs get so long? I tucked the blankets around his toes. That night I fell asleep clutching the charm necklace my mom had given me after the miscarriage—a silver forget-me-not flower, with a pearl for healing and a peridot for the lost baby’s birthstone. A new pregnancy wouldn’t bring back the child we’d lost, but every time I looked at our driveway and saw a minivan—the car we’d bought in preparation for baby #3—a fresh wave of sadness crashed over me. We’d have to get pregnant again, or get rid of the minivan.
Two days later, on Mother’s Day, I noticed a familiar metallic taste in my mouth. The next morning, when I woke up with a gnawing hunger but no desire to eat, I took a pregnancy test. “Too late for Dr. Snip,” I told my husband. “We’d better keep the minivan.”
Swallowing his misgivings, my husband met the news with his usual good-hearted charm. But during the nine months that followed, he brought up vasectomy several more times. His eagerness made sense; the debate had always been two versus three and now our number three was nearly baked. “But what if something happens?” I asked, fearful of tempting fate. “No vasectomy until she’s here.”
But moments after our daughter came flying into the world—her way so well-paved by previous babies that I birthed her straddling the side of our bathtub—I was swamped by an unexpected grief. Would I never again see a tiny alien hand waving hello on ultrasound, or feel a baby flipping summersaults inside my belly? Even with my newborn daughter clutched to my breast, the sharp tug of her suction-cup mouth sending delicious bursts of oxytocin through my veins, I could see her growing up and away from me.
I’d given up a lot to become a mother. Six years earlier, at my graduation from medical school, I’d sat in the back of the auditorium as the dean announced the future specialties of each of my friends and colleagues. I’d earned a medical degree too, but instead of going on to residency and becoming a physician, I’d chosen to pursue medical writing, in part because of the six-week-old secret swimming in my belly. My private dream was to write while staying home with my children, and I imagined quiet days of rocking my baby to sleep while my fingers clacked across a laptop keyboard. The six-week maternity leave offered to medical residents wouldn’t be enough, but I never expected that even years with my babies would feel too short.
“I thought we were just waiting until the baby was born,” my husband said one day. “And now she’s five months old.”
He was right, of course, and with a preschooler and a toddler fighting with the baby for space on my lap, I was already overwhelmed. Each night we rose two, three, four times to soothe nightmares and fetch glasses of water, and to feed and change the baby. It had been years since I’d read a book for fun or unrolled my yoga mat. And because of our older son’s learning differences, we’d decided to homeschool for kindergarten. Even I wasn’t foolish enough to add a fourth child to all that craziness.
But my daughter’s baby toes and baby ears and baby nose haunted me. I was all too aware that each of her milestones was not just a first, but a last: the last time a baby of mine would learn to crawl, the last time I’d watch first steps or hear first words. Like her, I’d been the youngest in my family and the only girl, and my deepest wish growing up had been for a sister. Wouldn’t it be perfect, I joked to my husband, if we accidentally had another girl?
“Absolutely not,” he told me, and swore he’d never change his mind, not even down the road a few years when our lives became less chaotic.
The surgeon walks in, his friendly smile half-hidden behind a salt and pepper beard. Like many things that go sideways in medicine, insurance is partly to blame. We’ve ended up in the vasectomy clinic not because I’m finally ready, but because we’re about to lose medical coverage. At the end of the month, my husband will leave his soul-sucking corporate job, making this our last chance to do the procedure for free.
I’d resisted, until one sunny morning a few weeks before the deadline, when I awoke refreshed—miraculously, all three kids had managed to sleep through the night. Awash in gratitude and generosity, I skipped downstairs to the kitchen. With three beautiful children and a loving husband, what more could I want? Another baby would just rock the boat, and in that shining moment, I loved our ship just the way it was.
“Are you sure you’ll never change your mind?” I asked my husband as he crunched his morning cereal.
“Then call and schedule an appointment,” I said. “Might as well get it over with.”
I almost backed out a week later, as I filled out the questionnaire for spouses. “Do you wish to have more children?” the form asked. Of course, I wanted to answer. More and more and more. But I also wanted to keep my husband, to have enough beds for each of my kids, and not to drown in dirty diapers. So I gave the answers they wanted and scribbled my signature at the bottom.
Now, at the clinic, I’ve dried my tears with a Kleenex, and I’m twisting and rolling the damp tissue between my fingers. Like the nurse, Dr. Snip fails to notice my red-rimmed eyes, or perhaps chooses to ignore them. He asks if I want to stay in the room, and I nod—my husband has already let slip that I’ve got a medical degree, so I can’t pretend to be squeamish. Instead, I sit near my husband’s head as he and Dr. Snip trade light-hearted banter, the cringey sort of ball jokes a vasectomy surgeon must hear all day long.
“Now,” he says, “you’re going to feel a snap. Like a rubber band.” Dr. Snip employs the latest in no-needle anesthetic, a high-pressure jet injector that squirts lidocaine straight through the skin. I wonder how long it will take the powers that be to invent a no-needle epidural or a no-scissor episiotomy, but I keep my mouth shut. With the first pop, my husband winces and grabs my hand, but then the hypospray is over and we’re both numb.
“See? There it is. A beauty.” Dr. Snip pinches my husband’s vas deferens between his forceps, and I marvel at the tiny white tube responsible for our three children. It looks like it’s made of plastic. “Now just a snip, a zap, and a suture,” he says, “and one side down.” I recognize my final chance: It’s now or never to beg the surgeon to stop, say I’m not ready, say I desperately want one more scrumptious baby bundle.
Instead, I think of what to make for dinner. It’s Friday, so pasta—but we might be out of plain spaghetti sauce, and that’s the only kind the boys will eat. Better stop at the store on the way home, and get more baby wipes while I’m at it, too.
“You’re good to go,” the doctor says, and for a second I have no idea what he’s talking about. My husband pulls up his sweatpants and gingerly slides off the exam table. I don’t cry. Instead, I put my arm around his waist, and together we hobble to the parking lot.
The next few days pass in a blur, as I rapid-cycle through the stages of grief. Before the vasectomy, I kept my tangled feelings about motherhood and identity bottled up; now, they come pouring out, an ice bucket of emotions dumped over my husband’s head. We’re both shocked by the extent of my sadness, and he feels guilty for rushing the decision. But the warning in our “After Vasectomy” pamphlet gives me a perverse form of hope: It takes anywhere from six weeks to six months to become infertile. Wondering how many bullets we have left for baby roulette, I beg my husband to let us try one more time.
Six weeks later, I pee on a stick. It’s negative, of course, and on that same day my husband gets his results: all clear, no live sperm. He feels relieved; I tick one notch further on the wheel of grief, settling into depression and staying there.
Stop being ridiculous, I tell myself. Three kids is plenty, more than my share, really, when you consider our carbon footprint and the Earth’s carrying capacity and all those couples out there with infertility. My brain considers these things, but not my heart.
My feelings are too irrational to say out loud, but I write, and write, and write. The pages of my journal fill up with nonsense—it’s not fair, it’s all my husband’s fault, we can’t get past this—until the statements that aren’t true give way to questions that are. What, exactly, am I grieving? At first I think I’m mourning the children I’ll never get to meet, or maybe that hypothetical sister for my daughter, but as the months go by, I realize it’s not phantom babies I’m crying for. It’s me.
Specifically, the version of me who’s stirring the soup pot, and nursing the baby in a sling, and singing to the toddler, and admiring the preschooler’s artwork, all at the same time. The version who’s confident and productive and just plain good at mothering small children. Because that person seems to be vanishing with each new milestone, as my children grow further from me and more into themselves. I’m scared to leave behind the familiar, easy ground, and begin navigating foreign territory: playground friendships, screen time, report cards. Can I do all that? And who will I be without a baby attached to my hip? After losing myself to the chaos of motherhood for the better part of a decade, I don’t know what’s left under the wreckage.
Two years later, I still feel pangs of sadness when I see tiny feet sticking out of a front-pack, or watch a circle of new moms gabbing at Starbucks, burp cloths draped over their shoulders as they dish about the trials and triumphs of new motherhood. That used to be me, I think, and sometimes I wish I could go back to that sweet, sticky time. But life has gotten easier, and in many ways, a lot more fun. At nine, seven, and four, my children are old enough to play Clue and listen to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We all sleep through the night, now. And four mornings a week, while my daughter is in preschool, I reacquaint myself with quiet. In the past year, I’ve started a meditation practice, made friends with our elliptical machine, and scribbled out the first draft of a novel. That fourth baby I used to dream about would have delayed all that, and spread thinner the time and attention I could give to each of my children. Besides, no matter how many babies a mother has, eventually they all grow up.
At a baby shower, a friend lets me hold her three-month-old son. I cuddle him close, relishing the way a twelve-pound glow worm tucked under my arm feels so right. He’s awake, and I talk to him as we make our rounds through the party. “Those are balloons,” I say, and his eyes widen at the bobbing globes of mint and white. “That’s a cupcake tower.” He starts to squirm, so I add a soothing bounce to my step, and soon his eyes glaze over. Asleep on my shoulder, he feels heavier, and after awhile my arm begins to ache.
“Want me to take him back?” his mother asks. No, I almost say, I love babies. I’ll hold him as long as you let me. It’s my automatic response, the thing I always say. Except this time, I realize it’s not true. He’s heavy, and I want a cupcake for myself.
“Thanks,” I say, and hand him back.