At an evening gathering on a friend’s pretty patio, I’m holding someone’s new baby over my shoulder, his soft body warm against mine. We mothers chat in a circle around a charcuterie board piled high with cheese and meat while our kids run barefoot in the yard. White lights on a string make our faces glow. At eight and six, my children are the “old ones” here. Yet my body responds to this infant as naturally as blinking, my muscle memory clicking into gear as I gently shift the tiny baby—no more than four months—from my shoulder to the cradle of my arms. It’s a subtle gesture—like a quick dance step—that my hands must have carried out countless times when my children were babies to position them “just right.”
The gesture makes those memories bloom and I flash to myself as a new mother at 29, sitting on our balcony with my first baby, trying different positions to soothe him and pass the time. I remember my ratty-but-beloved swingy black tee shirt worn on repeat with a pair of leggings during those jet-lagged mornings with a newborn. I remember the silence, alone all day with a baby, when I’d often talk for the sake of talking: Look at the trees; listen to the birds. I’m here baby, I’m here. Sometimes in motherhood I’m here was and still is all I’m able to offer.
The baby is content in my arms; holding him, I feel effortless proficiency. This is my body’s earned wisdom. I drink the cocktail of my ease and confidence, along with the infant’s sweetly scented softness. Inhaling the night air, I sink into the wicker chair and listen to my kids whoop and chase.
“Think you’ll have another?” someone asks. This question comes up often these days, a wink of a reminder that, in the eyes of the world, I still appear reasonably fertile. It’s a question that boldly implies the sweatiness of sex, the bloodiness of labor, shocked family members, pinched finances, and possibly even house hunting. The other parents chuckle at me, put on the spot like some blushing bride.
“Nope,” I say, laughing along with them. Rubbing the baby’s tummy, I throw the question back to the group: “And how ’bout you all?”
Everyone looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. Resounding “Hell nos” all around.
“So! Done!” Someone punctuates.
I, too, have chosen to be done; but every time I say so, I’m not entirely comfortable with the finality of it. Inside I can feel something in my body twitch in protest: you don’t mean it that way.
The truth is, I would love to be a mother of three. Not because I particularly miss the baby days, but because I like the long-term view. It is within me, I believe, to rise to the challenge of adding another family member to the mix. In my daydreams, lots of grown children crowd around my holiday table, like the Christmas feast scene in Little Women. As a girl, I loved the March sisters, and the idea of having a gaggle of ready playmates like them. But as a mother, it’s Marmee I look up to, admiring her unconquerable spirit and the accomplishments of her motherhood. The liveliness of big families has always enchanted me, and I feel an ever-so-slight pang, a tug, toward having my own.
Yet I also feel a strong tug toward writing a book and building a career on my terms. So, although I’ve decided not to grow my family any bigger, I have to greet that particular impulse now and then. A road not taken, and yet somehow still a part of me. Maybe, I sometimes think, people keep asking me about “having another” for a reason. Maybe I’m meant to repeatedly declare my decision for all to hear in order to make peace and move on.
“I have enough,” I tell my circle of friends, which is the mantra I silently recite whenever I feel the tug. I have enough, I have enough, I have enough.
As difficult as it is to admit, when I think about my body being finished with reproducing, part of me feels old, used up—even closer to death. My first instinct is to hold onto this earlier chapter of my life. Baby-making happened in my late 20s and early 30s—far from adolescence, but still blossoming and young. But now that chapter is done. My belly will never again grow with a wriggling, kicking life. My breasts will never again feel heavy with milk. Never again will I sweat through labor, wrecked and triumphant. On one hand, what a relief. There is liberation to be uncovered in each choice, in each chapter’s end.
The band of barefoot children surges through the circle to raid the cracker-and-cheese pile, my oldest boy, Angus, leading their charge. I smile and my heart swells, seeing him pop up beside me. He looks purely himself: flushed cheeks, dirty knees, Davey Crockett coonskin hat—he loves a hat—and dragging an oversized palm frond behind him. Tonight, he’s soaking up the experience of being the alpha dog in a pack of younger kids.
“Hungry!” he announces, pouncing on me with his hands on my shoulders, his nose to my nose. If he had a tail, he would wag it, and possibly knock over a wine glass.
Angus’s ninth birthday is around the corner and I can detect a growth spurt in his energy, a greater oomph as he bounds down a staircase or bursts through a doorway. I can detect the growth in this invisible energy in the same way I recognize more palpable change—like when I kiss the top of his head and realize he’s a little taller. His force field is bigger, broader, stronger. Realizing this sends an unsettling vibration through me. Unsettling because there’s no going backward, and once again I’m reminded, like being poked awake, that I can’t relax into any stage too long.
Suddenly, my legs feel twitchy and I’m ready to be hands-free. With a satisfied smile, I return the baby to his mother. What I keep is a lift of self-possession and sturdiness from my memories of those baby days—having been there, done that, and survived.
A helicopter passes overhead, and I feel its bass thrum in my solar plexus. The adults glance up briefly, and one of the smaller kids in the group jabs his chubby finger skyward. “Copter!” he declares with gusto.
My eyes dart to Angus, beside me, who stares at the helicopter, his brow furrowed. His sister is behind him, whispering with another little girl. My children used to point and label helicopters too, and planes, and trains. Angus was once captivated by garbage trucks. But they’ve moved on to new marvels. And so have I. With longer school days and more quiet stretches at hand, I find myself hungrily turning to writing again, after some years away. We move on together, each of us toward our own discoveries.