I took a pregnancy test tonight. I didn’t really think I could be pregnant, but what else was I to think when my cycle was late and I felt nauseous? As a young girl playing house, I often wondered how many children I would have. The closer I got to becoming a real mom, I tried not to jinx myself by creating precise plans of how many, which sex, and what order. For me, the Brady Bunch seemed nice, but even Supermom Mrs. Brady didn’t give birth to all those children. (And she had Alice. I’ve always wanted an Alice. Maybe that’s why Mrs. Brady was always smiling!) Yes, even the tidy world of the Brady Brunch included the unexpected inheritance of additional children through re-marriage. Nothing could be perfectly planned to a tee.
To hear some people talk, you would think family planning was as easy as going through the McDonald’s drive-thru, but choosing how many children to have is a relatively new development in human history. It was a whole different ball game just one hundred years ago. Back then, you were either fertile or you weren’t. And if you were, you just might get thirteen children. Today’s parents have much more to think about.
Mothers who find themselves unable to have children naturally have a myriad of options, but the results are still unpredictable. (Kate Gosselin and the Octo Mom are perfect examples.) There is always adoption, but even then there are decisions to be made about how many, what age, what race, disabilities or no disabilities, and so on. Even those who can have children easily find that family planning can be harder than it seems. If you love children and have the resources, should you just keep ‘em coming like the Duggars? Some argue that the world is over crowded as it is and couples should only reproduce themselves – the politically correct two children family. (When I had just a daughter and a son, people would often say to me, “You have your boy and your girl!” as if I couldn’t - or shouldn’t - want anything beyond that.) As a urologist, my husband performs vasectomies on a regular basis, and depending on the age of the patient, he feels compelled to counsel with them about the permanence of the procedure so they don’t regret the decision later. Then there are those who “accidentally” got pregnant, mothers who seem to have more than they can handle, or mothers who wished they had more children after it was too late.
So if you can decide, how do you decide? Environmental reasons? Financial? Physical? Religious? Or maybe more to the point: how do you know when you are “done”? I have wondered about all of these things and more each time my husband and I have considered welcoming a new little soul into our family.
My story is fairly uneventful. It took about a year to get pregnant the first time, then there was a miscarriage, and then my body seemed to figure things out. The miscarriage was a mixed blessing. When we finally had another child three and a half years after our first, we decided that kind of spacing worked quite nicely given I was functioning like a single mom during that stage in my husband’s medical training. Throw in a little postpartum depression and you’ve got another three and a half year break before baby number three. Baby number three was such a sweet, easy going cherub that I was certain I had figured out this mothering business and should go for at least one more. Three and a half years later, presto! Baby number four.
So here I am half way through my 38th year (how did that happen?) with four healthy, vivacious children that demand more of me than a boot camp sergeant, and I’m feeling pretty maxed. With a ten year spread between the first and the last, I am trying to do the pre-teen thing while simultaneously doing the baby thing. It’s a lot of fun for the most part, but certainly a challenge. But does that mean I’m done? As the calendar inches along and my “baby” approaches her third birthday, I can hardly stand the thought of not having an infant in my home ever again. But wanting a cute and squishy baby to love, and being willing and able to commit to another 18 years of responsibility for another life are two different things. I can’t just keep having children because I want a perpetual baby to munch on.
Still, it’s not an easy thing to close the door on the child bearing years of life. Knowing when to say when is a tricky thing. My mother-in-law gave birth to her sixth son when she was 46 years old. My husband is her oldest child and we had our first child just four years after his mother had her last. When she was giving me some of her baby things, she talked about her bittersweet feelings as she closed that door for what she knew was definitely the last time. I can see that. Perhaps the longer you are in that phase, the harder it is to leave behind. The ability to create, bear and nurture life invokes powerful emotions in every woman. Leaving that behind almost feels like leaving home.
My pregnancy test was negative. (I left it on the bathroom counter just to give my husband a heart attack between the moment of realizing what it was and then confirming the negative result. Bad Allyson!) I felt a rush of relief. I was almost giddy. I have taken each child one at a time, but after the birth of each baby there was always a feeling that there was one more. This feeling was especially strong while I was still in the hospital with our third child. Not so the fourth time around. All pregnancies are difficult, but I felt especially burdened this last time. After bringing the baby home, I found myself doing book reports and car pool while simultaneously nursing around the clock on low doses of sleep. I just couldn’t imagine trying to pull that off again. (Not unless Alice moved in.) I always said I wanted to keep having children until I felt maxed, and I feel maxed. That was the first time I had a negative test result and felt nothing but pure relief. That’s when I knew for sure that I was done.
Psalms 127 reads, “As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.” (You can probably surmise that a quiver is a container for arrows.) Whenever I think about this verse, I wonder if quivers come in different sizes. My quiver certainly feels full with four, but I know some women who wouldn’t feel complete unless they had at least six little arrows in their quiver, and others who couldn’t be happier with one. I wonder if every woman comes wired for a certain number of children they can wrap their heads and hearts around.
As in all aspects of mothering, we should never judge another mother’s value, strength, or ability to love based on the number of children she brings into this world. I think all mothers would agree that their love runs out of bounds with each child, no matter what the number.
QUESTION: How do you know when your quiver is full?