Than the Sum of Its Parts
Sometimes, I’ll meet her at the park. She’s the woman I was some five years ago: a mother of one at the midway mark of her thirties, teetering at the edge of her fertility, wondering if or when she should take the plunge again. She might be watching my children play. Perhaps that day my very tall and hugely precocious seven- year- old, Elizabeth, will be pushing her three- year- old sister, Graciana, up and down on the teeter-totter. The mother of one smiles at me and asks, "What are they, four years apart?"
"Three and three-quarter years, actually." Sure, I could just leave it at four, but it’s a point of pride. I enjoy this delusion about myself, that I’m somewhat of a hard-core, at least tough enough to bring another new life into the world before my first child has finished her preschool immunizations.
"Oh, three and three-quarters," she repeats politely, seeming to understand the importance of the distinction. "Is that a good split?"
There’s a lot I could say at this point. There’s the clichés: how you can reason with the first born, how the first-born will fetch a diaper or wipe. But I know she’s not asking out of idle curiosity. She’s researching. The data gathered today could take her to the tipping point, so maybe I should share something real, say how the first born exhausted me so much, it took years to recover, that it wasn’t until my step-father died that I realized no matter how much children took from me, they would always return far more. Or, I could say how I feared I’d waited too long, how I worry my children won’t really be pals because one will always be toddling along in a diaper while the other’s speeding down the street on her two- wheeler.
"It’s been good for us," I say, because I don’t know quite what else to say and because it has been.
We had a plan. Two kids in two years. Not particularly original, but it was our plan. Or at least, it was one of our plans. And, like most of our decisions, we came up with it hastily and grasped onto it with great tenacity until we came up with a new scheme to hold onto with all our might. Actually, we’ve had four plans: no kids, two children (two years apart), one child, and then three years after the birth of our first child in the twilight of my "childbearing years," we arrived back at the magical number two.
I should say that nearly all of this neurotic indecision has come from me, not my husband who has had an unflagging belief in family. Once when we were dating, we found ourselves at a park playing on the swings (little did we know of the hundreds of park hours in our future!). Surveying the children running from swings to jungle gym with a bright-eyed look, Kirk announced his ideal family would be big—five kids maybe. I stopped pushing until my swing lost its momentum and hung still. I told him how I wasn’t even sure if I wanted children and if I did, I would not want five and besides, with me nearly thirty years old, what he was describing would be near impossible unless we raced back to my place that instant to begin.
But Kirk had relentless faith that we’d be okay no matter what we decided. This kind of optimism always seemed dangerous to me who feels compelled to ponder at length the hardships that could be attendant with any decision we made. Perhaps this difference goes back to the tribes we are from; maybe Kirk’s family with its groups of three and four children are the kind of people who believe in letting life multiply while my people have a history of wanting chaos under wraps. My grandmother JoJo, a confirmed mother of one, was a landscape architect who was occasionally quoted in gardening magazines like Sunset. Recently, Kirk read aloud a quote from old article that made me see my family in a new light.
"Listen to this," he said, shaking his head as he spoke. "People often don’t think ahead when they plant shrubs about how big those plants are going to get. And then they’re surprised when they spend their lives pruning and pruning."
"So what’s wrong with that?" I said. "Makes perfect sense to me."
"It’s just that thinking," he said, "Wanting to keep things under control. And so what if you have to spend some time pruning anyway?"
That’s part of why I love my husband. He’s not afraid of future pruning, or how life may spiral and flourish beyond our reach. But I have never had such faith in what life loosed upon the world might do, so I was the one who dragged us through a circuit of decisions about how many children we should have and when, but maybe this is what I had to go through. Perhaps, this was the only road between my fear of family and our creation of it.
When we decided to marry, I was at the end of my twenties, a decade I had spent negating my need for marriage and family. How annoyed I’d been at older, well-intended women who’d shake their heads say you’ll change your mind. What did they know? But then, as they predicted, I began to feel the pangs. It wasn’t a new longing, but a well-buried one uncovered. Somewhere along the way I’d come to believe that I had to live a life of solitude. I had armed myself against what I thought I couldn’t have— happy marriage, a loving family—by saying I wanted none of it. But in my no-kid plan, there was also no marriage, and then I had found this person to live happily with, to commit to before friends and family. If we could set up a happy house together, a feat I’d once thought impossible, perhaps other things previously denied were feasible after all.
It’s funny how one can move in a heartbeat from no to yes, from a life of books, work and travel to a chicken-nugget dinner at five; from no kids to two. But once we’d settled that childbearing was in our future, we quickly agreed we’d have two. Besides wielding a phenomenal mandate from our culture, the two-child idea had an impeccable symmetry in its favor. One child for each parent, one parent for each child. And if we had these two within two years, we reasoned, they would be terrific buddies and we’d whiz through the preschool years and could once again use our daytime hours to focus on our smoothly progressing careers.
Plus, and this was a big plus for Kirk and I who are both the youngest of our families by eight years, our children would be " cozy close." They’d be the kids we’d both been jealous of, the ones with a brother or sister a grade or two ahead or behind in school. With a mere twenty-four months dividing them from each other, our children would protect each other fiercely from schoolyard bullies and from the loneliness of their parents’ childhoods.
Ah, the planning! Ah, the hubris! What we did not account for was our human adult needs for such things as companionship, rest and sleep. After Elizabeth was born, we worked opposite shifts so she’d nearly always be with one parent. Usually, we’d meet in the parking lot of the college where I taught. There, car seat, stroller, diaper bag and myriad comfort objects would be transferred from one car to another. Kirk would give a brief report on the day, then off he’d go to work until eleven at night when I’d be dead asleep.
Elizabeth was everything we’d dreamed of and more -- cheerful, smart, active, beautiful. We were ecstatic! We were elated! We were exhausted! The structure of our no-child life stood unaltered; we had just squeezed a baby into it. And like most babies she threw up at odd hours, refused sleep just when she and we needed it most, and required entertainment at 6 am on Sunday morning. We were keeping up with her and most of the demands of our life, but just barely. We were crabby. I was tired and lonely from working all day and spending nights at home alone with just baby. One night when Kirk returned from work, Elizabeth was crying in her crib and I was asleep, muttering the words "not yet, not yet" over and over.
I began to wonder what was wrong with us. Other people seemed to manage jobs and multiple children, and here we were thrown in a tailspin by one child. Was it because we had no family within five hundred miles to serve as backup and I wanted to work full-time to hang onto identity, salary and benefits? Or was it because I was only a recent convert from the decidedly childless and in my essence (now revealed by the pressures of parenting) an inept and selfish woman? The more tired I became, the more I suspected the latter.
Perhaps we would be a one-child family. I started to research the benefits of growing up as "an only"—higher self-esteem, more attention from both parents, higher test scores. I memorized these findings and spouted them off when inquisitive folks asked about baby number two. But I looked at my friends solid in their decision about one child with a strange kind of envy because deep within me there was always this nagging doubt that I could resist the call of child #2. When I recited the advantages of the one-child family, I could hear Shakespeare’s Iago whispering in my brain, "Me thinks the lady doth protest too much." It was like the person who would become Graciana was always there in the shadows, already a part of our family, just waiting for me to let her in.
She found her window of opportunity in the July of 1997 when my beloved step-father died. In my grief, I could no longer keep my desire for another child at bay, just as the last of my resistance to marriage melted away when I met Kirk. I knew then with quiet certainty that we would be a family of two children. She wasted no time; by the end of that summer, I was pregnant. I shudder now when I think of how I took for granted that she would come whenever I beckoned her, how I took for granted -- as so many can not -- that I’d get pregnant whenever I was ready. It’s scary to think I might have, because of my own fears and selfishness, missed out on the chance to be Graciana’s mother.
I wish I could say that once I was pregnant I was no longer riddled with fears of the two-child life, but I can’t. At that time we lived in a third-floor apartment, and I remember lying in bed shortly before Graciana’s birth mentally rehearsing how I’d unload and transport up the stairs two children and a carload of groceries. Would children go first? Would I leave them in the apartment while I dashed down for the bags? Or would I race up with the groceries, panting, gasping, breasts full of milk while the kids remained strapped to their carseats in the dimly lit garage? Needless to say, I did figure it all out when the time came, and children and groceries and mother did indeed find their way safely into the apartment, but these were the messed up kind of thoughts that visited me in the last days of my pregnancy when I should have been simply mooning over small pajamas and bassinet blankets.
My anxiety was fueled too by the new mothers of two who surrounded me at our preschool. They were so haggard looking, limping along with twenty pounds of carseated baby as they chased manic three- year- olds across the parking lot. Waddling behind Elizabeth, I asked one of these mothers tentatively, "So it’s not that big of a change, is it? One to two?"
She stopped in her tracks, readjusting baby on her hip as our three- year- olds sped ahead. She looked me straight in the eye and told me what I’d always known and feared. "Two is so-o-oo-oo much more than one. It’s not like one plus one equals two. It’s more like one and one is three."
"Well, yes," she said, looking at me now with compassion. "But it’s good. It’s just a more than a sum of its parts thing. But that’s what makes it a family. It’s all that mess and noise and craziness that gets created when we’re all together."
I forced a smile, hoping to disguise my true controlling nature and to impersonate a Zen Buddhist person who embraced life’s mess, noise and craziness with a beatific serenity.
I have this dangerous fantasy, dangerous because it’s far, far more than a mother should ever hope for. Elizabeth is a senior when Graciana enters the wonderful college they’ve both chosen and been chosen by. Elizabeth shows Grace around campus and how to get into the best classes, and because they are so amazingly compatible, they decide to share a dorm room!
There isn’t much currently to support this fantasy. Elizabeth’s a social and highly verbal seven- year- old who takes pride in her groomed appearance and prefers the company of girls at least her own age, and Graciana is three and likes to roll in dirt and grab Elizabeth’s precious horses and run down the hall with her shrieking sister in tow.
But still there are these lovely moments when, quite of their own doing, they come together. Given no other options for entertainment, they will turn to each other out of desperation and play a game of hide’n’seek or "cats." Or I’ll catch them side-by-side on Elizabeth’s bunk where Elizabeth is reading a story to her little sister who’s as still as a stone, so grateful for each word uttered, not minding at all the slowness with which these words are sounded out.
It’s in these moments that the
alarming narrowness of my original vision of family becomes so painfully
obvious to me. I’d been focused on how many children I wanted,
but while the decision to bring these lives into this world may have
originated with me, I’ve merely been a gateway to slip through. Now,
unleashed into the world, they are their own people, connected to each
other and everyone around them as well as to me. Shading, crowding and
nurturing each other, they are the magnificent shrubs growing madly and
amazingly beyond my control.