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(M)other: The Last Baby

Josie, my youngest, turned four this past November. In the days just before her birthday, Chip and I found ourselves murmuring to each other, "This is the last time we'll have dinner with our three-year-old in the house." "This is the last time we'll give our three-year-old a bath." "This is the last time we'll have to tell our three-year-old not to hit her brother." That we'd do all the same things once she turned four, including the remonstrations about hitting brothers, didn't matter. Josie is the youngest of our three kids; in the nine years Chip and I have been together, we've always had a child younger than four in the house, starting with Vincent, who was nearly three when he turned somersaults down our wedding aisle. But Josie is our last baby. Every time she leaves a stage behind, we're leaving it behind for good, too.

I've been straight with the kids about Josie being the last baby we'll have in our house. I've explained the whole tubal ligation concept, helped along by Chip, who actually witnessed the tying of my tubes after Josie's c-section birth (and yes, they really did tie them into tight knots. I know! You thought that was just an expression, too! But no, ending my days of pregnancy was like tying a knot in embroidery thread.) I thought we were all clear about this, until the other night, when Josie and I were snuggled together reading Twig yet again and she said, "Mama? I want to have four kids." Okay, I thought. She's already thinking about kids. Well, Henry thought about kids at this age, too (he was going to have four, all named Henry, a la George Foreman).

"Really?" I asked. "When you grow up, you can do that if you want to."

"No, not me!" she said. "You! I want YOU to have four kids. I want a sister."

Okay. So the whole "last baby" concept is still a little hazy for Josie. I do understand—after all, I only had two brothers until I was twelve, and I hounded my parents for a sister. They got me one, too, and then followed it up with three more sisters and three more brothers. So you might see how I'd be a little wary of the "I just want a sister" concept, coming as I do from a family in which that line of reasoning got used more than in most.

The truth is, I feel somehow ashamed of how relieved I was to have finished this stage of parenting, the pregnancy and baby stage. A few months after Josie's birth, I spent an ecstatic afternoon cleaning out my closet, which had housed wardrobes for my body's varied forms for the past several years: the work wardrobe for my pre-baby body, the work wardrobe for my pregnant body, the work wardrobe for my postpartum and lactating body, the indestructible home-with-kids-clothes for my pregnant and non-pregnant body shapes. I made an enormous pile of maternity clothes, elastic-waisted pants, shirts big enough to button over my engorged breasts, even some of the slip-on shoes I'd grown to loathe when they were all I could manage to fit on my swollen pregnant feet. I packed up these remnants of my former selves—the hopeful pregnant first-timer, the more seasoned and exhausted second-timer—with much more glee than was perhaps seemly.

I loved having babies. I still fall all over myself to hold newborns when I get the chance. (When I do, I feel shocked at how frightened I am about breaking the little creatures.) I reveled in having a courtside seat as mine learned to speak and walk and laugh. I'm less enthralled with the current joke-telling phase the boys are in, but this too shall pass. (Right?)

But I also had days like this one, described below in a journal entry from a few years ago, when Vincent was seven, Henry was three, and Josie was one:

Truth is, it's been a pretty shitty summer, starting with the whole family puking for four days, then each kid in turn getting a high fever and sore throat, the cumulative effects of which were nearly three weeks when someone was sick and I was trapped at home. Then our Camp Sacramento trip ended abruptly thanks to a leak in the water tank, and our Monterey vacation got cancelled. This weekend our luck seemed to be changing—went to San Francisco and saw the best new play I've seen since Arcadia, Urinetown: The Musical, and then bam! Here comes a call from Vincent's mom on the drive home telling us Vincent has lice. We were up until midnight shampooing and laundering and making up beds and combing out nits. Lovely.

There was real bliss in those days (and not just the discovery of Urinetown). There were rolls of baby fat to kiss and lists of first words spoken to jot down. There was also a whole lot of exhaustion and tension and puke and lice and shit. Holding a baby in a dirty public bathroom while I tried to bend down and wipe a toddler's butt while also keeping track of the oldest kid, something I did far more often than I had bargained on, was not really a high point of my life, to put it mildly.

Being a mother is something I've always wanted. I'm incredibly lucky to be able to have the kids I have, and I'm amazed that I get to spend as much time with them as I do, that I don't have to worry endlessly about feeding and clothing them, that we've made a family where everyone gets hugged and told they're loved every single day.

But I have all the children I can handle now, and as the oldest of ten kids myself, I know a little about what being overwhelmed with kids feels like. Maybe, too, the fact that I have spent my entire life living with young children, with the exception of a few years in college, accounts for my readiness to move on past the baby and toddler stage of motherhood. Raffi wasn't someone I discovered when I became a mama, after all—I just borrowed my siblings' barely-outgrown Raffi tapes and Disney videos once Vincent was old enough for them.

For all these reasons, having my tubes tied when Josie was born wasn't the heartwrenching, agonizing decision I half-expected it to be. If anything, I felt an extraordinary sense of relief; after about thirty years of wondering who my kids would be and when they would be born, those questions had been answered. I'd never again wonder if I was pregnant.

For a woman who spent her girlhood making up lists of baby names, this was no small thing. Through genetic luck, I'm apparently a minor fertility goddess. Since I first had sex at seventeen, I've had planned and unplanned pregnancies (including one while on the pill). I've experienced abortion, miscarriage, and two births. The year Josie was born, I had had a miscarriage at thirteen weeks and then gone on to conceive Josie a few weeks later. I was pregnant for an actual calendar year, with only the month between pregnancies "off." The drama of fertility exhausts me. I want to move on, to direct my energies to raising the kids I've already got and to becoming a person who is past the stage of new motherhood.

Every time Josie outgrew a onesie or a piece of clunky plastic baby equipment, I quickly packed it up and sent it over to Vincent's mom, whose own second baby came when Josie was a toddler. Our small house seemed to grow bigger as she aged; the toys and clothes and swings and bouncy seats I'd been storing or using for years could finally leave us for good.

In playground conversations with friends and near-strangers alike, when the talk would turn to how many children we planned to have, I noticed two main reactions when I said I was done—for sure. After the inevitable "Oh, you don't want to say that for sure! Who knows what surprises are in store for you" comments, people would tell me, "Oh, I couldn't do that. I mean, what if something happens to one of your children?" Others asked, "I'd worry about what would happen if I ended up remarried someday. I mean, who knows what will happen?"

Well, sure. No one knows what will happen. Something could happen to my children or my husband or my marriage. Something, god help us, awful could happen. In fact, it's pretty much guaranteed that at some point, something will. But that will be true when my children are thirty, fifty, seventy. These are all questions I asked myself when I was deciding whether to have the tubal ligation. What I came up with was this: while I hope to god I never have to test this theory, I suspect I'd have enough on my plate trying to deal with my own grief, as well as the grief of the rest of my family, without adding pregnancy and a newborn to the mix. For this mama, having two babies (and three kids) is enough.

When Josie was one, I bought myself a sculpture of a round, voluptuous mama nursing a baby in honor of my years of bearing and nursing babies. (I had some sort of idea that Josie was thinking of weaning at the time, a completely inaccurate notion.) I gave myself plenty of time to laze around in bed with her, playing and reading and holding her sweet warm body. I readied myself for the mourning and the baby lust I was sure would come.

It never did. Instead, what I found was that her two-year-old body was still sweet and warm and snuggly, just as her brothers had been at that age, and her three- and four-year-old selves were, too. And those brothers of hers—now six and ten—are pretty far from boring, to say the least. Just as I looked forward to watching my pregnant belly grow, to holding my newborn children, and to seeing them take their first steps, so too do I look forward to the rest of their lives: the first days of grade school, junior high, and high school; the friends they'll make, and the ways some of those yet-unknown people will change our lives; the unfolding of their particular strengths and talents and quirks—the living of their lives after babyhood ends and their worlds expand beyond the family.

A few weeks ago, we babysat Vincent's sister on his mom's side, eighteen-month-old Ziola. Josie and Henry were thrilled, as they see babies as rather exotic and odd creatures, neither having any memory of living with babies themselves. Chip and I were pretty thrilled, too—at one point, poor Ziola was just sitting on a pillow, trying to read a board book, while the four of us smiled adoringly at her and watched her every move. (Vincent, who sees far more of Ziola during his time at his other house, was completely bored by her antics, like any older brother would be.)

About an hour into this, though, I remembered anew that toddlers need constant watching, especially in our suddenly non-childproofed house, as Ziola nearly ate a Polly Pocket shoe. When she needed her diaper changed, Chip and I felt like novices as we tried to figure out where to change it and what to do with the dirty diaper. And when she left, we made sure her mom knew we'd love to do it again, and then breathed a sigh of relief that "doing it all again" meant an few hours of our lives, not several years. Then we got to work wiping up the spilled apple juice and other unknown sticky substances which emanate from all toddlers everywhere, happy in the knowledge that the surfaces we wiped might actually stay clean for more than ten minutes.

Carolyn Heilbrun, in The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, writes:

Grandchildren have always been praised to me as the ultimate in parenthood, the joy of young children without the responsibility; one hugs them, plays with them, and hands them back. Our children's children say to us: I continue. But I have not found the joy in my grandchildren, great as it is, half as profound as the pleasure I take in my adult children…the most potent reward for parenthood I have known has been delight in my fully grown progeny.

I'm in no rush to see my children become adults, but I hold onto Heilbrun's words whenever I notice how quickly these post-baby years go by. Time has sped up as my children have grown a bit; in the midst of the dizzying rounds of school drop-offs and pick-ups, math homework and book reports, birthday parties and soccer games, I find that our family dinners each night have finally become times when we all have something to tell the others about our days—a far cry from the days not that long ago when I could have told you what every kid at the table had eaten that day (and had mostly likely dealt with it coming out the other end).

Now we talk about Green Day (Vincent has just discovered them and is busy downloading our whole collection) and Vincent's blog (an outlet for all that joke-telling—hurray!) and Harry Potter and (endlessly, always, it seems right now, here in the Only House in the World Without Video Games) the XBox 360. Henry tells us another story in the continuing saga of Henry Monkey, and Josie tells us, in great detail, about the social intricacies of the three- and four-year-olds girls at her school. "Taylor is really bossy," she'll say, rolling her eyes, as we try not to laugh at the pot calling the kettle black. Sometimes Chip is actually able to finish three whole sentences about his day before getting interrupted. Sometimes that interruption is even a kid asking a surprisingly sophisticated question about IT work. Sure, I've yet to find a meal they'll all eat, but it's bound to happen someday. Our babies are growing up, and I can't wait to see what they—and I—will do next.

column added on 2006-01-21 :: ::

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Amy Anderson

Amy Anderson is the co-founder and co-editor of mamazine.com. She's been teaching writing to native and non-native speakers of English at a local university since 1995. She's stepmom to Vincent and mama to Henry and Josephine, and she lives in Sacramento with her husband and kids. Read more of Amy's (M)other column.

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