“You should have had more children,” my mother-in-law tells me every time we speak on the phone. She’s 96, plagued with memory problems, often repeating conversations multiple times in a row, like an old vinyl LP skipping in place.
Her comment always makes me bristle. It’s an intimate subject between my husband and me, one that was made decades ago. I don’t think she should be privy to the emotional and physical reasons for our family planning. She knows I had a miscarriage at the age of 39, before our daughter was born. She miscarried twice—after she had my husband and his younger brother.
At her 90th birthday celebration, she asked me the uncomfortable question once again.
“I always wanted a daughter,” she repeatedly says. Aren’t I a good enough substitute? I want to ask. I’ve welcomed her into my home, hosted holiday dinners, escorted her to movies and to buy sensible shoes, made sure my daughter sends cards to make their long-distance relationship more immediate. But as she’s aged, the one thorny issue between us has become even more persistent and piercing.
At her 90th birthday celebration, she dove into the forever uncomfortable: “You should have had more children.” She was still more cognizant and less forgetful then. Much to my regret, I blurted, “This is a private matter I don’t want to discuss publicly over our dinner entrees. We’ve been through this before.”
My husband and his brother jumped in, reprimanding her for being inappropriate. It was a disconcerting scene: three adults admonishing a nonagenarian as if she were a toddler with impulsivity issues.
She isn’t aware that one-child families are more common than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, Seattle and Canada are approaching 50 percent one-child families, a trend increasing in every major U.S. city and in other developed countries. England has been nicknamed “the one child nation.”
My mother-in-law isn’t concerned with statistics. As the years have passed, her memory progressively fading, she still brings up what she deems my life’s mistake of not having more children. She doesn’t intend to be hurtful, but her tone is critical, her words painfully intensifying my own ambivalence. Besides, what’s the point of rehashing that now? My daughter, her only grandchild, is old enough to vote, drink, and drive, and I am way past childbearing years.
The Anne Tyler Example
“I want some extra,” a dying Pearl Tull said in Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, recalling when her first born was seriously ill. If he died, she worried, what would she have left?
She knows I had a miscarriage at the age of 39, before our daughter was born.
The same fear has plagued me, which might explain why I cut my daughter’s grapes in half until she was in second grade, long past the choking hazard stage.
My own mother had two “extras,” yet it didn’t alleviate the pain when her first born died of lung cancer at 46, just a year after my father’s death. She managed to resume her life without her husband of nearly 50 years, yet she never fully recovered from her tragic maternal loss.
“No one should ever lose a child,” she told me. “It’s not the natural order.”
“You should have had more children,” my mother-in-law keeps saying, as if she’s never broached the subject before.
How Many Kids Should You Have? Our Family Decision
I was 41 when I gave birth, after 18 years of marriage. We’d delayed parenthood because we were both concentrating on our careers, but we also had childhood scars no one else could see. My mother grew up in an orphanage and wasn’t able to nurture me because of her lifelong trauma of abandonment. My husband’s parents constantly fought over lack of money, and he needed to feel financially secure to provide for a child. In the meantime we took nieces and nephews to zoos and amusement parks, the “fun” aunt and uncle. And then the proverbial time came when it was now or never. Some scars never heal, yet we do the best we can. And eggs run out.
I was deemed a high risk pregnancy a year after my miscarriage. My doctor gave me weekly progesterone shots during my first trimester, “to glue it in,” he joked. Thirty-one hours of labor as an “elderly primigravida”—the alarming medical eponym for “advanced maternal age”—was a physical marathon unlike any I’d ever known. Two nights earlier, I had glided through my lap swim regimen. No surprise my baby was a Pisces, the symbol of a fish.
Many factors wove into the equation that our daughter would be our first and last child.
Three weeks later, after nursing my infant, I rushed to teach my evening class at the university where I’m a writing professor, ran home just in time to nurse her again, didn’t sleep through the night for six months, and never felt such a blend of exhaustion and exhilaration. My “advanced maternal age,” finances, city apartment size, modest adjunct professor’s salary without maternity benefits, and my widowed mother—who needed more of my attention and care—wove into the equation that our daughter would be our first and last child.
My mother-in-law flew from Florida to New York for the first six of her granddaughter’s birthdays. A former preschool teacher, she had an endless song repertoire, entertaining my energetic daughter for hours. When she wasn’t able to travel anymore, we chose close friends to be our daughter’s guardian until she was age 18, knowing our own parents were aging out of the role we hoped we’d never need.
My First Born and My Baby
My daughter is my first born and my baby. And I’ll always have to field questions from family and strangers about why I didn’t have another. At least I raised my daughter in a progressive city where only children were common. When she went out of state to college, her dorm-mates commented that they’d never met an only child before. “You seem pretty normal to me,” they summed her up.
Sometimes I wonder with some regret: what would my daughter’s siblings would have looked like?
Slowly, stigmas about only children are waning. More is not necessarily better. My mother-in-law’s sister had five children. Recently my mother-in-law said, “My mother used to tell my sister, ‘When are you going to stop?’”
How ironic that she kept pestering me about when I was going to start.
“You should’ve had more children,” she says then, and yet again.
“I don’t want to discuss it,” I tell her, politely, patiently.
“We’ve been through this before.”
I try to be charitable. I remind myself that she’s too old to be deliberately insensitive. Each time that question emerges, during every visit and phone call, I try to stay neutral, merely saying, “Let’s change the subject.”
Regrets and Heartache
“She’s 96,” my husband says, shrugging. “She’s not going to change.”
Unlike my mother-in-law, I won’t live my life regretting what I didn’t have—although sometimes I do wonder: what would my daughter’s siblings would have looked like? What would their personalities have been like? Would our family dynamics have been different with an even number around the dining room table? Would I have loved one more than the other?
After years of annoyance with my mother-in-law’s relentless needling, I finally realize that she isn’t talking about me—she’s talking about herself. She wanted more children, even though her sons have been devoted to her, emotionally and financially. She never truly grieved for the miscarriages she had, back when women felt great shame and didn’t talk about it. But like Pearl Tull in Anne Tyler’s novel, it’s never too late to ache for an “extra,” no matter how many—or few—children we have.
Candy Schulman is an award-winning writer whose essays, articles, and humor pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Next Avenue, New York Magazine, Glamour, Rumpus Funny Women, Parenting, and elsewhere including anthologies.