Sometimes, when I hear the stories my friends tell about their kids, I feel a little envious. From the outside, there is something that appears more fun about having multiple children. When I step into their homes, there is always activity, lively conversations, and laughter. Of course, minutes later there is fighting, crying, and a plea for mom to intervene.
You can’t have it all.
My house is quiet. One night, our neighbor (with four children) came over to find Kevin and I nestled on the couch, working on a crossword together. It was a little after 7:30, and we had just put Sophia to sleep. The floor lamps cast a warm, orange glow in the room. “You two look so cozy!” she said. “It’s so quiet in here,” she noticed. And we all absorbed the silence for a moment. “You could join us,” I offered, “hide out here for a bit?” “No,” she declined, “I have to get back to my piles of laundry.” She dropped off a flier for a local 5K and headed back across the street, where her house was humming with the energy of three boys and a toddler.
There are tradeoffs for this evening calm. By day, I am the entertainer and adversary. Sophia plays and fights with me, instead of a brother or sister. I organize countless playdates and chauffer her all over New Jersey to ensure she is not socially deprived, missing out on peer interaction, and adopting my adult mannerisms, speech, and seriousness.
Sophia has filled the sibling void with an imaginary sister, also named Sophia, who is two years older than she and lives in California with her mother, Melissa and her father, Kevin. I note that even her imaginary sister is absent…living in a parallel universe, only to be thought and talked about, but not actually played with or talked to. This is how Sophie has come to terms with her only status. I admire her resourcefulness.
I am resigned to eternal ambivalence. Certainly, it was a wise decision to not have a second child. We don’t have the resources…financially, emotionally, temporally to embrace another infant at this point in our family life. It is easy to rationalize away the feelings that accompany this decision. But when I stop thinking about how much sense it makes, I do feel a little sorrow, a mourning of an experience I will never have. If one of my earlier pregnancies had survived, Sophia might have had that older sibling she longs for…I might not be so fearful of getting pregnant again, even at the advanced age of 40, and giving birth again.
But this is the way things happened, and this is the way things are. I could spend my time longing for what we lack or I could focus on my gratitude for what I have.
And so, I live vicariously through other families. I delight in their anecdotes. I offer unsolicited advice to help manage sibling rivalry, once again in the comfortable position of being able to offer ideas that I don’t have to execute. The other night I went out to dinner with Nan and our mutual friend, Pam, who we have known all of our adult lives. In a few transcendent moments, I pulled back and thought about how our conversations have changed over the years…from work (we were all teachers together), to marriage, and now to our children. Pam was telling a story about her two boys, E.J. and Ryan.
“Ryan ran into my room and said, ‘E.J. is slapping his butt at me!’”
“What does that mean?” I asked, trying to envision the situation.
“Apparently, he lay down on the couch, flipped his legs over his head, and was slapping his butt. At Ryan.”
“And this was a personal affront to Ryan?” I was confused.
Pam shrugged, “I guess.”
I thought about it for a minute. “It seems to me that in order for Ryan to have thought E.J. was being provocative, E.J. must have said something provocative. Like, ‘I’m going to slap my butt at you!’ After all, there is nothing inherently annoying about someone slapping his own ass. It’s weird. Maybe a little distracting. But Ryan felt bothered by it, because E.J. told him he should be bothered by it.”
“So, just as Ryan chose to feel bothered by it, he could make a different choice. He could choose to leave. Or he could choose to think it’s funny. You could walk him through his options.” We brainstormed a list of things that Ryan could do when E.J. antagonized him in this way. It was fun. The same as it ever was.
There is something about the difference between our situations, the distance I have from being a mother of multiple kids that made it so much easier (and enjoyable) than to generate ideas for how to deal with my own day-to-day tribulations. There is no better. There is no worse. There is only different.
Had I not been able to have any children, I think I would have forever felt this absence, just as I imagine, if I had a house full of children, I would long for the quiet life I enjoy now.