An Only Child

by Lisa Manheim
Originally Published: 
Image via Shutterstock

My family has not taken the shape I expected it would, back when I was first expecting.

Eight years ago when I started dating Joel, a divorced father of three small children, I had been galavanting around New York City for over a decade, unsure if I would ever meet my future husband. On the one month anniversary of our first date, I confronted him with my deal breaker question:

“Do you want to have more kids?” I asked, prepared for my whirlwind romance to end.

“I’d have one or two,” he said. I heard “two,” and dared to be hopeful that Joel was “the one.”

Six weeks after our wedding, I became pregnant with Sam, at the “advanced maternal age” of 36. In my mind, that left plenty of time to have another before I reached the super-advanced maternal age of 40. But, we agreed to not even talk about it until Sam was one year old. I turned my attention to my beautiful baby boy, and put the conversation away for a year.

But when Sam turned one, Joel tensed up and avoided my eyes when I brought up number two. I knew that he was feeling the emotional and financial pressure of supporting two families. I decided not to push it too hard, afraid it might drive us apart, as my maternal age kept galloping along.

“I just want Sam to have siblings,” I’d reason.

“Sam already has siblings,” he reminded me.

It is worth mentioning that Joel’s kids are outstanding. At ages 12, 14, and 15, they love Sam completely, and include him much more than I remember including my own younger sister in my social life. Sam has no idea what a “half” sibling is and even when he learns, it won’t matter to him. If you ask him, he will proudly tell you he has two “brudders” and a sister, who write him letters from sleep away camp and cave in to endless demands for “Too Many Monkeys.”

But we only get to see them on alternate weekends, and I wanted for Sam what I had with my own sister: a daily companion with whom to ride bikes before dinner, whisper late at night, or roll eyes when Mom is being totally embarrassing.

My friends’ families were starting to multiply. When they would share the joyful news that they were expecting Baby #2, I cringed and smiled.

“That’s the best news!” I’d say, my voice unnaturally high and shaky. I was happy for them, but unhappy for me. I felt my family was incomplete.

To boot, we moved into a community where dozens of families have multiple kids. At one of my first events at Sam’s preschool, a small woman covered from head to toe in black, a basketball of a belly protruding from her tiny frame, greeted me warmly, asking if Sam had any siblings. As usual, I felt like I had to make an excuse for having just one child.

“He has three half-siblings, so sometimes we have a pretty full house,” I explained, maybe just a wee bit patronizingly. “Is this your first?”

“My ninth,” she responded.

Poof. Smugness evaporated. She had a full-time Little League team to my part-time four square.

As I turned 37, 38, 39, I started to worry about my waning window of fertility. But then, just a few weeks before my 40th birthday, I was surprised and thrilled when I peed on a stick and two short lines appeared, a veritable “equals” sign that rendered me equal to my fellow moms with two kids.

My anxieties about having an only child suddenly became irrelevant, and I began making important plans in my head, like how to transform the guest bedroom into a baby’s room and how to cleverly announce my pregnancy on Facebook. But seven weeks into it, on a balmy night at my parents’ house in Florida, an unwanted splotch punctuated a heartbreaking end to those plans.

After that, it became clear to me that a second child was unlikely. My body clearly wasn’t into it and my heart began to follow suit.

At first, I rationalized that it was much more manageable to watch one kid in the pool and to pack just one nut-free, well-balanced lunch. It was easier to send just one child to the private school that we fell in love with or to Summer camp for a full eight weeks. It was simpler to bathe one child and brush one set of teeth after a long, exhausting day of work.

I wouldn’t have minded reading an extra bedtime story or two. Though probably not nine.

So I arrange lots of playdates, plan vacations with other families, and make sure that we spend as much time as possible with Sam’s cousins, “brudders,” and sister. I try to surround him with people who love him, always. I have come to realize that family isn’t a number.

And the only thing I count are my blessings.

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