Maybe it is because my daughter is getting older, so much farther from those baby and toddler years. Maybe it is because I myself am getting older. Or maybe it is because my husband died when I was 29 years old. Regardless of the underlying reasons, I am finally at peace with the fact that I may never have another child.
After nearly five years of caring for my husband; after transitioning from lover to wife to mother to caregiver to widow; after raising a child mostly on my own; and after so much intense grief, I feel far, far older than my 31 years. While I am nowhere near the end of my childbearing window, I am still so tired, and I sometimes think that even if life aligned perfectly, I might not have it in me anymore.
While most of my friends spent their 20s running around traveling, dating, getting graduate degrees, and exploring the world, I fell in love at 20 and married at 22. We talked about having kids someday, and I believed we would, though I had never felt like I had to have children. I liked the idea of having a family down the road, but didn’t feel that I must have one for my life to be complete. There were other things we wanted to focus on first, and we still had plenty of time.
We bought a house and adopted a dog, then another. My husband, who had helped run an AmeriCorps program for years, was promoted to co-managing nine trail crews across the state. I was selected for a TA position and started graduate school. We spent our weekends working on the house, hiking, and visiting friends. Our life was pleasant, boring and content.
A little over three years after we married, my husband was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor. A few weeks later, we were told it would eventually be terminal. His oncologist gave him five to ten years.
It was a decision neither of us ever anticipated having to make in our mid-20s, but we decided we wanted to be parents regardless of the challenges ahead, and our daughter was born almost exactly 15 months post-diagnosis. At some point we decided we wanted another child (though this was something I had known for myself as soon as our daughter was born), but that dream would go unrealized.
Multiple chemotherapies and radiation treatments, a low sperm count, and a single failed mini-IVF treatment (with no insurance coverage for fertility treatments and no money remaining for an additional attempt) left us hopeless on that front. Though there was hardly ever a gap in treatment long enough, I spent agonizing amounts of time—over and over again—counting out precisely how many weeks and days post-chemo or radiation until we could start trying again, and if I were to get pregnant then, when my due date would be.
Two weeks before our daughter’s 3rd birthday, my husband started hospice. I finally understood there was no hope for another child when I realized that he was actually going to die, and for a time, I grieved for that phantom second child more than I did for my dying husband.
In the months that followed, I worked through my grief, oftentimes surprisingly effectively, but the haunting of that phantom second child lingered. For over a year after his death, I couldn’t be around pregnant women without breaking into a cold sweat as I flushed and my blood pressure spiked.
I wrote essays about it and talked friends’ ears off as I tried to accept my new reality, to acknowledge it in a way that my heart could understand. I eventually went through all of the baby clothes that we’d held onto and gave them away. I learned to brace myself and answer with pseudo-calm when my daughter asked for siblings or why there was no baby in my belly like the mothers of her friends.
I had put so much weight and so much hope into the thought of another child, that it had become one of the many heavy anchors tethering me to the bottom amidst an already rapidly rising tide.
Then, one day, I realized quite suddenly that I was at peace with my current state of motherhood. The thought of never having another child no longer gave me intense anxiety or plummeted me into tears. I was so grateful for my daughter and hopeful for the future, but the angst was gone.
Unbeknownst to me, and without intent, I had let it go. I was going to be fine, better than fine. I was going to be everything I wanted and needed, regardless of my place on the motherhood spectrum and whether or not I had the opportunity to be a mother again.
If my daughter remains an only child, so be it. If I find love with someone else and we get the opportunity to be parents, fantastic, but I am no longer banking on it as a requirement for my happiness and fulfillment in life, and that is a remarkably freeing feeling.