I remember asking the question, during a prenatal exam with my midwife Sherry almost four years ago, "How do you know when you're done having kids?" I was staring at the ceiling while I asked the question, so it wasn't immediately apparent whom the question was directed at. "You're not asking me, are you?" asked Sherry's assistant Debbie, with a guffaw. "You know you're done when it doesn't work anymore!" I smiled, not surprised by this answer.
Sherry seemed deep in thought as she probed my swollen belly with her hands. "Well.." she started, and then began describing the timing and circumstances surrounding the conceptions of each of her four children. I was only half-listening, I have to confess, so I only caught bits and pieces of her thorough answer. "Then we talked about having another, and oops, I was already pregnant... Then we were finished having kids and we made that decision final when our youngest was three.."
I know what motivated me to ask the question. It's the same question I've heard echoed by many other women who have an easy time conceiving and bearing children, and are worried that they might not only not be able to stop -- they also might not want to. At the time I was expecting my third kid in four years and I was overwhelmed for multiple reasons, but at the same time so full of joy and anticipation. I knew that I had a pretty challenging time ahead of me with my husband being deployed until the baby was six months old, and I did wish that maybe our timing could have been better with this one. I'd also fielded some well-meaning but somewhat rude comments from some people in regard to our apparent fecundity. At the commissary recently, I'd run into a master gunnery sergeant that Tim and I had gone to Iraq with years ago before Tim and I were together. He'd taken in the sight of me with my big belly and my shopping cart with a one-year-old and a three-year-old inside and said, "Does he ever leave you alone?" "He's leaving me alone for a whole ten months while he's on a MEU!" I'd replied cheerfully. "But he'll be back," he'd said, his voice low and his eyes wide.
So as I lay on Sherry's exam table mulling all of this over, it seemed very likely that if we didn't come up with a better family planning method besides sending Tim away on deployments, I could easily end up with at least two or three more kids, as I was 31 at the time. That scared me. On the other hand I was sad at the thought of ever being done with having babies. I hoped that when the time came to be done that I would have a clear sign that it was time, and that I'd be happy and at peace with that. (And that hopefully I wouldn't have 10 babies like Debbie by then. I was pretty sure I couldn't handle that.)
Time went by. Timmy was born. My husband came back as the master gunny had warned. We learned a method of NFP together and practiced it, as opposed to saying we were using NFP when we were really just winging it. We successfully avoided having a baby during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2013. (This was a huge relief as I had been petrified of the idea of having another baby by myself.) Then we continued to avoid pregnancy for several months after he got back, and just enjoyed a kind of carefree time. I needed lots of time to recover after those few years of having our three and then dealing with the back-to-back deployments. And lots of time I got.
After awhile we began to be lax about the NFP. Without talking about it we knew we were both drawn toward having another baby. I had never believed that Timmy would be the last even though I had declared that he was immediately following his birth. Now it seemed like another baby would be a good thing. When we got orders to Parris Island I felt sure that we'd be having baby number four here.
Well, after 12 months of trying .. nothing. I think that makes me (us) officially infertile. Secondary infertility is what it's called. My chances will only continue to dwindle from here on out as I get older. I'm starting to accept that another baby is not to be. I am in a MUCH better place emotionally about this now than I was even a few weeks ago, and that's why I found myself wanting to write about it here. When I was still feeling anxious and sad I just wanted to keep it all to myself and it was hard even talking to Tim about it.
I realize now what miracles the three kids we have really are. I definitely didn't appreciate that in the past. I took my fertility for granted, and saw it even as a burden. But I am so very grateful that we had them one after another while we could. And now when I look back at the timing of Timmy, I realize that that it was perfect. I used to think that we had made a mistake conceiving him when we did, but now I wouldn't go back and change a thing. I realize that God's plans are better than mine and they always were. And the fact this inability to conceive comes AFTER three easy pregnancies and three kids .. I know I shouldn't even complain. There are so many others who have it far worse with multiple miscarriages or never being able to get pregnant.
The hardest time of the past year was when the window came and went for having a summer 2015 baby. The other three were born in summer or close to it, and I thought it would be the perfect time, especially since they wouldn't be in school. Then fall passed and with it that opportunity, and that was a tough time because at that point we'd been waiting and hoping for eight to ten months. We were able to make some fun plans for summer that we would not be able to do if we were having a baby, and that helped me to feel better about that.
When Debbie said, "You know you're done when it doesn't work anymore," I just assumed that meant menopause. (In her case, I'm pretty sure it did. Her kids ranged in age from in her 20s and just-married all the way down to four and just weaned. She'd have kept right on going if she could have. I thought she might be a little crazy.;)) Now I know that for mysterious reasons nobody can understand, not everyone who wants a baby, or has had one in the past, can have one. I guess I always knew that but never knew it applied to me.
I read a blog post that I loved right in the middle of this year-long quest. It is written by a Catholic mom of a lot of kids, but I think no matter what your faith is, or where you stand regarding contraception, it is such an enlightening and refreshing perspective (and there are great pictures too!). Everybody worries that they'll have too many children, and they never stop to consider they might not have any. Or they might only be able to have one or two. I thought it especially interesting how low birthrates were in 1930 to 1939, a time before birth control was widely in use. She concluded by saying that if you find yourself having an unplanned pregnancy, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you (I couldn't agree more!); and if you find yourself unable to have children, or more children, it could be the biggest cross of your life. She also reminded us that a lot of this is not in our control anyway, so we should all just stop worrying about it so much. Reading this again months after the first time, I think this last part is the most important thing to take away. We always think it's up to us to be in control of our lives and when things don't go according to plan we become anxious and worried. I know that's been the case for me, someone who has been on both sides of wanting a baby and not wanting one.
Having my pregnancy and baby years behind me at 35 is not what I envisioned, but I know that it's not a bad thing. Those years were amazing and life-transforming, and I will always cherish the memories and pictures. But if I'm being honest with myself, those were some tough times too. Even though I had easy labors and births, I took a long time physically and emotionally to feel like myself again afterward. I have also never handled lack of sleep very well, and the kids I have are keeping me on my toes enough as it is. Add a few more years of age to all of this, and I'm sure it only becomes more taxing. This isn't the time to be using up all my reserves and going back to survival mode.
I think it's time to grow and change in other ways. I want to push myself to do the things I'd never try if I thought I was having a baby anytime soon. I could run another half-marathon or even another full marathon. I want to teach a CCD class next year, and that is so outside my comfort zone which is all the more reason I should. That's something that I would excuse myself from even thinking about if there was a baby on the way. Some people do it all with babies but I was never one of those people. Once Timmy's in school five mornings a week next year, I can volunteer more at school. I can continue taking care of the family that I have and look for ways to do it even better. It isn't like they don't need me enough! And we have so many good times ahead as the kids get older. One day in just a few years, we'll go to an amusement park and every one of us will be tall enough to ride all the rollercoasters. I've already gotten used to having no kids in diapers. It's only been six months but it feels like forever.
I've gotten rid of most of my baby stuff that I know I could find a dime a dozen on Craigslist -- bouncers, high chairs, play mats, and nearly all the clothes. I could get rid of the pack 'n play too, and the one remaining crib mattress. The things that I can't let go of, and that Tim thinks I shouldn't get rid of either are the Ergo (that thing cost $100 and they're not cheap on the used market either), the really nice glider and ottoman, and the infant carseat with bases that doesn't expire until I think 2018 (the Chicco one I got brand new after our accident in 2012). I am conflicted about keeping all these things. It goes against my anti-clutter philosophy. I know someone else could be using these things right now while we continue to hoard them. That seems selfish. Also, the fact that we keep these things means we haven't quite let go of the dream, right? Now we could save the glider and ottoman to give to one of our kids. The Ergo too, if they want it, but I doubt they will unless they like baby gear that's out of style. Maybe one of my girls will wear it proudly -- her vintage Ergo. The car seat will have long ago lost its usefulness. We really should sell that soon. We only used it for Timmy a few months before he switched to a convertible. It would be a great deal for somebody, and it wouldn't be the end of the world if we ever needed a new one. (Please God, don't let that happen when I'm 42! There I go again, worrying about things I can't control..)
That's enough rambling. As I said before, I feel better about all this than I have in a long time. Writing about it has helped me even more. Four years ago when I asked the question, "How do you know when you're done?" I thought I still had all the time in the world, and my biggest worry was ending up like Debbie or my grandma or that picture of poor Mrs. Cottontail in Kendra's post. It's so funny how things work out sometimes.