On our second date, my now-husband and I agreed that we wanted three to five children. Not a particularly large family by our Orthodox community’s standards, but a nice, respectable size.
As most of my stories go these days: Then we had kids. And everything changed.
My first birth was medically uncomplicated but emotionally intense. I had anxiety throughout my pregnancy and my plan for an unmedicated home birth was derailed when I was still pregnant at 42 weeks and accepted a hospital induction. The change in plans and reality of childbirth left me reeling. As I recovered physically and emotionally, while managing breastfeeding struggles and a fussy baby, I vowed never to put myself through this again.
Not surprisingly, time and lots of therapy helped me heal. By the time I was nine months postpartum, I was back to dreaming of a big family and I was thrilled to get a positive pregnancy test a few months later.
But soon, the hormonal changes made my anxiety so intense that I struggled to get out of bed in the morning and I needed to start taking antidepressants to feel like myself again. Then came the birth. I was prepared to schedule an induction at 42 weeks again, but I was shocked when my labor ended in an unplanned c-section. To add insult, my uterus tore during the surgery, leaving a T-shaped scar that could make future births even more complicated.
As you can imagine, I was not eager to repeat the experience. Still, I assumed that, like the first time around, these feelings would fade as that baby got older.
That baby will be 4 years old this summer and with each passing year, I’ve only felt more strongly that our family is complete. It’s not just that I want to avoid the ordeals of childbearing; now I’m not even interested in another child. I don’t want to add an entire person to our family. Just the thought of it sounds less like a joyful blessing and more like a lot of extra work and stress.
It goes without saying that I adore everything about my daughters, and I’m thrilled that they’re close in age. They love each other and get along beautifully, when they’re not screaming and pulling each other’s hair. They are gorgeous and smart and charming. They’re also both incredibly spirited. They dazzle the pants off anyone they meet, but they’re also exhausting to care for. I like to joke that they’re going to take over the world someday, if only I can keep them alive long enough.
I can’t discount the impact of the pandemic on these feelings. In March 2020, my kids were 3.5 and 1.5 years old, and I was already feeling run down by close pregnancies, not enough childcare and still being woken through the night. Then we had two years of intense restrictions here in Ontario. Even if I’d wanted another baby in that time, I was terrified of the prospect of giving birth in the midst of all that.
Life finally seems to be returning to normal here, but that doesn’t take away the incredible stress of parenting over the past few years. I’m sure time will help me heal, as it always has. But right now, I’m in no shape to add any more weight to the sagging shelf that is my capacity to manage.
It seems like every month, another friend announces a pregnancy or birth. Friends who started having babies around the same time as me are onto their third or fourth or fifth child. I love hanging out with them and getting my fill of baby snuggles, then going back to my house that is serenely silent during school hours. I’m happy for them and happy for me.
I know that their family planning has nothing to do with me. Yet somehow it feels like they’re moving forward and I’m being left behind. Every time I settle it in my head that I’m content with the family I have, another announcement comes and makes me reconsider everything.
Thankfully I don’t have to deal with unkind comments. When my friends ask about my plans for more kids and I answer candidly, they’re supportive. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I’m still young, that I have so much time to change my mind. As if the default is always more babies. As if there’s something unnatural about being content with “only” two children, despite how understandable they assure me these feelings are.
I’ve always struggled with self-acceptance, with believing that I’m enough. And apparently I’ve turned family size into yet another yardstick against which I’m not measuring up.
Judaism emphasizes the importance of family and reproduction, for the continuity of our small nation that is always under attack. It’s more than just cultural: There’s a Jewish law obliging us to reproduce. Contraception is widely used in my community, but it’s not something that’s used “lightly,” without much consideration and (usually) rabbinic counsel.
The “minimum requirement” to fulfill this obligation is one son and daughter. While this isn’t quite so hard and fast, it makes things feel even more complicated for me. My husband and I are happy with our two daughters and feel no need to have a son, but these personal feelings chafe up against the laws that we live by.
When I think of lofty things like my values, all my reasons to not have another baby feel small and surmountable. But then I remember real life and the thousands of practicalities involved in birthing and raising those babies. And I think about what I want, how I feel when I imagine having another baby — panicked and resistant. That matters, too, perhaps more than anything else.
I’ve come to realize that my internal conflict over the size of my family is no different from any of my other struggles in adjusting to motherhood. I had great big ideas about how motherhood would look. And I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that these ideals don’t always line up with the realities of life with children.
Since the moment I got pregnant with my first child, motherhood has been an exercise in adjusting my expectations and adapting to changes with as much grace as I can muster. Today, this means accepting that the big family I envisioned probably isn’t in the cards for us. Because, if I’m honest with myself, I’m perfectly content with my two incredible kids. And our family of four is just as “nice and respectable” as any family of five or six or seven.
It also means that these feelings may change. I’m still in the throes of early parenthood. I only weaned my 5.5-year-old in March and I’m still nursing her 3-year-old sister. My kids are in preschool, but contrary to what I might have expected, they don’t sleep through the night yet.
As everyone is eager to point out: I’m still young. At 28, I still have over a decade left to change my mind. Maybe when my girls are a little older and I’m sleeping again, I will want another baby.
And maybe I won’t.