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The Child I Will Never Have

Photograph by Twenty20

Before my husband and I married, I wanted seven children. I’m the oldest of five: three girls, two boys. I thought happily about how my sibling group—all close in age—and I had played together and banded together. Planning to have a large group of children, close together in age, meant that my kids would never be lonely, would never be without a friend, would probably never even want for a blood donor.

My husband, though, is the older of two boys, five years apart. While he had played with his brother, they were always at too-different stages in life to be as close as my sister and I had been. My husband wanted “only” three children.

We compromised on five. I gave two of my dream children up, and he accepted two of mine.

This was all before having even one child, of course. Such naïveté is hard to imagine now.

Having kids is hard. All of it. The giving birth part, of course, is infamously difficult. Ridiculously so, really. And sometimes, getting pregnant is hard or impossible. Sometimes money limits the kids you planned for. Sometimes, your relationship doesn’t make it, leaving you without the partner you started the plan with in the first place.

And sometimes, your children just drive you insane.

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My first baby cried all the time. I dutifully stripped her naked to check, in a bright light, that one of my long brown hairs hadn’t treacherously wrapped around her toe or finger, cutting off her circulation. I checked for rashes. I gave her gas drops and rubbed teething gel on her gums just in case a tooth was coming in early.

Nothing was wrong.

My daughter would sleep for 20 minutes at a time, then wake screaming. I thought I’d die from lack of sleep. I pleaded, cried and finally growled at her to sleep for God’s sake.

I’m not proud of it.

In those dark hours, it was just the baby, my sore breasts and me. My husband slept fitfully with earplugs stuffed in, because he had both college classes and a waiter’s shift the next day. I didn’t actually want to hurt my baby, but I realized that I could now understand the mothers that lost it. I could see how this path led to insanity. I could barely hold a coherent thought in my head, but sympathy for all exhausted mothers took a firm root that has never left me.

The fifth child will never be.

One night, I knocked on my mother-in-law’s door—we were living with them—with my screaming bundle. When she opened the door, I burst into tears and begged her to take the baby so I could sleep. “I’m going to die,” I told her fervently. I really believed it. She took my baby to the living room and out of my earshot—bless her.

We hadn’t talked about a firm time I would relieve her, but I’d told her that I couldn’t have my baby crying until she threw up, or crying until she was damaged, or crying until she thought her mother had abandoned her. I’d read attachment-parenting books that made me fear these things. Although I was desperate for sleep, I made my mother-in-law promise that she would bring my shrieking bundle back to me, to scream in my arms where she belonged—although I couldn’t do anything for her in those helpless nights.

She promised and I passed out.

Waking up in a blind panic, I sat up in bed, mind suddenly clear for the first time in the two weeks since I’d given birth. I knew that my mother-in-law had not kept her promise. My baby was vomiting everywhere from her upset, and her brain had been damaged from lack of love, and we would always have a rift between us caused by maternal abandonment. Or my mother-in law had fallen asleep, and my baby had cried and choked herself to death, her body still in the swaddle I’d wrapped her in, her grandmother snoring nearby.

I reached for my glasses so I could see the clock. I stared in disbelief: only two hours had passed. How was my head working again after only two hours of sleep? But no way had the baby just not cried for two hours. She was still dead. I got up and ran to the living room to find out for sure.

My mother-in-law was still awake, rocking her grandchild, who was still alive and making slight sniffling noises. I decided the baby must have actually lost her voice from screaming in her abject misery. “Why didn’t you bring her to me?” I asked, probably shrilly. “Because she never cried longer than five minutes at a time,” she answered. “Maybe she knew Mama needed to rest.”

Real talk: they are demanding and rude and beautiful and laugh so loud they shake the house and scream so much I’m afraid CPS will be called.

“It’s been two hours,” I accused. The grandmother was surprised to hear it, had been wrapped in a cocoon of adoration with the whiny infant in her arms. “I better take her now,” I said righteously, “she’s been without milk for way too long!” With my baby in my arms again, I felt better. “Thank you,” I said. “I can think again.”

The pediatrician just shook his head and said it was colic. “Sometimes they just cry,” he said, causing me to feel like beating him with my diaper bag. Colic is what doctors call it when they just don’t know. Eventually our first baby calmed down, and we had the second baby two and a half years after the first. I don’t know how we got the courage to do that again, but then the second was so easy—fat, happy, smiley—that we had the third two years later, and the fourth two years later again.

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The fifth child will never be. Although we never had a colicky baby again, it’s not just the babyhood you have to worry about. They grow up, get loud, start fighting with each other and screaming “no” at you. They become teenagers, slam doors, and yell that they hate you. Four was all we could handle, which is more than some can handle or desire, and fewer than others can handle or desire.

It was right for us.

Sometimes I think about that phantom fifth child. He (or she) was part of our plan.

These four are so loud, though. Real talk: they are demanding and rude and beautiful and laugh so loud they shake the house and scream so much I’m afraid CPS will be called. They refuse to go to sleep unless I tuck them in. Daddy can do it, but it’s not done for real until Mommy does it. Sometimes I think we were crazy to keep going, following the plan like we did for so long. That’s what makes me wonder about the one we didn’t bring into our family: What would she have been like? Would he have been the one to drive me over the edge of sanity?

Sometimes I'm sad about our change of plans. Other times, I'm relieved we'll never know.

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