‘Are you go­ing for No 2?’

Hear­ing my wife and I have one child, peo­ple ask in­tru­sively about our plans for a sec­ond. Do they ever con­sider we have had mul­ti­ple mis­car­riages?

The Guardian - Family - - Fam­ily -

My wife was talk­ing to a mate in the cor­ri­dor at work a week or so ago. “Our boy loves Blue Planet, it’s so funny. You know, even the scary bits? He loved it. And he’s only four.” She is boast­ing, a tiny bit, but it’s true. He is an in­fant Cousteau. I dream of div­ing with him one day. And even if she is boast­ing, it is just ca­sual of­fice chat; the kind we all fill our days with.

Then, a col­league from mar­ket­ing walks past. Let’s call her Sarah. She over­hears. Si­dles up. Butts in.

Drops the bomb, eye­brows raised. “So, are you guys think­ing about No 2?”

My wife winces, com­poses her­self. De­liv­ers what we have come to call: The An­swer. “No, we’re not, ac­tu­ally. We’ve de­cided, now, that our fam­ily is the right size. Thanks.”

Just po­lite enough to suf­fice. But curt enough to shut things down. With that lit­tle ver­bal shove in the small of her back, Sarah walks off, face red­den­ing with ev­ery step. Good.

My wife texts me.

Heart pound­ing. Some­one just asked.

Who? Any­one that mat­ters, or just a ran­dom?

A ran­dom.

Did you give them The An­swer?

Yeah.

Amaz­ing. You OK?

Kinda.

Small talk over the big­gest ques­tion. How can peo­ple be so in­sen­si­tive and in­tru­sive? Be­cause it seems that as soon as any­one finds out you have one child, they want to know when you plan to re­pro­duce again. But they don’t con­sider where their clumsy words will land. Some­times, they land square in your face like a well-timed punch.

The an­swer, that I want to whis­per into Sarah’s ear on my wife’s be­half is: “Ac­tu­ally, we’re not think­ing about No 2 right now. We spent the last two years mourn­ing Nos 2, 3 and 4. They never made it. Fancy a ca­sual chat about that, here in the cor­ri­dor?”

Then I would con­tinue. I would spell it all out for her.

“Not sure we’ll ever get over No 4, Sarah. Some things change you, fun­da­men­tally. That was one of them. Now, do you want to talk about our worst mis­car­riage, or the best one? The worst one was like a sur­prise abor­tion with­out anaes­the­sia. It shat­tered my wife like a cham­pagne glass dashed on a slate floor.

“How about the one that hap­pened while she was at work, pan­ick­ing in white linen trousers? Look­ing back now, that was ac­tu­ally the best one. She had to take a week and a half off to bleed, mind. Or how about when she knew an­other had started as

I was get­ting on a flight, but she stayed quiet be­cause she wanted me to fin­ish the job that I had been work­ing on for months?

“Sarah, come back. I’ve only just started. Do you want to hear about the way even dear, beloved friends, even my im­me­di­ate fam­ily, pall, stut­ter and briskly change the sub­ject the sec­ond I men­tion mis­car­riage? It is such a gen­teel, side-sad­dling eu­phemism. Oops – mis­car­ried! You see, mis­car­riage is birth and death wrapped up in one lit­tle bun­dle of mis­ery.

“A good friend’s wife who suf­fered equally said her womb felt like a grave­yard. Dwell on that for as long as you can bear it. Preg­nancy, Sarah, is quan­tum, un­sta­ble and mys­ti­fy­ing. It’s a de­light and a ter­ror. A hope that can be crushed any sec­ond. It’s yes and no si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Fancy a Jaffa Cake?”

That is what I would say. Any­one who has one child and has not had a sec­ond, or any cou­ple with­out chil­dren, may be go­ing through what we were. They may be stuck at the black­jack ta­ble, play­ing the worst game ever: stick or twist? To be or not to be? Do we keep try­ing to give our child a sib­ling un­til the eggs and our san­ity have all gone?

Un­til we got The An­swer to The Ques­tion, I spent the last two years look­ing at kids with broth­ers or sis­ters and felt a gnaw­ing, im­per­mis­si­ble jeal­ousy. Be­cause to com­mit to hav­ing an­other kid when you al­ready have one is to know the dif­fi­cul­ties of the first few years – the sleep­less­ness, the ex­pense, the nap­pies, the hard phys­i­cal graft, the worry and the joy – and to em­brace it. You have to want it so badly. And then you get it. And then it is taken from you by force.

Af­ter two years of try­ing, we reach a de­ci­sion: we ac­cept that we will have no more. I took a while to get there, but my wife sup­ported me, stead­fast as struc­tural steel, un­til I did. She as­tounded me with her strength, re­solve and clear­sight­ed­ness. She worked it all out, log­i­cally, ra­tio­nally, and emo­tion­ally. Some pain re­mained, of course, but we make the de­ci­sion, to­gether.

Then the real head­work be­gins. You have now cre­ated so­ci­ety’s last pariah: the only child. Lonely, self­ish, mal­ad­justed. Self­ish par­ents who wanted to stop at one. Self­ish child who can’t share. Poor kid, all alone. Tell me you have never had these thoughts and I will stare straight in your eyes and call you the liar that you are, be­cause I have had them, too. It is the cul­ture.

Lau­ren San­dler’s book One and Only – which de­con­structs the myths and as­sump­tions about “sin­gle­tons” as she more kindly calls them – is an em­pow­er­ing source of com­fort and knowl­edge. Such chil­dren, it turns out, are of­ten gifted, gen­er­ous, great

We have not ac­cepted sec­ondbest. We have the

son I can great­est imag­ine. He is more than enough

at mak­ing friends and com­pas­sion­ate. That de­scribes our boy to the let­ter.

San­dler reads my mind, though: “As par­ents who choose to stop at one, we have to get used to the nag­ging feel­ing that we are choos­ing for our chil­dren some­thing they can never undo. We’re de­cid­ing not to know two kids splash­ing in the bath, play­ing in the pile of raked leaves, whis­per­ing un­der cover of dark­ness, teas­ing each other at the din­ner ta­ble, hold­ing hands at our fu­ner­als,” she writes.

Who will hold our son’s hand? But you can’t think like that. Such think­ing does not serve you, or your child, or your mar­riage.

There is light among the shade of course, look­ing back. The red dots on the cal­en­dar that meant we had to have sex that week, ev­ery night. The limp­ing in to work af­ter marathon ses­sions as if we were teenagers who had just met. The lies you tell friends when they ask you out – you can’t say: “Sorry, can’t come to that gig, mate. My wife and I have to fuck each other ev­ery night this week.” Well, you can, but only to cer­tain mates. I’m not quite sure how Sarah would deal with it.

The Ques­tion throws you, ev­ery time. It is meant well, some­times, of course. But in my experience, it is nearly al­ways thought­less. Re­becca Sol­nit’s es­sen­tial new fem­i­nist text, The Mother of All Ques­tions, in­ter­ro­gates the idea that women should have chil­dren at all. She talks about her de­sire to be “truly rab­bini­cal” in the face of hos­tile, closed ques­tions. Sol­nit says she has de­vel­oped a gnomic re­sponse that turns the spot­light back on the ques­tioner. When peo­ple ask her if she is plan­ning to have chil­dren, she an­swers, with po­lite­ness: “Why are you ask­ing me that ques­tion?” I’m not sure Sarah, and the wider cul­ture, could quite han­dle that yet. We need our own an­swer.

A few weeks be­fore Sarah stopped my wife in her tracks, I re­ceived in the post a rip of a tune by Kieran Heb­den, AKA Four Tet. A re­lent­less hard disco loop with an in­ces­sant, mad­den­ing vo­cal re­frain: “I’ve got to find the an­swer to the ques­tion.” I laugh at the co­in­ci­dence and lis­ten to it for days.

Then, with no fan­fare, I get the an­swer, in one of the most qui­etly bizarre ex­pe­ri­ences of my life. One Fri­day a few weeks back, I got over the mis­car­riages and was at last able to write this piece. I felt as if I had some­how ex­or­cised my­self, in a mo­ment of in­tense calm, a lam­bent, silent epiphany. I sim­ply lay on the floor in our front room in si­lence for 45 min­utes and did ab­so­lutely noth­ing. I was dis­pas­sion­ate, de­tached, and my mind ex­panded. In that space, I ac­cepted that the past two years of strug­gle are over. Our fam­ily is the right size, the right shape, and we love it as it is. We have not ac­cepted sec­ond-best. We have not tried and failed. We have the great­est son I can imag­ine, I re­alise, word­lessly. He is more than enough.

As I am ly­ing stunned, karma chameleoned there on the floor, my son ar­rives back from nurs­ery with his mum and en­ters the room silently, lies down with me, places his head on my shoul­der, and re­mains there in peace for 10 min­utes. He has never done this in his life. It is as if he knows. “Want a cud­dle?” he asks.

We de­cide to hon­our the mo­ment, and our de­ci­sion, with a fire. To de­stroy, with­out anger, the things that do not serve us, or that have held us back. Un­abashed, we get the gar­den in­cin­er­a­tor out on the night of the win­ter sol­stice, pre­pare cer­e­mo­nial food and drink, and get the flames lick­ing the sky.

With smiles on our faces and love in our hearts, we burn it all down – the whole sorry lot of it: the jeal­ousy of other fam­i­lies, the anx­i­ety over what peo­ple think of our choices, the fear, frus­tra­tion and fury of this god­for­saken pair of years. We burn it to ash, and we will fer­tilise our gar­den with it. We will grow from here. We laugh and throw whisky and fish­bones on the flames.

We have de­cided, now, that our fam­ily is the right size, thanks.

There’s the an­swer.

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