When my son was about six months old, the comments began. Time for another one, they said. He needs a sibling. At first I laughed it off. I blamed lack of sleep and fresh memories of childbirth. But with each of my son’s milestones, my excuses started to get weaker and weaker. Because the truth felt shameful: my body and mind were too broken to have another baby.
I’d been developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years, but it flared to its worst form when my son was eight months old. I was bed-bound for weeks at a time, too exhausted to do anything but breastfeed and crippled by guilt that I couldn’t do more. At the time, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought maybe all moms felt this tired, and I was just weak.
When I confided in some older mothers how hard it felt being a new mom, they told me I just needed to have more kids. It’s easier once you have three or four, they said. Just wait, they said. I’d always wanted more than one child, but I couldn’t imagine how that would make things easier.
That year, I did a series of paintings. All of them depicted a mother holding a baby in the ocean about to be hit by a wave. It wasn’t until my son was almost two that I looked at these and thought, Maybe I have postpartum depression. Now, it seems obvious that I did. But for two years, no one else noticed either.
When I went back to work after a particularly bad CFS flare, someone asked me if I was pregnant. You’ve been so tired, they said, looking gleeful. I just thought you might be. I knew I wasn’t, but took a test anyway so I wouldn’t have to discuss my periods at work.
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When my son turned two, I really started to feel the pressure to have another child. The collective comments I’d gotten over the years turned into one loud internalized voice telling me that I needed to provide siblings within a reasonable time frame. I’d already missed the classic two-year gap, and was about to miss three if I didn’t get pregnant soon. I started researching sibling age gaps and worrying that my son would grow up dysfunctional if I made the wrong choice.
Another part of me had plain old baby fever. When I looked at my son’s baby photos or saw a cute newborn in a stroller, I felt a twinge of longing. The postpartum depression fog was lifting, and things that had once seemed impossibly hard beckoned me to try again. I was still battling chronic fatigue, and somewhere deep inside, I knew my body couldn’t handle another pregnancy. But my husband and I started talking and—even more dangerous—dreaming.
When I told my doctors that I was thinking about getting pregnant, they either laughed or frowned. Usually I had also just given them a rundown of my symptoms: chronic exhaustion, weakness, lightheadedness, swollen throat, painful stomach, etc. They put me on class C and D medications—the ones that can cause birth defects. They told me that if I wanted to get pregnant, I’d have to switch medications first. When I tried switching, I had such bad withdrawal that I finally went back to the first ones. I cried and stocked up on contraceptives.
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Sometimes I ask my sister if I can come over and hold her baby. I miss the way a newborn smells and the weight of a child fully relaxing in my arms. Sometimes I feel a little muscle spasm in my belly and think for a split-second that it was a baby kicking. I miss that feeling, too.
Since my son turned three, no one has asked me when I’m having another baby. I guess I’ve reached the threshold of the something-must-be-wrong and I-better-not-ask. I’m still coming to terms with this truth: there is something wrong with me. I’m not infertile (to my knowledge), I’m just too unwell to have another baby right now. My chronic fatigue still prevents me from caring for my son most days; I need a backup adult around in case I crash. I can’t imagine how my body would respond to pregnancy or those sleepless newborn days.
I’ve never thought that’d I’d only have one child. I never imagined my son growing up as an only child. But there’s a real possibility that that might be the best thing for us. I still hope I’ll be well enough to have another baby one day. Even if I got pregnant while sick, I’d be thrilled. Scared for my body and for the baby’s health. But thrilled nonetheless.
Sometimes I tell people that I’d like to have more children. Other times, I stay quiet when the subject comes up, not wanting to explain about my defective body. Sometimes I take pregnancy tests I know will be negative, just on the outside chance they aren’t. I guess I’m hoping for a sign, a miracle.
My son tells me that he wants a baby sister. I don’t think he really understands what that means yet. He’s just read books where a new baby comes home and it’s a big adventure. Still, I sometimes take his words as a kind of prophecy. My son was the surprise child we never knew we needed. I hope God has more surprises where he came from.
Photo © Elizabeth Steere