Recently I read an essay by Toni Hammer about the void that happens when you’re done having children. About halfway through the piece, I could feel a knot in my throat, tears rising behind my eyes. Why? Because I’ve been living in this void, unwilling, possibly unable, to admit it. Reading Ms. Hammer’s words brought me to my knees in recognition.
I grew up an only child until age 12, when my sister was born. The sizable gap between us ensured that we both experienced life more or less as only children with the undivided attention and devotion of our parents. I thought that was fine and that if I ever had a child, I only wanted one.
I was married briefly in my early thirties. I realized it was a colossal mistake the morning after our ill-fated nuptials, and that I would not and could not spend my life with a man with whom I never wanted to have a child. The ex used to joke that if we had a child we would have one perfect child, by surrogate, so that my body wouldn’t be “ruined” (his word). He informed me that we would have a nanny raise the child so we could simply continue living the life we had created for ourselves without missing a beat, without changing anything.
When I divorced my ex-husband, I knew that if I was ever fortunate enough to fall in love and be able to have a child with the man I loved, I wanted to experience being pregnant. I knew that I wanted to raise my child and not hand him or her over to somebody else. As much as I knew that I wanted to be a mother, I didn’t want my ex to be the father to my child.
Ernie Hemingway and I met, fell in love, and ultimately married when I was 38. At that time, I was being screened for cervical cancer every three months and had been in that position for nearly a decade. My doctors told me that my chances of conception were low to minimal because of my health history, but we decided to try, nevertheless.
We got lucky. Winning the lottery lucky. At age 39, I got pregnant within three months of when we began trying. Despite being a “geriatric” pregnancy (don’t you love how the medical establishment makes women over 35 feel so good about themselves?!?), my first pregnancy went full term. In the words of my obstetrician, my pregnancy was disgustingly healthy. Our son was born in February 2008, healthy and happy. We were blessed.
Within a year, I was given a clean bill of health and the green light to try for a second child by both my oncological gynecologist and my obstetrician. Unfortunately, our family was not in a place where having a second child was feasible. We were a newly married couple still learning to navigate one another’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, moving into a new house, facing the eventuality of Ernie’s two young adult children moving in with us. Additionally, Ernie had been experiencing some significant health problems, and I had gone back to practicing law part time to support the aforementioned home purchase and additional full-time family members.
By the time Ernie and I were ready to try again, our lives had gotten more complicated, and my reproductive system had aged another three years. Rather than put ourselves and our child through the rigors of trying to get pregnant at an advanced age, we decided to throw caution to the wind and simply let the universe figure it out for us. Que sera, sera.
Alas, bambino number two never did materialize. Instead, we poured our parenting energy into our little boy, and we have been honored with a happy, secure, and precious child. Being a mother to my son is the most amazing gift I’ve ever received. I am humbled that I get to hold his little hand for a few years until he lets go and moves out into the universe on his own.
Earlier this summer I was confronted with the void when my gynecologist informed me that I was, based on my blood tests, in all likelihood post-menopausal. At age 45. I was shocked. I had no hot flashes, no mood swings, no weird or outrageous behavior that alienated my family (unless you count one errant blog post wherein I said some not-so-nice things about one of my step-daughters; fortunately, she and I have resolved our differences).
In fact, based on my experience with menopause thus far, I’d say it was pretty uneventful. It was almost a disappointment.
Except for the void. The gut-wrenching fear and anguish that wrapped itself around my heart when I realized that I would not have another child. I would never again experience that wondrous amazement at seeing the positive pregnancy test after peeing on a stick, then running to share it with my husband at 5:30am. I would never again get to carry my hugely pregnant body proudly through the universe exuding goodwill and love.
I would never again nurse an infant and lose myself in memorizing that little face for hours. I would never again fall asleep propped up on pillows with my baby slumbering on my chest, little fists clenching my t-shirt, lips pursing in sleep for phantom nursing.
Even after the last few years of slowly dawning realization that there will be no more babies for me, the confirmation of that fact left me breathless with grief. I’ve spent the last few months trying to memorize everything about my son and experience every moment with him. I know that as he approaches the age of seven, so many of the little things will start coming to an end, and I will never know just when.
I’ll never know when it will be the last time he wants me to hold his hand as we walk into school each morning. I will miss knowing it is the last morning he wants me to walk him to his classroom. I’ll never know when it will be the last time he asks me to spell something for him, or to help him build a Lego set.
I won’t know the last time he wants me to pick him up for a piggyback ride or a hug. The final time he wants to snuggle with me at night while we read or while he falls asleep will pass unnoticed. I’ll never know when it’s the last early morning when he’ll come staggering into our bedroom looking for snuggles before the sun rises on another day.
I’ll never know when he will come running for me with open arms for the last time, or when he’ll jump into my arms for the last time. Nor will I ever know when it’s the last time he’ll reach for my hand or hide behind my legs when he’s scared.
I won’t know when it’s the last time he’ll ask me to get him ice water or to fix his pasta just so with the cheese he likes. I will miss the last time he asks me to buckle his seat belt in the car, to tie his shoes, or to pick him up and hold him when he’s hurt.
I won’t know it’s the last time for any of those things. Until they never happen again, and I’m left with only my memories of those sweet, sweet moments, wishing I had known when they were ending so I could have captured their exquisite beauty.