The dreaded question: ‘So, are you guys thinking about No 2?’
‘Actually, no. We spent the last two years mourning Nos 2, 3 and 4’
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?
Did you give them The Answer?
Amazing. You okay?
How can people be so insensitive and intrusive?
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, sidesaddling 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.
They may be stuck at the blackjack table, playing the worst game ever: stick or twist?
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 clear-sightedness. 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 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.
The red dots on the calendar that meant we had to have sex that week, every night
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 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.