When do you know you’re done having children? I thought I knew. Since Johnny, my fourth child and only son, was born 18 months ago, I have said to myself, “I’m not having any more kids.” Even before Johnny’s birth, during the last two months of pregnancy when my weight approached 200 pounds and I could barely squeeze my enormous belly behind the wheel of our minivan, I told myself, “Remember this. Remember how uncomfortable you are. Remember how your feet are swollen and your hemorrhoids itch and burn. When this child gets to the toddler stage and you start getting the baby urge, remember the heartburn and the breathlessness and the fact that for six or seven months your husband doesn’t want to touch you with a ten-foot pole. Remember.”
During Johnny’s first year, I didn’t need much reminding. With only five and a half years separating my four children, I was too exhausted to think about another baby. When I look at photos from the weeks right after Johnny’s birth, I wonder how the hell we all survived. In one photo taken when Johnny was about a month old, Rebecca, Angela, and Lucy, my three daughters, sit on the couch in their nightgowns. They all look sullen and sleepy, like someone woke them up too early. In the center of the picture, Johnny lies draped across Rebecca’s lap. His head flops to the side, and he gazes off into space with that uncomprehending infant look on his face.
A few weeks ago when the girls were looking through the photo albums, I happened to catch sight of that picture. I showed it to my husband Jack. “Look at those children,” I told him. “There are so many of them. And they’re all so young.”
Every now and again, Jack would gently broach the subject of having another baby. A few months ago, Jack sat on the couch in our living room. He bounced Johnny gently on his knees and sang, “This is the way the ladies ride, the ladies ride, the ladies ride. This is the way the ladies ride so early in the morning.” Johnny grinned in anticipation. By the time Jack got to “This is the way the farmer rides,” he had Johnny bouncing higher than the back of the couch. Johnny giggled ecstatically. He whined for more when Jack stopped.
In between rides, Jack looked at me. “Johnny needs a brother,” he said.
“I can’t guarantee a brother,” I answered. “And even if I could, I don’t want to have another baby right now. Maybe never.”
We know people with big families. Seven, eight, nine kids. We have seen over and over again what I call the “feral child syndrome.” The older children in these families are wonderful, well behaved, gracious, socially adept. At some point, the parents, especially the mothers, get stretched beyond their limits. Very few women can adequately respond to the needs of so many children. In the worst cases, the younger children act as though they’re being raised by wolves, unkempt, unruly, wildly annoying, they cry out for somebody, anybody to pay attention to them. I vowed a long time ago I would not raise feral children.
So far, Jack and I have successfully avoided the syndrome. If a stranger had happened to walk into my home this evening around 6:30, however, he might not have agreed. Four days a week, Jack doesn’t get home in time for dinner. I usually feed the kids around 6:00. By 6:30, I’ve excused everyone from the table. They run around the house like banshees until Jack walks in the door at 7:00. This evening, I stood at the kitchen sink rinsing plates and cups and silverware and stacking them in the dishwasher. As I rinsed the last cup, seven-year-old Rebecca appeared around the corner dressed like Carmen Miranda. Last weekend, one of my girlfriends gave me some hand-me-down dance-recital costumes her niece had outgrown. Rebecca had chosen a lime-green and white-sequined leotard with a matching crinoline tutu and shoulder puffs. Rebecca twirled around the kitchen floor.
“You look beautiful,” I told her.
A moment later, Johnny toddled around the corner wearing a canary yellow satin and sequin leotard pulled up over his black jeans and long-sleeved gray Henley. The shiny fabric stretched over his round belly. Johnny watched Rebecca twirl across the tile a few times. He smiled up at me then turned a slow circle. Rebecca laughed. Johnny clapped his hands. Dried snot covered the space between his nose and his upper lip. From out in the living room, I could hear four-year-old Angela and two-year-old Lucy shriek with laughter as Angela chased Lucy around the room. A few seconds later, Lucy ran through the kitchen. Angela followed. They glanced at Johnny on their way by.
“Johnny’s a girlie. Johnny’s a girlie,” Angela chanted.
Johnny twirled again. I dried my hands and lifted Johnny into my arms. He leaned back and patted the costume’s sequins. “Dahhhh,” Johnny told me with a note of pride in his voice. “Dahhhh.”
“I see,” I answered. “Those are beautiful sequins. Maybe you do need a brother.”
“Daaahhh,” Johnny answered, and gave me a kiss.