The Case for Stopping at Two

I’ve read a few essays lately that argue for having one more child—the love a baby brings, the joy, the chance to revel in babyhood again and use all the skills you’ve honed over the first couple, why three children are better than two, and four better than three.

I’ve long dreamed of a large family and a wonderfully chaotic home, the kind you see in movies with laughter around the dinner table and children running freely. But my husband and I have two children (6 and 3) and we’ve struggled with whether or not to have one more. We continue to avoid making a decision, and the longer we do this, the more sure I am we won’t have another.

There are very real and logical reasons against having a third: we love to travel, and the cost of flying is already prohibitive. Our children are still young, and we already need twice the groceries. We have only two, and we still sometimes forget to feed them lunch.

On the other hand, it makes me want to cry to think that I am past babyhood and might never be there again, that a significant and lovely and messy part of my life is gone. That my baby is already three makes me anxious. I try to hold onto every minute and yet they still slip away like wisps of smoke. And, if I’m being honest, if my babies are no longer babies that means I am older, too. And I don’t want to be older. The single strongest lesson my children have given me is the realization that life is fragile and fleeting. I understand that now, and I’m not sure I want to be old enough to be the mom of tweens. I want to forever be a young mom of babies. I also feel a pull toward whatever person might exist—the life inside us waiting to be created. That “what if” calls to me.

Over the last few months, I’ve realized these feelings—the melancholy over something lost, the angst of what if—are the force behind my desire to have a third child.

And that’s exactly why I don’t think we should: because refusing to let go is not a good enough reason to bring a child into this world. In fact, it would be selfish.

Because, really, when I take off my rose-colored glasses, I remember that I actually dislike the infant stage. Sure, I love cuddly, giggling babies. The problem is the other 80% of the time. Having babies taught me that I am a different, more impatient, person when lacking sleep. I don’t need a lot of sleep, but I need it. They also taught me that I am easily over-stimulated. If the TV is on, my youngest is crying, and my oldest is talking over everything in an effort to educate me about dinosaurs, I lose my mind. Impatience and losing one’s mind are not good parenting traits.

I also realize that the feeling of “what if” will never go away. It will always be there; I just have to cut the cord. And if, in a few years, we decide we really do want another, there are many, many children waiting to fill a home.

For me, it has been harder to say no, even by default—to be honest with myself about my weaknesses, to understand what’s at work in my desire to have another, to realize that yes, a bigger family, the one I dreamed about, could bring joy beyond measure, but to accept that maybe we’re just not cut out for that kind of life. And the joy I feel now, spread among my wildly wonderful two, can be enough.

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The Great Ice Storm

I met Julia Munroe Martin online (it always feels sort of dirty saying that). She is an author and essayist who often appears on Writer Unboxed. Born in Déols, France, she now lives with her husband on the southern coast of Maine. She was kind enough, this January, to write about her first winter in Maine, just for us at True STORIES:

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We had moved to Maine a few months earlier, and we really hadn’t made any friends yet. My husband was commuting to Boston, and I was staying home with our two kids. It would be our first winter in Maine.

Christmas vacation was heavenly, the four of us comfortably cozy in our tiny house on an island connected by bridge to the mainland. Light snow fell in the woods, and we took walks on the icy beach. We’d moved to Maine from Colorado to be near the ocean, and we were used to the snow and cold, so we spent a lot of time outside enjoying the great outdoors.

A day after the kids went back to school, I heard there was an ice storm coming. I shrugged. Ice? How bad could that be? My husband trundled down to Massachusetts, and I took the kids to school, same as always. How could I know that “The Great Ice Storm of ’98”—to become one of the worst in Northeast and Canadian history —was bearing down on us?

I got my first taste of what we were in for when I left to pick up the kids from school. My husband had just called from Boston to let me know he was coming home early (little did he know he’d spend a grueling eight hours on a trip that usually took two). I shrugged again, this time with a little less certainty. I also put the dog in the car—our eight-year old Golden Retriever—reasoning that Bo would be help in the event I was…stranded? My reasoning was faulty at best.

The trip to pick up my children was one of the most terrifying of my driving life. The car simply could not stay on the road. I was in a cold sweat by the time I got to the school—and then I had to drive home. Five miles never sounded so long. Like all moms do, I put on a brave face and told the kids we were in for an adventure. Even they could see through my façade when we hit the first hill and slid down sideways. The roads were coated in a thin sheet of icerink-quality ice. I swallowed my panic and gripped the steering wheel. There were still at least half the miles to go.

securedownloadThings were okay until I turned off to go to the island. A long line of cars behind me—everyone used to the conditions, no doubt—carried people angry at me for holding them up (or so my new-to-town mind feared). I pulled over, thinking I’d let them all pass, but as I did, I recognized the error of my ways. The car pitched sideways again, sliding dangerously close to a ditch as it came to a stop. I glanced in the rearview mirror to see the frightened faces of my children, but I was too near tears to open my mouth to reassure them.

Car after car streamed by, no one even looking my way, until one, just one, pulled over behind me. I watched in the mirror as a man got out, and I rolled down the window as he came over. I realized when I did that it was Gary, the father of one of my son’s new friends. “Are you stuck?” Gary asked, smiling. I was never so glad to see anyone in my entire life. Gary pushed the car back on the road as I steered—ignoring the line of cars. Then he followed me home (even though it was a mile beyond his own turn off) to make sure we got there safely. I still tell his wife—who is now one of my best friends—that Gary was my savior that day.

The ice storm would continue for several days. We lost power shortly after we got home from the school run, shortly after even Bo couldn’t pull me up our sloped walkway to the house, and—to be honest—I’m not sure how the kids, the dog, and I made it the last few feet to our door. Yes, it was that treacherous.

After my husband finally got home—well after dark—we hunkered down. All around us we could hear the sound of crackling as the branches were coated with thicker and thicker ice. As the ice got even heavier we heard the sound of branches—of trees—snapping. We got out the candles. We lit a fire in our fireplace (thank goodness it had an insert so it could easily heat our entire small home), and we cooked on our camp stove. In fact we ate well that night: everything in the refrigerator and freezer added up to one of the best one-pot-stews I’ve ever tasted.

Around about the time when the stew was ready, we got a knock on the door. It was one of our neighbors we didn’t know very well (we didn’t know many people very well), asking if we had heat. They didn’t even have a fireplace. We welcomed them in for stew and to spend the night. That’s how we got to know Karen and Jean and their two kids, too.

All-in-all, our power was off for nearly a week (I would later find out that almost three-quarters of households in Maine were without power). The kids were off school, my husband stayed home from work, and we (okay, I) pretended we were pioneers. We were lucky—we stayed warm, dry, and safe. We had water, unlike many whose water was electrically pumped from wells. We helped neighbors move and cut up fallen trees, blocking roads and driveways, and we cheered and served cookies to Central Maine Power workers as they worked round the clock to restore power. And we relied on others. Our son had a basketball free-throw competition to get to—and a downed power line prevented us from getting off our street; another new friend picked us up at the end of the road. (It was well worth the trip, by the way–he won!)

I’m not going to pretend it was all sunshine and roses—these things never are. Tempers thinned, provisions got low, batteries ran out. But it was an adventure (I was right about that), and it was a bonding experience, too. “We survived the Great Ice Storm of 1998,” we moms would all say, laughingly, as we met up with each other at school in the next few weeks. We had stories to tell and a new appreciation for the power of ice.

But for me, it was more—a defining moment. We had just moved to Maine and we hadn’t made any friends, but as the ice melted and the weather improved, we found ourselves encased in a whole new community.

Julia Munroe Martin is the author behind the Empty Nest series and the mystery, Desired to Death. Find her online at  www.juliamunroemartin.com.

Helping Grandma through Cancer

Ron Estrada and I went to high school together. I haven’t seen him in years, but due to the magic of social media, I’ve discovered he’s a writer. It doesn’t surprise me; he always had a certain sensitivity about him, as you’ll see in this poignant piece about a particular moment in his grandmother’s battle with cancer ten Januaries ago:

January, 2004, I drove to the ranch townhome where my grandma, in her brown recliner, needlepointed table runners for a Thanksgiving that was eleven months away.  She waited for me, for the white bag that sat in the passenger seat of my Jeep, a white bag that may as well have held plutonium with how I considered the ideal temperature and stability and whether it was lit properly in my car in order for it to keep its proper composition and, more, its proper effectiveness.  These were silly thoughts. Nevertheless, when you think that any action you take can further compromise an already troubling situation, you adopt a role where you believe that everything you do holds the utmost causal importance to the immediate future.  So I left the heat off and cracked the windows and sat on my left hand to keep it warm and then switched to the right hand to get it warm and I listened to the Little River Band.

Just a bit earlier that day my aunt gave me the white bag that held a single white pill that was going to be the magic pill that took away my grandma’s cancer.  That’s what we called it, the magic pill.  Hearing it, hearing magic pulled me in different directions.  There was a magic pill in existence and it was sitting next to me in the car.  I thought of the few boundaries in magic.  Coins pulled out of kids’ ears, rouged women made into a cross section with lumberjack saws, warships disappearing in front of hundreds of unblinking eyes.  Magic makes believers.

But I had doubt while being hopeful, tried to establish belief and convince myself with ho-hum adages, the power of positive thinking, so forth.  They all swirled in my head like lottery balls.  Doubt and hope, partners–maybes holding hands with probably nots.

I pulled into my grandma’s driveway with the radio off.  The asphalt whitened by the winter cold, I thought of the seasons, how pavement seems to change color in a deep freeze–uglier somehow and harder looking. She met me at the door, and hugging her was like hugging a newspaper.  She’d lost form and I just tried to fit my arms around the spots that would give me a complete hold, a better covering.  It’s hard to hug someone when you’re not able to relocate all the emotion inside of you that you intend to give away.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Oh, just working on these tablecloths.”  She showed them to me.

“I like the grapes.  Do you fill them in or leave ‘em like that?”

“No.  You just follow the lines and leave it like a…”

“Border.”

“Yeah.”

“No.  It looks good.  You don’t want to have too much color on it all.  It looks classier with more white.  Your fingers’ll hurt more too.”  I looked at her hands just as she did, thin and veiny, covered in Mercurochrome, as if she’d been into the markers.

“Looks like you got sloppy with the markers.”

She laughed. “Yeah.  They’re cracking something terrible.”

“The winter.”

“And they hurt.”

“Keep putting that stuff on.”  We sat, she on the brown recliner, me on a chair that felt like I was sitting in the elbow of a tree branch. She exhaled and looked upwards and didn’t say anything.

“Here’s the thing from Aunt Nancy.”  I gave her the bag.  I couldn’t say the name.  We talked about it like the room might be bugged. For a moment it felt like we were using sign language. But we were preserving. Keeping the fragile skin of luck unpierced.

“So this is the magic pill.”

“That’s it.”

She opened the box and pushed the tablet through the foil barrier. “Just with water?”

“Umm…I guess.  Probably wouldn’t hurt to eat something.  Bread or something.”

She looked at it, so small in her hand.  Resembling a Bayer.  What you’d pop after a night of booze.  Just a regular pill. She looked at me and smiled, and I was immediately seven years old getting off the school bus.

“Well, if this doesn’t work, sayonara,” she said. She looked at her hand and left me for a moment.  She was a woman looking down at her hand. She was a woman alone facing the dark doorway of probably not.

And this image: Pinocchio, sitting outside on a stone step, feet turned in, he rests his head in his hands, his eyes open only because he’s awake; he isn’t looking at anything certain, his eyes might as well be his elbow as he’s dropped in heavy, masking thought, reflection, and thinking about all he’s done, how it affects the now and, then, naturally, the future.  Pinocchio sits on his donkey/mule/jackass tail, ear tops curled, sulky, his cricket friend sits nearby, mirroring his manner, both: “What have I done?  What now?  What do I have left?”

There’s a marked hopelessness on the faces in this picture, despair. I had the poster on my wall of this scene and there’d be times at night when I would stare at it ’til the periphery would blur and my focus would be so tight that the image would become a short narrative, though only consisting of Pinocchio deeply inhaling and then the quick out, an audible shrug.  Both seemed so lost that that this type of breathing (the kind where you might actually have to tell yourself to do it) seemed like the only thing that they could do.  They were stuck.

It’s kind of a funny poster for a kid’s room.  I did like the cartoon, the story, and I don’t remember if I asked for it at some point.  If not, I like the idea of my parents choosing it as a cautionary tale of sorts. Nevertheless, it was there and part of my small room and stood for something in my life whether or not it stood for something in my parents’.

I thought of that loneliness and also of friendship, the two sharing in the misery, making the situation an “us,” the pursuit for solution a team charge.  And there sat hope, in the collective, in the bond, jacketed in misery, but there because there were two.

I don’t think I could’ve owned that poster if it were just Pinocchio sitting there, alone in the street, transformed and unloved. It’s the two of them, together, not speaking, that makes it.

That January, my grandma got ready to swallow that single pill.  The moment seemed to extend like the blue in your eye after a camera flash.  I imagine that she considered the amount of fight that was left in her during that time. I know she’d been done in by successive hours in a chair with a Star magazine, a needle perforated into her breast plate through a tiny port that pressed against her like a small battery under a Kleenex.  I’d pick her up from the doctor’s office at times in the afternoon and she’d be situated along the perimeter of the room. There were empty seats–permanently vacated?  Had these people been saved, died, moved to a different hospital? What about now with the Thanksgiving runners around her legs like lists of not done yets. The clock ticking. Her wrong colored fingers. These thoughts packed the emptiness and fit around my grandma and me like the withheld name of the pill. Not asking, not saying was the magic and it filled in the spaces.  But there was so much space.

I watched her with that little pill in her hand, it, a compact nub of potential. I sat with her and whispered fierce statements in my head. We’re in this together. We are not done here yet. Think of these out loud—their hope and buoyancy rising around our necks like ill-fitting life jackets, like nooses.  Unspoken, they become the sibilants of belief.

I sat there with my elbows on my knees, my chin resting on my fists, just as unaware on the edge of a couch as in a lonely street, wondering what can be changed, what can be moved, and how much say we have anyhow.

All this, and I watched her sit on the edge of that chair, asking herself things I couldn’t hear and answering them just as quietly.

Helen Hatch Inglesby, "Helping Grandma Sew,"

Helen Hatch Inglesby, “Helping Grandma Sew,”

Ron Estrada lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Sal and Sonny. He is a writer of fiction and short nonfiction and can be read on his blog 8.187 (www.eightoneeightseven.com). He is also a regular contributor to Today’s Author (www.todaysauthor.wordpress.com) and is the co-owner of a literary greeting card company, Aporia | Chicago (www.aporiachicago.com). He loves garlic, Tom Waits, and Chicago Blackhawks hockey.

How I Know I Love My Children Unconditionally

Before children, I merely loved. It was a selfish love. When my husband reached a hand across the table to snag something off my plate, I slapped it.

I know I love my children unconditionally. For instance, when I’ve just sat down at the kitchen table with a warm breakfast and my daughter crawls onto my lap and starts shoving it into her mouth, I don’t toss her across the room. I let her have some.

When I eat a cookie, I munch around the center until only the soft middle is left, the part I used to save for last and eat with relish, and then I hand it over to my son, who loves it, too.

When I recently came upon my daughter standing in a puddle—yes, a puddle—of diarrhea on the bathroom floor, my thought was, “You poor, sweet, lovely thing.” I would never have thought that about my husband.

When my son asks to play make-believe with his Angry Bird stuffed animals for the eight-thousandth time, I nod over my horror, grab the red bird, and pretend to launch it at a pig.

When my daughter shovels snow off of the lawn and onto the driveway, I smile.

When my children wake me up three times a night, and then enter our bedroom for good at 6am, I say, “Good morning” and pull them up to cuddle. This has been my hardest struggle. Since having children, I’ve learned that I am no good without adequate sleep. I’m touchy and angry. I have to swallow my urge to snap, and then on top of it, I have to smile. I am mostly successful at this.

Looking back over six years of being a mom, I think parenting is hard not because of dirty diapers, missed naps, or whining. Those are the details. What’s hard, for me anyway, is the fundamental transformation I’ve had to make. Henry and Clara have forced me to face my faults, to figure out what I don’t want them to emulate, and to change. Their well-being is important to me. And so I share. I compromise. I slough off the hard edges and I give them the soft center.

 

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A Year of Moments

I was born on the 13th day of February (a Friday to boot) so I have an affinity for the number 13, especially since so many people say it’s unlucky. I’ve always been crazy rebellious that way.

2013 went fast, the fastest year yet. In fact, it was hard to think back on what happened, so I read through this blog and searched through my planner for reminders.

Some of what I found:

January: I read The Snow Child, my favorite book of the year. (You can read about that and other Great New Books here.) I also rang in the New Year in a small, London pub with some of my favorite people.

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Sister, husband, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law at a pre-Liverpool football game celebration on New Year’s Day.

February: I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, my favorite movie of the year. I also began contributing to PDXX Collective—check them out—and passed the 1-year mark on this blog.

March: We traveled to Naples, FL with my husband’s parents, the only major travel we did this year after a 2012 filled to the brim with trips. It made me realize four big trips in a year is too many; one is too few.

April: Got to see Vanessa Diffenbaugh speak at my local theater, the Metropolis Performing Arts Center, five blocks from my house. She was charming and smart and funny. If you haven’t read her book, The Language of Flowers, you should do so.

My son started t-ball. Bestill my beating heart.

May: I submitted my manuscript to She Writes Press and later that month it was accepted. The first person I told was my husband (he was next to me as I read the email on my phone). I tried to call my mom but she was in the middle of Wisconsin so I had to send a text. My sister was in Ireland; as soon as she received my text she sent a video of her and her Irish friends cheering for me in a Dublin pub.

June: Signed the contract with SWP.

Attended Printer’s Row Lit Fest and stood in line for Colum McCann to sign my copy of Let the Great World Spin. I sweated and stuttered as I told him that my sister was in Ireland (he’s Irish). He wrote an Irish blessing in my book.

July: I spent one week at the Northwoods resort I went to every summer as a child. Everything was the same, down to the swingset. It was fantastic and trippy, and I’ve never tripped before.

August: My son started kindergarten. It was hard, but I have a feeling 1st grade is going to be much harder. Gone all day? No thank you. The day before school started, I took him on a date, his choice. We ended up at a local heritage farm, walked the grounds, petted the animals, and Henry picked up a leaf from the ground that he thought was pretty and gave it to me. It’s now pressed between the pages of my journal.

I road-tripped to Troy, OH, for Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road tour, which is becoming an annual tradition with my husband and sister, and an old friend from elementary school.

September: My husband and I celebrated our 9th anniversary. I gave him tickets to Macklemore. (He’s a born-and-raised Norwegian-Minnesotan who loves rap.) He gave me a writing desk.

I also ran a half-marathon, which my knees still seem to be recovering from.

October: 15-year college reunion. It’s hard to write that.

November: Thanksgiving in Minneapolis. 10 degrees.

December: The HerStories Project published. It’s been remarkable getting to know the fifty writers involved, and it’s a remarkable book on friendship. You can buy one for your friends HERE.

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And last but not least, I received in the mail the advance copies of my book, The Rooms Are Filled (April 2014). It’s also up on NetGalley.com, for all you book bloggers and reviewers. If you’d like to read and review it, check it out and download a free e-copy HERE.

Honestly, though, when I think back on the year, I think of my children, and of mothering. I think of teaching them to bake cookies, playing dinosaurs, riding bikes on our dead-end street with neighbors, lying in bed with them after story time, watching them sleep, kissing their soft cheeks, wiping their bums, wiping their tears. I think of sledding and strollers, discovery walks in the alley, gummy worms piled on frozen yogurt, first fish and life jackets that are too big. Sidewalk chalk and pretend lawn mowers, library books and lunch on the front porch, blueberry yogurt dripping down shirt fronts.

There are so many details in a life; the highlights tell only a small part of the story.

This week we will host Christmas dinner. My children will spill milk, they’ll talk over each other, my daughter will hold up a finger and say “Ackashee” instead of “actually,” my son will complain he’s bored and do a dance that makes me laugh, they’ll flip over their kid chairs and make a fort. And many, many other things.

Cheers to life’s moments. I hope each of you find happiness in them.