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Where children are concerned, one’s not enough and two’s too many. At least for me.

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by Elizabeth Allen

For the longest time I thought two was a good number. Since I grew up with siblings, and most everybody else I knew did, too, the concept of an only child was alien to me. But I'm way too lazy, selfish, ambitious, greedy and poor to visualize the production and care of a passel of offspring with anything but a shudder. However, at least two children means that if one doesn't work out, you've got one left over. Two means two unique genetic creations growing and changing before you, likely similar in some ways, surprisingly different in others. It means – and I learned this when my father was dying – that when you're old and sick they can spread out the workload of your care. And that's a gift to everyone. So, two. You've minimized the plural to its most efficient state, while still doubling your capitalization. Somewhere over the past year, I changed my mind. Gus had turned 2 and was such a joy that we had decided to forego birth control and see what would happen. It was an admittedly casual effort. There was no temperature-taking or chart-keeping. Because even a sweetheart of a toddler takes a lot of energy, and we were in no hurry. During that year, our lifestyle changed and changing with the introduction of an infant began to settle into a course that I could see stretching out for years ahead. I didn't like what I saw. So many of the things I dislike about contemporary U.S. culture, ironically linked to the advancement of my own opportunities, were creeping into our lives. Insidious rootlets of poor diet, inactivity, isolation and resentment were finding niches, settling in, preparing to take over. I sensed it and I feared it. Work was great, interesting, but taking up more time. The lack of a regular family supper – and my lack of energy – also meant we were eating rather haphazardly, and often out. I used to love cooking. Now I do not. And as my schedule ramped up, my husband's did not slow down. When Henry's around, he's the closest thing to a coparent I have seen. But most nights his job was eating up his evenings, and I was left to feed Gus, play with Gus, read to Gus, bathe Gus, and put Gus to bed. That's not exactly a curse. But it is tiring. And I began to feel that it would always be me rushing out of work or scrambling for a sitter. The cynical remarks of girlfriends about how the woman is always the one left with the children, one way or another, began to ring more true. And the thought of adding another child to this stressed-out mix became less attractive. I began obsessively, repeatedly weighing the pros and cons of having another child. One day I'd be convinced that it was a good idea. The next day I'd go over the same data and arrive at the opposite conclusion. I was driving myself mad. I began to avoid sex around the estimated time of ovulation. But in all my ambivalence, last spring, I just hadn't gotten around to getting back on the pill, and I got pregnant. That's when I discovered that some questions can't be answered in your head. I could tell almost right away. There were subtle but unmistakable signs. One evening I knew it. And I was furious. I berated myself for not getting on the pill. Where was that spare box? What if I took all of them right away? But it was too late now. I was pregnant and I had to face it. I told myself to calm down, that I would be glad, but I wasn't glad right then. I felt my life being stolen from me. I ranted, "HE won't have to go through this illness, danger and distortion! HE won't have to give up a huge chunk of his career! Why shouldn't HE pay the price instead of ME!" I was all boiling darkness for a night and a day. During that day, I had a meeting to cover, so I arranged for the babysitter to pick up Gus. But the meeting ended early and I found myself with a blessed evening alone. I decided to ignore the chores piled up around me and paint a kitchen wall. Henry and I had agreed on red for the kitchen, and he had purchased the paint. The can was waiting for me. When I opened it, there beneath me was a gallon of the brightest, wettest red I had ever seen. Blood red. Highly oxygenated blood red. I climbed the ladder and began painting along the edges of the ceiling. The angled sponge brush made such a pretty calligraphic arc that I drew it across the wall in large curves. Then I crossed them with other lines in different widths. The violence of the color pleased me. I climbed down and looked at the wall. The curves and slashes drawn so randomly had become a 3-foot modernist Chinese fish, curled and thrashing against a hook. I decided to leave it for the time being. I filled in the rest of the wall, a sea of red, the fish fighting alone near the top. Then I went to bed and slept well. The next morning I got up and went to the bathroom. When I wiped, I drew back a tissue marked with bright blood. I stared. I felt that something important had happened. I was neither happy nor sad. But my anger had evaporated. I wondered if I had willed a miscarriage. But I think if women could do that, they'd do it a lot more often. Whatever had happened, it convinced me that I was not ready for another child. The volume and force of anger that had been building deep within me was shocking. And it had made up my mind in a way that cautious, rational thought could not. Two's too many. So, I'm still not ready for another. Maybe I never will be. Maybe there's not enough room in my heart. But I do know that it's my heart that will tell me.

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