When Is the Family Complete? Grief, Gratitude, Love

When Is the Family Complete? Grief, Gratitude, Love

A little over two years ago, baby Cleo was born, completing a trio of little girls in our family.  For about six weeks, I felt like my family was done.  Full.  And yet, by the time my newborn was twelve weeks old, I began a campaign to convince my husband that we needed just one more baby.

I had no intentions of trying to have a biological child.  After adopting Katie, we tempted fate and gave birth to two very lucky babies who did not inherit the fatal kidney disease that we carry.  No, my plan was to adopt again, specifically a Latina child.  When Cleo was four months old, Andrew agreed that we could reopen our adoption file after her first birthday, and we would seek to adopt a Hispanic baby.   I speak Spanish; our kids attend a Spanish immersion school; we would be able to keep the child in touch with its roots.

And then, when Cleo was five months old, I wrote a post about bullying that went viral.  Crazy viral.  International news viral.  Live national television news headlines viral.  And everything changed.

I felt, in every fiber of my being, that it was the right thing for me to become an advocate for anti-bullying.  The months spilled by, and I spent hours and hours researching and writing a book about bullying.  We came up for air about 18 months later, and both Andrew and I agreed that the book had become our fourth child.  We never reopened our adoption file.

In my head, I know that this is right.  At the time when Cleo was a newborn and we were making plans to adopt again, I was primarily a stay-at-home mom.  I participated in art shows, but my schedule was very flexible, and it was very realistic to believe I could provide adequate attention and love to a fourth child.  But my life is unrecognizable compared to what it was then.

My older girls regularly beg me not to write, and I have made good progress at setting aside work when they come home from school and resuming after they go to bed.  On the nights when I am out doing something related to my book, Andrew reports that the girls have meltdowns.  Cleo has never known a time when I wasn’t working, and she gets less of me as a toddler than either of the other girls received.  I could not in good conscience bring another child into the family, because I am fully tapped out caring for the kids I do have.

And yet.  As Cleo rapidly toddles away from babyhood, I am grieving far more than I expected.  My first pregnancy was at 28.  I am now 38.  The past decade of my life has been spent with infants and toddlers in my house.  Every time one of my babies started preschool, another baby came along.  Saying goodbye to this phase of my life is nothing short of agonizing.

I watch my baby Cleo growing teeth and hair and words, and I yearn to say, “Don’t grow up!”  But then I know how very much I don’t mean that.  The pain of watching your child grow-up is ecstasy compared to the alternative.  I think of my baby Matthew, who never got to know what it meant to roll over or sit up or crawl.  I think of last December, when Cleo was so terribly sick.  Worst of all, I think of my dear friend Sheila, whose daughter Donna was a healthy toddler until a cancerous tumor grew in her brain. Beautiful Donna will forever be frozen at age four.  Oh yes, a million times over, I want my children to grow up.  There is only one way to stop time in a child’s life, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  Grow, my babies, grow.

And yet.  I find myself clinging to every snuggle, every book we read together, every time I bathe them and wash their hair, knowing that they are marching up and away from childhood.  Some of my friends have given birth or adopted children and then proclaimed that they are done.  There is a definitiveness in their voices that I envy.  “Yes, we are absolutely DONE,” they say, without a shadow of a doubt.

I find myself looking at pregnant women wistfully.  My sister gave birth last month to her third baby girl, and whereas my husband was relieved that we are past the phase of sleepless nights and crying infants, I cannot say the same.  In all honesty, I miss it.

“But the problem is that when a fourth baby grows up, you would want a fifth and a sixth.  It would never end,” Andrew told me.  He is right.

Why, I wonder, do I not feel “done”?  Is it because my parenting career began with a catastrophic loss, and I will forever be enchanted by the miracle of a live, breathing baby in my arms?  Is it because I am just a baby person?  Even when I was seven or eight years old, I preferred to play with a baby doll above all else.

My head and my heart need to reconcile an irreconcilable difference.   I take immense joy in my girls.  They are the only girls I will have.  There will be no more.  Matthew was my chance at a boy, and he is no more.  I am blessed, so very blessed, to have the girls.  I am grateful every single day for them, and our lives are perfect for the family we have.  I know this to be true.

And yet, I watch my girls grow, and I will always want another baby to love.  I guess I will have to be content with showering the babies of my sisters with my love.  And one day, I will fill my arms with grandchildren, if we are so fortunate, and I will watch the cycle of life continue.

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