Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Only Ain’t Lonely


Dear Marjo,

My husband and I have an only child. I’d love to have more, but we can’t because of secondary infertility. This has been unbelievably sad for us, but we’re trying to accept it and find ways to be happy with our family the way it is.

Unfortunately the people around us are pouring salt into the wound with thoughtless and insensitive comments. Some of those people don’t know that we can’t have more children, so they’re a little easier to forgive. They say things like “lonely only” and that I’m not a “real mom” until I have at least two kids. Other people know that we can’t have another baby and still say incredibly painful things, like I’m lucky that I have only one kid, or at least I have one so I should just be grateful. But the worst offenders are our families. They keep asking if we’re still trying, or if we know “whose fault it is.”

I feel like everywhere I go people are talking about it, and I’m constantly on the verge of tears. How can I explain our situation without crying or yelling?


Mom of One


Dear Mom of One,

Oh, honey. I wish I could give you the biggest, fiercest hug. You are walking around like a giant exposed nerve, suffering every time someone tosses off even a small comment. Just saying the word “baby” is like a giant STOMP. It’s incredibly painful, and what makes it worse is they have no idea that they’re hurting you so badly. And it sucks that you need to find a way to tell them.

We’ve all heard of boundaries, and we’re all guilty of crossing them. Sometimes we don’t even know where the boundaries are—only that they exist. But something about pregnancy seems to evaporate them altogether. How else to explain the incredibly personal questions?

Are you still trying to get pregnant? You mean are we having sex???

Whose fault is it? Do you really want to know my husband’s sperm count, or whether my uterus is tilted, or how many miscarriages I’ve had?

Then there are the comments. You’re lucky to have only one child, and you’re not a real mom unless you have at least two. What does that even mean? You’re lucky that you’re not a real mom? No one will argue that raising two kids can be more challenging than one. But the last time I looked, one child was enough to keep you awake all night, suffering with cracked nipples, covered in body fluids, and spending endless hours at Mommy and Me classes. That sounds like a real mom to me.

I’ve heard the same comments myself, and sometimes they still hurt. I struggled with primary infertility for eight years before my son was born. Within months after his birth people started asking if I was trying for number two (at age 40!), or saying that I wasn’t a real mom (ugh, please). Worst for me was what I came to call the Gratitude Beatitude: Blessed are those who are grateful for the one child they have, and here’s some burning brimstone for the rest of you greedy ingrates.

That reminder to be grateful still cuts me more deeply than any other comment. I would have loved to have a second child. Every time we eat at a restaurant, the empty fourth chair taunts me. The guest room that should be a child’s bedroom, the car’s huge back seat, the third-generation wedding dress that no one will wear. Well. Pass the tissues.

All of that longing was pointless. Another pregnancy was highly unlikely. And when a possible adoption fell throughand broke my heartit was clearly the end. Grief rained down on me and filled me until I cried endless hot tears. I knew that I needed to let goof my imagined family, my ideas of motherhood, my my my everything. Grieving was a necessary part of that. But no one would let me mourn.

I wish someone had just said it sucked. Then I would have felt better.

In other parts of life it’s easy to deflect advice and comments. But when it comes to having children, even a cursory “Oh, it’s just not in the cards for us” opens the door to more personal questions and explicit advice. So even though it’s uncomfortable, Mom of One, you’ll need to have a prepared response to shut down the questions a little more firmly.

My own prepared response had a "three strikes, you’re out" approach. Strike One: Give them a big, warm smile and say, “One is enough for us.” If the questions and advice continue, go to Strike Two: “Reallyit’s kind of complicated. Do you mind if we talk about something else?” If the bonehead in front of you keeps at it, then throw a final strike and run away with an “I’m sorry, I need to be somewhere.”

Speaking for myself, I did need to be somewhere: at home, with my family, practicing our three-person dance until each one of us embraced it. Your heart is very tender, Mom of One, so don’t be afraid to protect it. Save those vulnerable tears for home, where you can work through your sadness privately. From my heart to yours: I wish you peace.



Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.

Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.

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Our daughter is a planned only child (and friends know that), but for rude strangers (the sort who want to know intimate details of our lives), I've found, "Thanks, but we got it right the first time" works well. And then I just smile. (My other response for the grocery store set, states a probability: "Oh, no. If we had another one I would die." Make eye contact. "ACTUALLY DIE.")
Our second son was born with a disability. When mothers ask, "Do you wish you'd known, do you wish you'd had an abortion?" I want to use my set response, "Do you wish your children were dead?" I've never said it, but somehow I feel stronger, thinking it.
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