Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Third Baby

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People ask me all the time, when's the third? My parents, my husband's parents, parents of my children's classmates. The third: the third baby, the person who would officially tip the balance of adult-child power, the seemingly logical step after the second.

Most of the other parents I know, I know through my children, and due to that most of them have a family composition similar to ours. Two children, one in early elementary school, one in preschool. Among my peers this is the hot topic: a third baby, or a job? Another baby or a foray into regular life, a return to the old life?

"The little one isn't so little anymore," a friend remarks of her nearly four-year-old son. "What am I supposed to do next year, when he's in school for a full day?" She worries her uselessness will be exposed. Without a young child, a baby, to consume those long school-filled hours, she fears she will no longer have justification for being, as she calls it, out of the world. Is it time to go back in the world? Does she want to go back in the world? A third baby might make those questions moot, at least for a few more years.

We ordered Emi's crib after copious research. I consulted manuals and informal consumer satisfaction reports online, visited stores in person, polled email friends. When it came, the deliverymen assembled it and I watched, my eight-months-pregnant belly excusing me from that kind of labor. We realized only afterwards that the crib was larger than the doorway. It was lucky that it was assembled in the correct room; we couldn't get it out the door without taking it apart again. I remember remarking to my husband that the crib would have to stay there until the baby was grown, until there were no more babies left, if we did indeed plan to have more.

Emi moved from her crib to a "big girl bed" when she was two and a half. The crib sat in the corner of her room, filled with stuffed animals or toys or laundry, a holding pen for things I couldn't be bothered to put away. Eventually we'd need to dismantle it, but then I became pregnant with my surprise baby, Nate, the baby I hadn't planned for and hadn't realized I needed until after he was already here. We raised the crib mattress to newborn levels again, tied the bumpers back on, cleared it of its accumulated household items, readied it once more for a baby.

Nate has used the crib for two and a half years. He is now the size that Emi was as a four year old. With his heft and his height, it's not surprising that he recently figured out that scaling the crib and climbing down was something well within his realm of accomplishments. It was time to move him to a toddler bed.

This posed a problem. Emi's "really big girl bed"--the loft bed with a slide we purchased last summer--took up most of the room. With the crib wedged into the corner opposite, there was no room to accommodate the "big girl" toddler bed we needed to repurpose as a "big boy" bed for Nate. The crib would have to come out. It would have to be disassembled, taken apart and rendered back into the form in which it existed when it first came to us, before there were babies.

I get emails from a tarot card site every few weeks. These are messages about cards that supposedly have personal relevance to my life, though who knows. Perhaps everyone on the mailing list receives the same thing. This week's email dispatch tells me: The Empress symbolizes abundance, fertility. She can represent pregnancy or actual birth, as well as creation or the birth of a creative project. This card is a good omen if you are considering starting a family or having more children. What I am considering right now is the possibility that my family may already be complete, that I will not be having more children.

Is it really so strange to imagine that my body will never again be inhabited by another human being? Walking around as a complete person, with my internal organs and chemicals and hormones and neurons working in the service of supporting my own life and not the emerging life of another person, is the default experience. Being pregnant, gestating and birthing babies, is the anomalous condition. And yet I admit to a pang of--what, sadness? regret?--when I think about putting away the crib and saying goodbye to the defining identity of my life for the past six years, being a new mother.

A few months after Nate was born, when I was safely past the hormonally tenuous first weeks post-birth and realizing with a thrill that the darkness of post-partum depression had been successfully eluded, I had a vivid dream. I was swimming in the sea, near a cliffside beach. I swam up to a reddish rock jutting out of the water and climbed up to sit. A friend swam up beside me. "Here," he said, "you forgot this." I opened my arms and took what he gave me: a baby. Slippery from the water, chubby, with a full head of black hair: a baby boy. "Of course," I told my friend. "Thank you." I looked at this baby of mine I'd forgotten I had and held him close. He was completely unlike my real-life babies, bald and blondish, both of them. But in the dream, I said, "Of course." I knew him as surely as I knew myself. I woke up with the lingering feeling of having connected with a real person. I woke up with the tantalizing idea that it could be possible there was a third baby waiting for me.

One morning when Nate is at his summer playschool and Emi is home with me, reading books and coloring papers, I decide that it is time. We clear the floor in the kids' room, making space for the crib's disassembly. When I pull open the drawer beneath the crib mattress, I find, in addition to the crib's assembly instructions and a small wrench, a collection of receiving blankets, a quilt from my grandmother, a crocheted baby blanket my mother made for Emi. I find plastic covers for plug outlets, an unopened box of contraptions to baby-proof cabinet doors. I find the triangular foam blocks we used with new-parent anxiety with Emi, but not with Nate, to prevent any chance of the baby rolling over in the night and suffocating. I find tiny, preemie-sized baby pants, so small I cannot reconcile them with my chubby 37-pound almost three-year-old boy or my 42-pound six-year-old girl whose body shed its toddler shape years ago. I put everything into a pile in the corner of the room and get to work taking the crib apart, unscrewing all the screws and breaking it down into pieces that can fit through the door and out into the hallway, out into storage.

What does it mean for my fertility to be over? After working so hard to embrace the identity of new mother, what will it be like to surrender to the notion that even that role is a relic of a particular time, its purpose as limited and temporally defined as burpee cloths and tiny spoons? It could be freeing, in a way, to have fertility return to being something I only think of in terms of preventing, just like in the old days, before babies were the point. And freeing to have those early newborn months officially, finally, forever in the past. But after all these years of being a "new mother," must I really make the transition into being a regular old mother, without even the promise of future "pregnancy glow" luster? without the undeniable joy of a small baby's throaty chuckle? without the endless surprise of a toddler's linguistic idiosyncrasies? With, instead, my kids getting older and eventually being teenagers and dreading being seen with me in public, no babies to make me seem less obsolete?

I put all the crib's screws and washers into a ziplock bag, labeled, along with the assembly instructions, as if later someone might need to know how to put it all back together again. But that someone won't be me. That dream-baby, the dream of the third baby, is just that: a dream. Here in real-life, I have my arms full with two children who aren't as old as they seem. The question of whether to have a baby or be in the world is a trick. Third baby or not, there is no escaping it: I am already in the world. It is here, all around me, whatever work I'm doing, whatever life I'm anticipating.

I realize as the last screw falls out of the side of the crib, where it held that pesky sliding rail in place, that this is the last of the baby furniture, the last practical vestige of my children's babyhood. I take apart the last screw, and, just like that, the last of the babies is gone.

Andrea J. Buchanan is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book is The Beginning of Everything, which was a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Her other work includes the multimedia young adult novel Gift, the internationally bestselling The Daring Book for Girls, her essay collection on early motherhood Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, and seven other books.

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