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A Review of Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life

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By Jennifer Bingham Hull (Seal Press, 2004; $14.95)

You could not step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on to you. -- Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher (540 BC - 480 BC)

Round-bellied, expecting child number two, I eagerly dove into Jennifer Bingham Hull's
Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life
. While I figure life with two children will be different than that with just one, I desperately want to know how and exactly what it will take to adjust.

I'm not worried about caring for an infant. My daughter has survived and even thrived despite the stressful combination of my first-time mom efforts and the "helpful" advice of friends and family. It's the rest of life that worries me: how will another child affect my firstborn? What does it take to love and parent two children and am I capable of it? Will my husband help with the parenting? Will we ever sleep/have sex/have a meaningful conversation again? Will I even want to?

Running after a toddler and working part-time leaves me short on brainpower. I can barely remember how many weeks along I am, let alone find time to plan for the changes a new baby will bring. I've tried talking to friends with two, but all they can tell me is how physically and emotionally difficult it is having two children. I've braced myself for the worst.

Fortunately, Hull's straightforward, often humorous essays on mothering two children provided a counterpoint. Not that she paints a rosy picture. As Hull points out, Sylvia Plath had two toddlers when she stuck her head in the oven. Instead, Hull gives equal thought to both the challenging realities of motherhood and the positive aspects of growing a family. Sibling rivalry is offset with sibling bonding; running errands with your firstborn is just as special as the perfectly planned mother-child activities you no longer have time for; you won't be able to give your second child firstborn attention, but she will have the older sibling your first didn't; AND family dinners and vacations with toddlers are for morons, so give it up. As Hull so eloquently puts it:

. . . why schlepp little people who don't know Calcutta from California but need more luggage than Madonna to far-flung destinations when you can blow bubbles for ninety cents in your own backyard?

Hull's informal story-telling style made me feel as though I was having a satisfying conversation with one of my mom friends. But simply relaying a personal story isn't enough for this topic, and Hull knows it. She was a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, as well as a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, and she peppers many of her essays with important statistical information, without lecturing. Her skills as a journalist and reporter serve her well here.

She also shares the parenting tips that work for her and her family. In the chapter entitled "Double Up," Hull urges parents to help create free time for each other by scheduling days when one parent takes both children. The parent in charge should establish a schedule with formal departure and return times. When you do have free time, you should treat yourself, not do housework or pay bills. As long as the kids return alive and smiling, don't criticize your spouse for whatever activities or behavior may have transpired while they were away. Always remember to say thanks. Hull also gives tips for losing those stubborn extra pounds (in her case, about 50), negotiating with two talking toddlers and for working moms, how to survive the daily mix of job and motherhood.

For readers more inclined to relate to personal essay than practical tip-giving, Hull delivers a few deeper pieces. In "Roses in the Bathtub," she wonders if she will love her second child as much as she does the first or, God forbid, more:

. . . in the past, every love interest had come at the cost of another. If a boyfriend came, a boyfriend went...Other women's hearts might expand. Mine, I feared, was of a fixed size and already claimed as far as children went.

When friends tell her she'll have love for them both, but don't give any explanation as to how this might happen, Hull is skeptical. Not until her toddler asks her if she loves the new baby more than her does she find the answer: she loves her oldest because of who she is and the younger one because of who she is. Yes, it's a bit mushy, but the sentiment rings true.

In an essay entitled "Choices," Hull struggles with the decision to continue working as a freelance writer from home. She quickly realizes it can't be done without help and hires a part-time nanny. When her nanny goes out of town for a few weeks, she leaves Hull with a substitute who gives her youngest child a sippy cup full of Coke. Hull calls her on it and the babysitter's response is, "But Senora, it's Diet Coke." Here she is torn between the desire to mother and the desire to pursue her own needs. This is a place almost every mother has found herself in and while Hull knows she should fire the sitter, she doesn't. The time away from mothering is too important to her. By admitting to the push and pull so many women feel between fulfilling the role of mother and that of an individual apart from their children made Hull all the more credible.

I often found myself reading passages of Beyond One out loud to my husband. Even though we may not find ourselves in the exact situations Hull did, Beyond One gave me confidence in my parenting decisions. I'd be sure to have more help with the newborn than I did with my first child without feeling like a failure. Because routine activities are easier to execute, they are already replacing the more complicated outings I've killed myself doing to ensure charmed childhood memories for my firstborn.

Of the 30 essays in Beyond One, several were previously published as stand-alone pieces in Brain, Child and Parenting magazine. Perhaps this is the reason the book sounded repetitive in places. Hull is often a "battalion commander" or "general" who is "losing the war." More than once we hear how she threw a pot at her husband their first week into parenting their oldest child. Many times Hull refers to her daughters as dancing princesses insistent on wearing tutus to bed. While this is an endearing image, I only needed to visualize it once. As a freelance writer, Hull was smart to reuse images and scenarios in several different articles. However, the collection could have used a little more editing to present a more cohesive body of work.

I also found that Hull's writing sometimes jumped too quickly from one subject to another or was too choppy. For example, in the chapter entitled "Dreaming of Divorce," Hull writes:

I want to get a divorce so I can date the guy I see but do not speak to. Two and four are not as civilized as they sound from one and three.

This kind of jumbled, stream of consciousness style, while a good representation of how our brains often operate, lost me on several occasions. Sometimes I took the time to reread a passage, but more often skipped it altogether and moved on. Happily, this didn't detract from the book's pleasure factor.

Beyond One both entertains and informs without being too flip or too academic. Each essay stands on its own, which makes for great piece-meal reading-a good thing for busy parents. Hull believes that having the second child is more life altering than having the first. After reading about her experiences, I can only agree. Lucky for me, now I have a cheat sheet to peek at as my life with two unfolds.

Lisa Sadikman is a writer, aspiring surfer, and mom to three daughters. Her essays on motherhood, raising girls, and midlife have appeared on Brain, Child, Motherwell, Mamalode, Scary Mommy, HuffPost Parents, Kveller, and others. She is a former profiles editor for Literary Mama.

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