Jan/Feb 2006 Nonfiction

The Mathematics Of Motherhood

by Jessy Randall

I have one child, a son. Whenever I consider having another (usually in the middle of the night, too hot, can't sleep, Ross snoring), I think about the fact that in our household, it takes three adults to raise one baby.

When I first got married, I wanted lots of kids, theoretically. My husband has two siblings, and his stories of their childhood filled me with yearning. They went on family vacations together! They spent their teenage summers sharing tiny quarters on a North Dakota lake! They have always genuinely liked each other and now live in the same city, hundreds of miles from where they grew up. I wanted a family like that.

During childbirth I adjusted my plan. After 20 hours of labor and a forceps delivery, I thought one child might just do it. I have not yet changed my tune about this. And while childbirth was hard--childcare is harder. A lot harder.

Soon after Will was born, my husband's sister Nicole came to stay with us as his nanny. It was an experiment: she wasn't sure she would want to stay, and we weren't sure we would want her to. Ross and I would lose our privacy, I thought. We would lose our romance. How little I understood what parenthood would be like! I thought having an extra adult in the house might destroy the world-of-two life my husband and I had created. I did not understand that our world-of-two was gone the moment Will was born, that life was dramatically, irrevocably changed, and that our universe had already expanded in ways I never dreamed.

These days, contrary to my expectations, my greatest fear is that Nicole will leave. Instead of ruining anything, she has kept us from ruin. Because of her, my husband and I still feel like a married couple. Once a week, Nicole watches the baby and Ross and I go out and enjoy each other's company for an hour. Also, with three adults in the house, a nap becomes--occasionally--possible. Surely this would not be the case with another child.

All three of us are tired, but not as drop-dead exhausted as Ross and I were in those first few weeks, when we found out what sleep deprivation really was. It wasn't like an all-nighter in college. It was like 14 all-nighters in a row, with no promise that there won't be another fourteen. And another. (Which is just about what happened.) And now that we know this, how could we, in our right minds, deliberately cause that kind of tiredness again? How could we possibly have another child, when it takes three of us just to raise one and stay sane?

Ross, Nicole, and I fast discovered that changing Will's diaper requires the presence of all of us at once. We gather around him like the doctors on ER, one of us holding his legs, one whisking the diaper out from under him, one handing over the diaper wipe. In our team-of-three, we make up an efficient machine, each of us performing a necessary task. When I picture trying to change one baby's diaper while another child tries to, say, test how hot the stove burners are, or how far she can stretch the cat--well, it scares me.

Even with three adults in the house all working together to care for one little baby, we are still at the limits of our abilities. If one of us is strolling him, another of us is cooking dinner, and the third is emptying the Diaper Genie. If one of us is feeding him, another of us is raking leaves, and the third is going to the grocery store. And so on. How do people do this with more than one child? How do single parents do this? How the heck did my mom raise me and my brother all on her own? (Thinking about that absolutely boggles my brain.)

I should insert here that I have never considered myself out-and-out lazy, or stupid, or incompetent. I am good at many things. If I'm not good at something, I learn, I improve. But motherhood has humbled me. The skills of motherhood sometimes seem unattainable. As soon as I figure out breastfeeding, it's time for Will to try eating solid food. As soon as he starts sleeping through the night, he stops, because he's teething. The moment I master one stage, another stage begins.

And as Will gets older, I see that it takes three hardworking intellects (I use the term loosely) to invent new and different ways of keeping just this one baby happy. Sure, I came up with the successful trick of buzzing in his ear on that long car trip--and Ross discovered that a hearty rendition of "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor" is, on occasion, just what Will needs--but when he turned three months old and I went back to work, Nicole's creativity was really put to the test. She provided some of his very favorite toys: a gourd from dining room table centerpiece, a plastic cap from a can of Pringles, an oven mitt. She also figured out that Will likes to sit on the kitchen counter and kick the breadbox.

I know they say the second child is easier, but I can't believe that these tricks can be recycled. I'm sure keeping a second child happy would require the same thought and energy as the first, and we'd still have the first. So our workload would, in effect, be doubled, and we are barely making it as it is.

On the other hand, I want Will to be happy. Siblings are good to have, especially when you're older (and need help taking care of your own kids!). I didn't get along very well with my brother when we were young, but now we are friends and glad of each other. And we are the only ones who can understand certain jokes about our mom. I don't want to deprive Will of that kind of closeness. He should be able to make fun of his parents with somebody. We all need that.

But then I think about going through pregnancy, childbirth, and most of all, motherhood, all over again with a new person. This makes me want to run and hide in a cave, or start to cry, or possibly both.

And anyhow, it's impossible that I could ever love another child as much as I love Will. I know they say you love the second as much as the first, and so on up to the last, but I'm not buying it. It's like infinity-times-two being equal to infinity. It just doesn't make sense.

So I guess the only way I'll consider having a second child is if three additional adults agree to join our family. I've done the math, and that's the only solution.


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