(Editorial Note: I’m including an excerpt from my book below, so this is more an online article than a blog post, much longer than my usual. If you have the time and inclination to read it, thanks! I’ll be back tomorrow with my usual shorter blog post.)
Last week, the New York Times’ “Motherlode” parenting blog published an essay I wrote about our reproductive decisions in light of my genetic legacy—a brittle bone disorder that I was born with (osteogenesis imperfecta) and that our first child inherited. In a few hundred words, I told the story that I tell at greater length in my book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction.
One comment to my Motherlode post pulled me up short for a minute: “In the author’s situation, I likely would have done nearly the same thing. I’d have skipped the amnio, though, and had the testing done after the birth, because I wouldn’t want to take the risks involved with amnio, especially when dealing with a possibly fragile infant. And we would not have pressed our luck after a healthy second.“
Did we “press our luck” by having a third baby, given the 50 percent risk that any child of ours will inherit OI?
Yes. I guess we did. Although one thing I believe is consistently true of almost anyone’s childbearing decisions is that, once you have the babies you have, it becomes impossible to regret those children or question the decision to have them. I mean, look at him. It’s impossible to perceive Ben as a lucky roll of the dice. He’s just Ben—smiley, moody, artistic, lovely, challenging Ben.
But it’s not unreasonable for someone to wonder why we decided to have a third child given the risks that were part of our procreation. Daniel and I realize that, if our second baby had inherited OI (which she did not), we likely would not have had a third. Having Meg (our #2 child) gave us a completely new experience as parents—that of caring for a strong-boned infant and toddler. There is no doubt that such experience emboldened us to have one more child.
There was more to our third-child decision than bones, though. Here is an excerpt from No Easy Choice, explaining why we decided to “push our luck” one more time:
As I left the hospital with Meg when she was three days old, I had an irrational urge to bolt from my nurse escort and run to the opposite end of the maternity floor. The postpartum-nursery section of the floor and the labor-delivery section were parallel to each other, separated by a corridor of vending machines and elevators. As I emerged from the postpartum area, blinking and fuzzy from three days of narcotics-induced dozing, I saw the doors to the L&D area for the first time since the night I had gone into labor. No one is allowed behind those doors unless they are a laboring woman or one of the three support people, designated in writing, that each woman is allowed. But for a moment I considered whether I could sneak in behind a nurse coming back from her lunch break, just to see it one more time.
I had an obsessive need to revisit every detail of Meg’s birth because it, like every birth, was unique and life changing. But also because I had been rather sure, before Meg arrived, that I was done. Done. There would be no more babies. That seemed like the clear, responsible choice, the choice we should make, given the fifty-fifty chance that any baby we have will inherit a chronic, disabling condition, and that we had spent nearly two years consumed by agonizing decisions about whether and how we should have this baby. So this was my last chance to see the place where I gave birth to my last baby after my last pregnancy. Thinking of it that way made me so sad. Right there in the hospital corridor, before Meg had even breathed a particle of outside air, I began to wonder if I was really, really done.
That first wisp of longing, coming as it did on the heels of major surgery, lack of sleep, and my stunned examination of this new life—how could I have forgotten how tiny their bottoms are?—was surely going to be temporary. It would curl up and out of my stretched and stitched and bleeding body, hover around my weary and love-addled brain, and disappear into the air. After I was shocked back to life by a hungry baby, who demanded that she be either fed or held every minute, and by a busy four-year-old, who talked nonstop from the moment she got out of bed (usually no later than 6:00 a.m.)—I would remember all the reasons why I should not have another baby, and that would be that. . . .
Except that, when we took Meg for her one-week checkup, our pediatrician told us that he and his wife were expecting their third baby. Their older kids were nine and eleven years old; back when the children were little, he told us, they had thought about a third, and it just seemed so overwhelming. Recently they had been wishing they’d had a third. Then they realized they could still have a third, and so they did. This is exactly what I did not want to hear. I had wondered if couples ever, years later, regretted their decision to be done with childbearing. Here was proof that, yes, sometimes they did.
After all the anguish and struggle over my genetic baggage, OI was no longer a frightening-enough threat to rule out a third baby. That struggle had shown me that our family has much raw material with which to craft a life; most of it is sound, strong stuff that helps us carry the weight of this disability.
On top of that, after Meg’s birth, Leah entered a time of physical progress in which OI faded into the background. The broken arm just before Meg was born ended the fracture cycle she had been in. At first we counted her fracture-free time in months, and then in years. From ages four to nine, Leah had only one fracture—an uncomplicated broken wrist. We can’t say why. It was probably a combination of good medicine (a few months before Meg was born, Leah began taking medication to increase her bone density) and good luck (the longer she went being active and without a fracture, the stronger her bones became, making them less likely to break). All along we knew that OI is a capricious disorder, and Leah’s good years came to a crashing end when she had a scooter accident at age nine, which left her with several broken bones requiring surgery. But for those few good years, OI was more like a distant cousin whom we heard from occasionally, and less like an intimate member of our nuclear family. And as Meg grew from infant to toddler, we learned how it felt to have an active, resilient child who could fall off the couch without more than a bumped head. The possibility of having a third child who might have OI began to seem less scary and immediate.
But there were still other, more mundane reasons that I thought I should be done with having babies. My common-sensical brain was crowded with worries that seemed silly and unimportant next to our genetic risks, but that nevertheless preoccupied me for much of Meg’s first year. For example, our house was very small. When Meg was a baby, I sat in the middle of the night, nursing her and mentally rearranging the furniture in her room until the bridge of my nose ached. Would it be possible to fit two children and their stuff into this little room? It would be a little crowded, but yes, perhaps it could work.
I worried too about the fact that neither of our cars had space for three child safety seats: we would need a minivan, or at least something with a wider back seat. But we had little savings and little wiggle room in our monthly budget for another car payment. Nevertheless, the daytime equivalent of my nighttime furniture rearranging was a new fascination with the back seats of cars. I would make a point of parking next to some model of wagon or van or SUV that I’d never examined before; then I’d try to take a good look at the back seat without appearing too suspicious. If no one was around, I’d take a closer look at the cargo area too. Besides three kids and their seats, we’d need room for multiple strollers and possibly Leah’s wheelchair, which she used when she had a leg fracture and couldn’t walk.
All this looking and measuring was exhausting. Really, I told myself, it would just be easier to forget the third-child idea. More than anything, I wanted to stop thinking about it anymore, to just know which it was to be: was I done or was I undone? Daniel was refreshingly clearheaded about the whole thing. He had always wanted a big family. He knew that, given my age and OI, three was going to be our limit, and that’s what he wanted. But I couldn’t figure out what I wanted. I waited for a gut feeling that never came. I was searching for clarity, using a logical process of weights and measures, scrutinizing rooms and car seats, calculating how many more years of good mobility I might have, adding up how much money per month we would have to save to buy a bigger house or pay for three college educations.Then one Sunday at church, I heard a sermon on the Scripture passage in which Jesus says that whoever loses his life will find it (Matthew 10:39). For the first time in my life, I listened to this passage without developing a sudden keen interest in my fingernails or the lovely scarf draped over the woman’s shoulders in front of me. This passage always made me feel guilty: I was so certain that I was not following it. Sure, I chaired the church outreach committee, and my pre-kids career was doing communications work for several worthy service organizations. But these efforts did not come close to the radical selflessness Jesus was talking about. I always figured that to follow these words, I had to do exactly as Jesus had done—hang out with society’s outcasts and be essentially homeless and prepared to die.
But this time, when I heard that passage, it got under my skin and shimmied its way into my brain, where it hung out amid all of my third-child angst. Then it wrapped itself around the hard edges of my overcalculated anxieties and wore them away. For the first time, I saw that motherhood offered me a way of living this lost/found paradox.
I know that many women have lost themselves in trying to make their husbands and children happy and have gained nothing much worthwhile in return. I am lucky to have a husband who understands that motherhood and housewifery cannot fill my every need, who graciously shoos me out the door for my book-club meetings, lap swimming, or dinner with friends. Yet I still sometimes feel as though motherhood has made me into a nobody, has robbed me of everything that once made me interesting. After years of being home with my children, I’m still surprised when Daniel asks me what I did today, and though I barely sat down from breakfast to supper, I can’t think of a single interesting thing to tell him.
Back in my Potter’s House Church days in D.C., we often talked of the difficulty of being called to a “small work,” a work that is not impressive or spectacular by the world’s measurement. Motherhood is the ultimate small work. Yes, it is huge too. But it is full of smallness—the tedium of fixing the same cream-cheese sandwich on whole wheat every day for a child’s lunch and picking up dozens of Legos off the floor every evening, or the ridiculously overblown anticipation of a pediatrician’s appointment because it provides an opportunity to get out of the house and talk to another adult.
But when I look beyond the smallness of daily life with children, I can see how I am being forced to lose the self that craves control and quiet and grown-up words, how I am finding a different self. The former self rarely gets what it wants and is often crabby about it. The new self realizes, once in a while at least, that motherhood, in taking away the things I crave, has forced me to be more welcoming of life in all the forms it comes to me, no matter how messy, inconvenient, boring, or threatening. It has forced me to spend less time in thinking about what I want and more time in seeing what I have. It has made me more hospitable.
What I want is a house like you see in catalogs, with sunlight streaming through a smudge-free window to splash on a sparkling hardwood floor, with nary a crushed Cheerio or tiny plastic animal in sight. What I have is a home where each of us feels welcomed to do those things that make us say, “I had a good day.” The kids’ art table, rather than being a tidy and labeled oasis like those in the Pottery Barn catalog, is home to haphazard piles of markers, paper, and interesting found objects (a deflated balloon, Christmas tinsel). Our garden will not win any awards for landscape design, but it is frequently abuzz with butterflies, bumblebees, and dirty-footed children. Most of the time the grass is a little too long, the bathroom sinks are filmed with old toothpaste, and we rotate through the same dinner menus that are not nutritionally complete. But there is freedom for me to write, for Daniel to go for a Sunday afternoon hike, and for the kids to roam the cul-de-sac with their neighborhood friends.
What I want is to write fine books that sell in the tens of thousands and earn us enough for Daniel to pursue his dream of being a man of leisure, while I preside over my catalog-ready house and pay someone else to clean it. What I have are small bits of prose, written during snatched moments and better than anything I wrote during my ten-year career in nonprofit communications because motherhood has sharpened my voice and focused my passions.
What I want is an ache-free, beautifully wrought body, smooth and balanced like a piece of well-made furniture. What I have is a crooked, creaky, and well-used body, which looks as though it were pieced together out of spare parts. Today the consequence of offering my body to my children—as their incubator, transporter, comforter—is sore knees at bedtime. Later, who knows what the consequences will be—more fractures? a wheelchair? I will certainly pay a price in lameness for having offered this body to my children; but in bearing and rearing children, my body has done exactly what I wanted and needed it to do, for the first time in my life.
Ultimately the reflections on faith and reproductive technology that consumed the months leading up to Meg’s conception had the most influence on my thoughts about a third child. Through that process, I became convinced that life is a gift, always a gift, no matter in what form it comes, no matter what pains or struggles it will know. Our culture offers us medical technology as a way to make life predictable and safe. It also tells us that responsible parents shouldn’t have more babies unless they can provide them with all the things necessary for a twenty-first-century American life: a room of their own, an SUV with side air bags and third-row seating, a fully funded investment account for college. All these things tempt me. I want the certainty and comfort and safety they offer.
But I am called to be a mother to the children I have now, not in some future time when I can better afford them, or when gene therapy offers a cure for OI. My small work is to choose gratitude and grace in the face of the chaos and uncertainty that will be part of human life as long as the work that God began at creation is ongoing, as long as God’s kingdom is not yet fully here. Most of the time I am called to be grateful and gracious amid the small chaos of motherhood: The kitchen floor, mopped just this morning, is by afternoon covered with crusty noodles and blobs of yogurt. The little one who learned to sleep through the night long ago is waking in the wee hours because of an ear infection or scary dreams. I spend twenty minutes wrestling the children into their snow gear, and after five minutes outside, they are ready to come back inside for lunch and hot cocoa.
And then Leah slips on the kitchen floor and lands hard, hands slapping loudly against the vinyl, and I hear that familiar choking cry of pain. Her hands are red and raw from playing in the snow, so the slap against the floor is especially painful. This time we escape without anything breaking. But I’m reminded again that my daughter, today so bright and whole and straight, will one day again be crumpled and broken. And then I turn on the television after the tsunamis in South Asia and see a man cradling his dead child, a boy about Leah’s size, and I’m reminded that even strong and healthy children can be swept away when an audacious ocean jumps its borders. In the face of all that, my small work is to remember and to teach my children that God made us and God loves us, so there is nothing to fear.
I knew that if we had a third baby, I would lose more of myself to the small chaos of motherhood. There would be more crumbs and smudges, more sharp and cruel retorts uttered after I have lost all patience, more trips to the emergency room for fractures (Leah’s? mine? the new baby’s?). I would trip over the baby’s bouncy seat because we had no more unused corners where it could sit out of the way, and spend Christmas morning wondering where the heck we’re going to put all this crap. I would drive a clunky used minivan, probably beige. I would lie awake imagining what we would do if I broke an arm or leg and couldn’t care for my kids, and then I would stop imagining, because there is no scenario that is less than terrifying.
I finally decided that, after two children, I was not done. I was undone, in every sense of that word. My undoing—the very real and painful losses of control that come with motherhood—was necessary for me to grow into the person (the mother, the writer) God made me to be. On January 27, 2006, I gave birth to a baby boy named Ben. Somehow we beat the fifty-fifty odds. Ben does not have OI.