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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I often find myself thinking back to this day, its heaviness still weighing on me despite the time that’s passed. I sit, waiting, with my then 18-month-old son in our pediatrician’s office for a checkup. He is an “old school” doctor with kind eyes and an absent-minded sense of humour (I have now heard the same joke six times), he greets us with his usual cheerful but hurried demeanour. His office is bright but artificially lit, his numerous degrees and accolades now yellowed from the sun.

Marco is his usual boisterous self. The checkup is unremarkable. A bit of chit-chat to wrap up the appointment before the question comes suddenly and unexpectedly like that car you see in your blind spot at the last moment: “So when will Marco be getting a little brother or sister?”

Caught off guard, I fumble for a few words: “I don’t know … we’re not sure …”.

More statements come from the doctor and they feel harsh like the buzzing light of the examination room. “You know, he needs a sibling for his development.”

I mumble something about his loving half-sister. “That’s not the same thing,” he says.

I don’t fault my pediatrician for his comments. Were they unprofessional and inappropriate? Yes. Unfounded and ignorant of me and my life circumstances? Certainly. But I know they were coming from a place of benevolence. The fact is that my label as a “one-and-done mom” has burdened me for too long. Because for every moment that I worry about not giving my son a sibling is a lost moment to relish in the miracle and joy that is my son.

And he is a miracle. I lost a child at 22 weeks gestation owing to fetal abnormalities before having Marco. For a long time after that loss, I did not think I would have children at all owing to the inherent risks now bestowed upon me. My pediatrician was also not aware of the hellish postpartum anxiety I experienced during the first year of Marco’s life. I remember clearly the month of December, 2016, just before Marco’s first birthday. I was 25 lbs. below my pre-pregnancy weight, averaging about eight to 10 hours of sleep per week (yes, per week), and developing an alarming dependency on short-acting sedatives to get even that amount of rest. Every time I look at photos from Marco’s first birthday, I struggle to recognize the shell of the person I see looking back at me.

These are not easy things to bounce back from. Like the postpartum momma belly that I have learned to embrace, these memories cling stubbornly to my core. But they also give me a deep-seated confidence that I will overcome most challenges that cross my path in the future. With the good mental health and self-awareness that I am fortunate to now enjoy, I decided not to have more children. As my son grew, I braced myself for the onslaught of societal and familial pressures, questions and well-meaning comments that would be sure to follow. I wanted to have a more confident (or at least, humorous) answer, to avoid feeling like a floundering little girl like that day in our pediatrician’s office.

I now have that answer.

“Know your limit, stay within it.”

Touted by alcohol and gambling associations worldwide, it reflects our adulthood imperative to exercise judgment and moderation across important aspects of our lives. Our health, our finances, our relationships and sexuality. Yet when it comes to child rearing, the message that is politely shoved at most twenty- and (especially) thirtysomething women is in stark contrast to these temperate pleas for moderation and self-control. Even when there are clear health, relationship or financial issues that may incline a woman to have just one (or no) children, she is urged to go against her better judgment. She hears a lot of: “Don’t worry, the second time around is a breeze,“ ”Second children just know when to go to sleep” and the best one, “They will keep each other entertained.”

Why do women’s reproductive capacities continue to dictate how she should construct her life? Why is a woman not urged to use her intellect or passions in the same way as she is pressured to use her reproductive organs for as long as they’ll serve her? Of course, none of this is new. But lately, I have felt compelled to shout it from the rooftops to whomever will listen: “I know my limit, y’all, and I’m gonna stay within it.”

Not all women are “naturals” when it comes to child rearing and that for some, the transition to motherhood is strained and arduous, like the pipsqueak neighbourhood kid playing hoops with the tall boys. All the practice in the world won’t make that net come any closer.

We intuitively understand that certain physiques lend themselves better to some sports but in the ultimate sport of motherhood, it is tacitly assumed that women are created more-or-less-equally in our biologically determined imperative to birth and rear children. Yet, the laundry list of variables that separate women is long, and it is all relevant: some become mothers early in life, transitioning seamlessly from caring for younger siblings to their own offspring. Others enter motherhood later in life, sometimes carrying physical or mental health challenges with them. Some have extensive support networks, others are painfully isolated. To feed all women the same rhetoric about whether or not to have children, and how many to have, is harmful and invalidating of these women’s pre- and post-motherhood lives and experiences.

So Mama, be confident and be strong. Know yourself, and know your limits, all without shame or judgment. Most of all, know that you have more insight and self-knowledge than the well-meaning, old-school pediatricians of the world trying to tell you otherwise.

Stephanie Penney lives in Toronto.