I wanted a third baby. My youngest was just graduating from baby to toddler. My oldest was fast approaching school age. They were beautiful, funny, adorable, consuming, exasperating, and exhausting. For great chunks of every day, I wondered how I would survive until bedtime. I hungered for sleep and time to myself. Just as fiercely, I wanted those days to last. Their childhoods seemed like a swiftly flowing river that rushed away from me toward the future too quickly.
Having a third child didn’t make practical sense. I was anxious to finish my training as a Jungian analyst and build my practice. My husband and I were both on the far side of 35. A third child would have meant more years devoted to childcare, more money to be saved for college, more expenses generally. If my husband had been game, I would have rushed to create a new life. I would have done so impulsively, recklessly, pushing aside the practical concerns. I wanted another little one to hold and nurse. I wanted to extend my years parenting. I wanted a larger family.
I wasn’t ready to be done. If there was a new baby on the horizon, there was more life ahead. Never mind that I was nearing midlife. A third child would allow me to suspend myself for a few brief years in the extended youth that pregnancy and nursing bring. It was as if the baby’s newness would rub off on me, rejuvenating me for a year or two before leaving me even further aged. On the other hand, to declare myself done was to round life’s corner and see ahead the long home stretch. I would be conceding to life’s inexorable onward rush toward my own aging and eventual death.
The matter came to a head both symbolically and concretely when we were cleaning. What should we do with all those precious baby outfits now folded and stored away? When we took them out, they surprised me by their impossible smallness. Each one brought back a cascade of memories, painful and bright. I remembered her in that outfit. I could see him again as he was when he wore that shirt. The promise of another little one wearing these precious little clothes meant that I could put off saying goodbye to them. I wouldn’t have to decide which to give away, and which to pack carefully like ephemeral treasures, guarding against the ravages of dry rot. At least, not yet.
There is a curious part of the myth of Demeter and Persephone that says something about our reluctance to let go. Demeter had searched in grief for her daughter. At last, disguised as an old woman, she took a job as nurse maid to a royal family in Eleusis that had a small son, Demophoon. Demeter decided that she would render him immortal by burning him in the fire each night. She was most of the way through the procedure when the child’s mother Metanira walked in on her one evening, and saw her son banked like a log in the fire. Of course, she screamed, interrupting the goddess, who became angry and suddenly revealed herself in all her glory. Demophoon remained an ordinary mortal.
Demeter was inconsolable over the loss of her daughter. (Was Persephone really abducted? Or did it just seem that way to a mom who wasn’t ever going to be ready for her daughter to leave her and start her own family?) She couldn’t quite bring herself to accept and mourn her loss, and so distracted herself by caring for another baby. She planned to make sure the same thing didn’t happen a second time. She wanted to make sure time couldn’t take this second child away from her.
Metanira’s interruption was of course a happy accident. We all must accept the ordinary human fate – for ourselves and our children. Refusing to do so results in stagnation.
Eventually, there is always a last baby, whether it is the first or the fifth. With a heave of primal sorrow, we turn to see that part of our lives receding swiftly into the past. The mourning cannot be deferred any longer. Whether we let ourselves feel it as the infant toys go out to the curb, or whether we steel ourselves against it until the day they leave for college, grief is present from the very beginning, and never really leaves us.