(Disclaimer: This was written pre-pandemic as I chronicled my pregnancy.)
When Ryker was about two years old, I started noticing that every other kid his age seemed to have at least one sibling. Among my close girlfriends, I am the only one with only one child over the age of five. In my neighborhood in NYC, some families even have four. FOUR CHILDREN!
Thinking about all these bigger families, the first thing I would always wonder was, "How did these women feel mentally well enough to keep having babies?" I legitimately could not understand how anyone could go from the trauma and misery of having their first child to ever wanting to do it again.
What I didn't understand was that most women had not experienced what I had. Most women were unlikely to use the words trauma or misery about the births of their children.
This kind of thinking was one of the ways I continued to be affected by my postpartum depression even after the acute symptoms of panic and anxiety had stopped battering me.
There was no way I could have handled a second baby when Ryker was still a toddler. I would surely have gone completely mad and have needed to be institutionalized. I would say this to friends laughingly, but I was serious.
I felt guilty for feeling this way. I knew my husband wanted another kid. Anytime we heard that someone we knew was pregnant, he would make a sad expression which meant, "How come everyone else is doing well and growing their family and we’re just, here?" In turn, I would defensively show no emotion and give a flippant shrug.
It felt painful to be hindering something that was important to my husband, something that had once been part of my dreams and plans too, before I became a mother. I also felt sad for Ryker that he was an only child, that my inner turmoil was robbing him of the chance to have a sibling.
When Ryker was in preschool, we received emails from his teachers, recapping what the children had gotten up to during the week. In one such email, the teachers shared a family project they had done in class. The project had come from a discussion about one of the children's brand new baby sibling who had just been born. It was this child's third sibling. Meaning, the family now had four children. The birth of this baby had prompted a conversation where everyone in class took turns talking about their own siblings. Everyone had at least one sibling. Everyone, that is, except for Ryker.
The email listed each child's answer: A baby brother. A big sister. Two older step-siblings.
I scanned down the list looking for Ryker’s answer. He had said, “I have one dog-sister.”
Now, in one respect, this is pretty sweet. Our dog is part of our family, so naturally, he considers her his sister. A major reason we even have a dog is for Ryker. I want him to grow up in a home with a pet. I want him to love, respect, and learn how to take care of animals. I myself had been desperate for a dog when I was little and when we finally got one when I was 13, it was one of the happiest times in my life. So for Ryker to see our dog as his sister is a lovely sentiment.
At the same time, a pet dog is most certainly not the same as a human sibling.
The email from school made me cringe: Poor Ryker... he thinks our dog is his actual sister. I felt embarrassed and guilty. I worried what the other parents would think. Would they feel sorry for us? Would they wonder why we only had one child? Would they ask me next time they saw me at school pickup? I hoped people would assume we had fertility issues. That seemed much better, much more understandable than having people know the truth, which was that I was in no mental state to even attempt getting pregnant again.
I was often asked if we wanted more kids or if we were "one and done." I felt put on the spot, judged. I think it was because even though I could not imagine having another baby, I also did really wish for one. I did generally hope it would happen at some point, but at a point far away in the future. Though I was aware that it couldn't be too far off, as I was already of "advanced maternal age."
When people would ask about it, I would say, "We hope to have another one! We’ll see what happens.” And these kinds of questions would follow:
What if you have a hard time getting pregnant?
Would you do IVF if you needed to?
Have you frozen your eggs?
Wait, how old are you now?
You shouldn't wait too long: aren't you worried about having too big of an age gap?
I wasn’t mentally strong enough to not let these intrusive ideas seep into my psyche. They were right. I was losing eggs. The viability of what eggs I had left was deteriorating. Maybe I would have a hard time getting pregnant. I was almost 40. And the age gap was getting bigger and bigger.
I feel like there are basically two schools of thought when it comes to the age gap between siblings. There are the families that “want to get it over with” and have their kids in quick succession. These are the families whose Instagram profiles might say "Three under three!”, indicating that they had three kids who were all under three years old. My mind could barely compute this. How did that mother grow and birth three babies in such a short amount of time? Just the thought of the mental and physical toll it must have had on her makes me want to hide in a dark room.
Then there are the families that want more space between children. They'd rather have their first child out of diapers before their second child comes around. I imagine these moms are more like me: needing and wanting more time to recuperate before taking on another child. But even these larger age gaps were around three to four years, nowhere near the six and a half year age gap we are looking at. These parents still seemed to share the same sentiment that they “didn’t want their children to be too far apart in age.”
I've recently started noticing families with kids that seem quite far apart in age. I always strike up conversations with these families. I am so curious how things are for them. I ask how old their children are, calculate the age gap, and ask how they find the sibling dynamic to be. Sometimes it turns out that there's actually a middle child or two who just aren't with them in that moment. But every now and then I do meet a family where the kids have a big age gap and every mother has shared with me that she has been really happy with it:
The older one helps in taking care of the younger one.
They don't fight because they aren't going through the same issues at the same time.
I love getting to revisit the baby stage with more experience.
I've had so much quality time with each of them on their own.
Of course, there is simply no right or best age gap. What's important is what makes the most sense for each family. When it comes to the decision to carry and birth another child, it has to start with what is right for Mom and her mental, emotional, and physical health. I had to listen to my own inner voice over the opinions and fear mongering of others that made me feel pressured, like I was running out of time and like I was doing it all wrong. My mental health had to come first and our family needed time to settle and solidify before we could expand. For us, this took over five years. That might seem like a long time but it's what's been right for our family.
When I would find myself second guessing my choices and wondering if things should be different, I would remind myself of a mantra I really love: Trust the Timing of Your Life. The idea that things have a way of making sense when you look back in hindsight.
I'm realizing that I didn't have to worry so much about having missed my chance for another baby. It just hadn't been time until now.
What's pretty cool about Ryker being almost six years old is that he is going to understand, be a part of, and remember a lot of these moments. He's known about the pregnancy since the very beginning, which actually hadn't been intentional. I was just so stunned reading the pregnancy test that I shouted from the bathroom, "It says I'm pregnant!" Ryker had been in earshot and I immediately heard him shout back, "What's pregnant?"
These early moments of pregnancy are tricky to navigate with your first born because the reality of the baby is still quite precarious. We hope everything will turn out okay but nothing is ever promised. We've told Ryker we think there is a baby in Mommy's belly but we need to wait to see what the doctor says. He is a little confused and periodically checks in, "So is there a baby growing in there or not??" Thankfully, kids' minds are flexible so he seems okay with the uncertainty for now.
I love that Ryker is going to remember so much of his little brother's or sister’s life, right from the very beginning. I love that he gets to go through this pregnancy with us. I know he is going to relish in being a big brother. And maybe the next time he is asked to name his siblings, he will get to answer: “My dog-sister Kinley and my human baby brother/sister X.”