“What’s your favorite nanimal?” My 3-year-old asks, green eyes wide, blonde hair haloing her face.
“Giraffe?” I mumble. It’s barely 6 AM.
“Me, too!” my daughter cries gaily. Then she grows serious. “I also love bunnies and hippos and those other ones with the big horns on their noses. What’rethosecalledMommy?”
I stumble into the kitchen to get breakfast ready. She stands beside me on a chair and makes “little eggs” in the flour with a teaspoon, bellows to her big brother and two big sisters, “PANCAKES ARE READY!” and then helps me do laundry by folding dishtowels into messy squares and squishing them into the drawer.
Before this little girl was born, I worried we were being greedy. My husband and I were already blessed with three healthy children, could we really be lucky enough to have a fourth?
I adore this child. She is good-humored, philosophical and bright. She has a question — and an answer — for everything. But sometimes, more often than it is safe to admit (and not just in my worst moments), I find myself thinking that we made a mistake.
“Was it an accident?” people asked when we announced our fourth pregnancy. My husband was an only child who thought he might someday have a kid — one, of his own, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want four. I was one of four, from two different marriages, but that wasn’t why. My older brothers offered me pot when I was 7, let me jump on their beds to Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out for the Summer,” and burned me so badly with a cigarette that I can still feel the place on my back where the skin charred. I wanted positive revenge by being the kind of mother my mom never was: attentive, compassionate, present. I longed for a big, noisy family, certain that my older kids would look out for the younger ones and that my kids would be safe, protected and cocooned in love. Lydia wasn’t an accident. The six-year gap between her and her brother wasn’t exactly planned — we had spent a year in West Africa when I had a Fulbright and we decided to wait for the vaccines and anti-malaria meds to get out of our systems, and then I had a miscarriage — but everything else about Lydia joining our family was.
The Internet has made it effortless to connect with moms of many. These happy moms crow that they love each new child who enters their lives equally. Once you’ve had three, MomToFive asserts, it’s no big deal to add more. It just gets easier, another reassures. My older children are so helpful with the younger ones, SixSteins brags, adding three exclamation points for emphasis. You always have enough love, ManyBlessings writes.
If anyone can handle four kids with grace, it should have been me. I wrote a parenting column for the local newspaper for three and a half years, I co-authored a book on toddlers and wrote three on babies. I’ve lectured to standing-room-only auditoriums about peaceful parenting, gentle childbirth, helping children thrive.
Still, having a fourth child wasn’t a rational decision. Our car couldn’t seat six. We had no college savings for the older three. As a freelance journalist I had an erratic income and no maternity leave. There’s a justifiable American prejudice against big families, and having more than three is so frowned upon that two friends stopped talking to me when I told them I was pregnant.
The day Lydia was born, at home, my oldest daughter rushed back from school. “I didn’t go to gymnastics!” she cried breathlessly as she threw down her backpack and tore into the bedroom. Her brother and sister were already there, snugged up with me, cooing over the baby’s impossibly small hands. She scooped the baby into her arms and padded to her room, settling herself on the bed with the baby on her chest. She held her for hours, kissing the top of her head with its wispy blonde hair, inhaling the warm smell of her scalp.
“I want her back,” I told my daughter finally, feeling empty without the baby in my arms.
She shook her head. “She’s mine, Mommy,” she said, giving me a wistful smile. “I’m not ready yet.”
I worried the kids would feel jealous of the baby but they didn’t, not at first, not for years. They enjoyed her soft skin, the throaty laugh that they knew so well how to elicit, her first steps across the carpet into their outstretched arms.
“I don’t like you anymore! YOU CUT MY CHICKEN THE WRONG WAY!” Lydia, who’s almost 4 now, shrieks during dinner. “Don’t talk to Daddy anymore,” she orders in the next breath even though my husband and I have barely said hello to each other. My son, who is all elbows and ribs these days, sneaks on to my lap for a rare cuddle and Lydia’s face becomes red with indignation. She climbs onto my other knee and starts kicking him off my lap.
“That’s NOT OK!” I cry, pushing my chair back from the table and depositing Lydia, who is screaming so loudly that my middle daughter is covering her ears with her hands, back onto her chair.
“Why’d you have so many children,” my eldest snaps. “It’s way too much for you to handle. Mo-om.”
That night Lydia wakes me for the third time. I stagger into the bathroom to get her a glass of water and then lie awake for hours. The next afternoon she bounces onto the couch to play Hearts. By the time the practice round is over, she’s at the end of her patience, crumpling the 10 of diamonds to stop the game. Her brother roars with frustration. I’m angry and sleep-deprived and it’s as if someone found the OFF switch on my patience. Since Hearts was a failure, I take the kids to the park. My son is happy to play tag with his sisters, but Lydia only wants to play Baby. She’s the mommy. We zoom our pretend segways on the play structures to pretend Ruthie’s house. Ruthie makes us broccoli. If we eat all of it we can have lollipops and ice cream and then we’ll go to the princess castle and save the sick horses.
My eyes glaze and I can’t stop yawning. I find myself thinking shamefully that if Lydia weren’t with us I could be sitting in the sunlight reading Dickens; our family could go to the movies together; there would be a lot less bickering and fighting; I could be giving more attention to my needy teenager, my self-sacrificing tween, my 9-year-old son and my husband. I would be getting a lot more sleep.
The weekend before school starts again I drive the kids to an amusement park six hours away. My husband doesn’t come because we still haven’t bought a bigger car. My older three face the upside down and backwards thrill rides with white-knuckled bravery, screaming their lungs out, breathless with triumph when the coaster jolts to a stop, happy to still be alive. Lydia, too fearful even to try the Fun House, shrieks with terror at the sight of the dragon coaster. The brightly colored choo-choo that makes a slow loop around a single track is exactly her speed. I squeeze myself into the seat beside her. We ride on it. Over and over again.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” my oldest daughter whispers, “but it would be so much easier if Lydia weren’t here.”
My oldest is just being brave enough to voice what we all feel. My face flushes with shame and remorse. What kind of person wishes her child weren’t there? I am a heartless monster, unfit to be a mother.
“We’ll stay the night,” I tell my disappointed threesome as Lydia whines to leave long before they’re ready. We follow other smaller families streaming out of the amusement park. Their kids skip along happily with big smiles on their faces while Lydia pouts. “We’ll come back tomorrow and stay as long as you like.”
We shoehorn ourselves into the least expensive motel room I can find. The baby — we still call her that though she’s not a baby anymore and hasn’t been for a long time — wakes early. Her brother leaps out of bed with her, telling her in a loud whisper to be quiet. He piles pillows and blankets to make a fort while I sneak 20 more minutes of sleep. My oldest daughter brushes the tangles out of Lydia’s hair. “We can take turns watching her today,” my 12-year-old volunteers. “So you can go on more rides.”
On the first day of middle school, that daughter wakes up noticeably taller than the night before. We stand back-to-back, shoeless. She’s got a quarter of an inch on me now. “Can I borrow your red shirt?” Her sister asks. “The brand new one?” I intercede. “Of course,” Athena tells her sister. “I’m not wearing it today, Mom,” she says to me. “Why shouldn’t she?” After school she’ll play Dungeons & Dragons with her little brother, even though his squirming drives her crazy. Lydia starts crying: She feels shortchanged because preschool doesn’t start until next week. Athena sweeps her into her arms and kisses her belly. “You’ll be alright, Peeper,” she tells her baby sister who laughs uproariously. They’re beautiful to watch: a willowy brown-haired beauty sharing a loving moment with her pudgy blonde-haired sister.
I am the luckiest mother in the world.
And the most unworthy.
Lydia reaches her arms to me as I step outside to open the garage for the bicycles the kids will ride to school. There’s still a bit of baby fat on her cheeks. I kiss them and inhale her familiar scent. I’ve been parenting long enough to know she’s just doing the hard work of growing up, and that we are all feeling her growing pains. I also know that we are all kinder, more generous and more creative because of this baby. I love her more than anything in the world. I would lay down my life for her. Standing on my tiptoes to enclose her older sister in a sandwich hug (“I’m the lettuce!” Lydia cries), I try to forgive myself the dark thoughts. I can be impatient, imperfect, sleep-deprived and immature sometimes, and still be a good mother. Sooner than I can stand it Lydia will be the willowy teen heading off to middle school. Only she‘ll have no baby sister waving her goodbye.