“He’s yours?” A man at my gym nodded to the little boy sitting on a couch with a few other kids.
“Yes, he’s mine,” I smiled back.
I typically get a standard response: “Wow, you don’t look old enough to have a kid that big!” I’m 28 years old with a 6-year-old first grader, and I’m told I look younger. A lot. I braced myself for the explanation, locked and loaded, but as it turned out, I was about to have my second most common conversation with strangers.
“He’s your only one?”
“Yes, just one.”
The man nervously nodded, like he wanted to say more, but class started and we parted ways. Then during our warm-up run, he caught up and asked, “So do you want to have more babies? Soon?”
“Right now, I’m happy with the one,” I replied through heavy breathing, hoping to put a kibosh on the topic of my womb. He continued.
“Hm. I don’t know what I’d do without my brothers; siblings are important, you know? You can always tell an only child. My cousin is an only child and you can just tell something’s missing. Something in the eyes. It’s sad.”
I couldn’t help but smile at his bluntness, his wildly inappropriate ignorance that a younger version of myself would have taken personally. At this point, I’ve heard it all. This man was trying to help me, to impart some wisdom, as so many others have. Or maybe he was just chatting me up, and the “only child” conversation was as good a topic as any. Either way, dude had opinions. In fact, I haven’t quite found an answer to, “Is he an only child? Don’t you want a sibling for him?” without sparking a strong reaction.
If I say I’m happy to have an only child — which, in so many ways, I am — then I hear all of the things my son is missing. I’m reminded that siblings are a gift to our children. I get dimwitted comments like, “You can always tell an only child,” as if there’s branding on their foreheads; as if their dysfunctions and hang-ups are too obvious to hide.
If I say, “Maybe we will” — because who knows what the next five or six years will bring, fertility is thankfully on my side — then I hear the chant of “HURRY.” (To be fair, the frantic, “you-need-to-have-them-close-in-age” expectation mostly ended once it was biologically impossible for my son to have a sibling within a three-year age span. Time marched on, locking that door as it went. Cue the head-cocked “pity look” for my lonely son.)
Maybe I should flat-out lie and say, “Yes, I’d love to have another baby as soon as possible,” but that would be a tough charade to keep up.
Or maybe I could just tell the truth and suffer through the other person’s discomfort and embarrassment. I could see his “let’s get personal” challenge and raise him. I could say something like:
“Actually having another child wasn’t in the cards for me, not yet, maybe not ever. In a parallel universe — one where my husband didn’t spend the first four years of our son’s life wrapped in a near-fatal opiate addiction, one where the stress and heartache didn’t threaten to crush me, one where I wasn’t fighting every day for my sanity, for my health, attending therapy, and Al-Anon meetings, doing my best to be a strong and healthy mother for the one I’m lucky enough to have … then maybe. But I’m not living there, I’m living here. In this reality, planning a second pregnancy would have been a supreme act of denial and delusion. We weren’t physically, mentally, or financially healthy enough to grow our family. Anything else you’d like to know?”
Maybe I could also confess my inner turmoil, having watched countless friends go on to have a second, third, even fourth baby after I did. They all look so happy birthing newborns and posting milestones on Instagram, and yes, sometimes it makes me feel sad, dear stranger. Sometimes I feel goddamn angry that my partner’s compulsions and sickness took away the choice to expand our family. But mostly I don’t think about it, just like I don’t think about the countless other life possibilities that weren’t in my control.
Is that what they want to hear? Shall I hand over my beating heart, gift wrapped in vulnerability?
I don’t, of course. I don’t have time for that — I doubt they want to hear it, either. They want to hear their own voice, their own opinions, not the multitude of struggles I might be going through — infertility, divorce, miscarriages, who knows. Not everyone who has one child is a selfish, money-focused diva in need of a schooling. Not all of us can snap our fingers and materialize a sibling for our child at the exact moment we’d like to. And believe it or not, there are real perks to having an only child.
So much of where I am is due to circumstances out of my control. Even my husband’s past addictions and my own codependent tendencies were wired into us long before we had full control of our lives — that’s just the way it is. I wasn’t able to give my child the gift of a sibling — a gift with heart-tugging benefits — but in its absence, my husband and I are giving a different kind of gift: The gift of sobriety, of clear-minded thinking. The gift of breaking patterns set in place for generations.
In fact, that might be the best gift we could give, whether or not a sibling comes along.
At the gym, I politely nodded as that man yanked on the foot lodged in his mouth. I winked at my son who was watching me from the sidelines — my one perfectly happy boy who would much prefer grounded and healthy parents to a little brother.
At least we won’t break his toys.