I cannot buy it—’tis not sold
There is no other in the World
Mine was the only one
– Emily Dickinson
One of the first things people ask when they hear your child died of cancer is “Do you have any other children?” Even some other parents whose children have died ask this. Only a few have lost their only child and many of those have gone on to have other babies. Really? I wonder to myself, would having another child make it better?
When Zoe was born I was 37. I thought I might have a shot at another baby before we were done, but it didn’t work out. I was working full time as well as being the primary caregiver and Zoe’s dad was laid off a few times. By then things were not good between us and I didn’t want to bring another child into our marriage, but I hadn’t fully come to terms with Zoe being an only child by the time of her diagnosis.
Once Zoe was diagnosed and her dad had left, I was relieved I didn’t have any other children and could devote all of my attention to her. I felt it was meant to be this way. I know from other parents of chemo kids how difficult it can be to balance the demands of treatment regimes and hospital admissions with the needs of other children. And the bond we developed over this time was something special and powerful that people would often comment on.
That didn’t stop Zoe from asking for a baby brother or sister though. She wasn’t buying my slight obfuscation that you needed a mum and a dad who lived together to achieve this either. Eventually she moved on to asking for a puppy instead. That wish I was prepared to grant when she was a little older.
After Zoe’s death a friend commented that she couldn’t imagine how I was getting through it with no other children. “That’s because you do have other children,” I replied. I couldn’t imagine trying to meet the needs and deal with the grief of siblings when I was barely coping with my own.
A few months after Zoe died, the man I’d been seeing for a couple of years suggested we could try for a baby. I considered it. I was 44. It wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility and I didn’t really feel like I was done with mothering, I felt like I still had something left to give to a child.
But then; reality check. The chances of getting pregnant with your own eggs at my age were virtually nil, even with medical assistance. And if it did happen, the chances of having a child with Down Syndrome were extremely high. The chances of getting pregnant with donor eggs were a bit higher, but was that really something I could ask of someone? I looked into adoption. Very few children are put up for adoption in New Zealand and we were too old to be considered for overseas adoption (an industry that seems fraught with ethical dilemmas anyway).
We looked into fostering, going to an information evening with CYFs (Department of Child, Youth and Family). That was eye opening and heartbreaking. CYFs receives many, many more referrals than children they have homes for. And despite only about 16% of fostered children being able to return permanently to their parents, the system is set up around this ideological outcome. Most children are moved around temporary foster parents as a matter of course, many of them with significant behavioural, developmental and medical issues that I’m certain aren’t assisted by the unsettled situation.
After all this my boyfriend’s suggestion was that we “just try.” But in my gut I felt that actually I was too old, and my heart was just too broken to deal with disappointment, or in the event of a near miracle, a newborn, especially one with special needs. I was glad I had looked into it, because I had got to a place where I was at peace again with Zoe being my one and only. Shortly after that, I was single again and certainly happy not to be facing single motherhood again.
Occasionally I get a little twinge in what’s left of my ovaries when I hear of others’ babies, particularly after loss. Most recently Anna Whiston Donaldson, blogger at An Inch of Gray, fell pregnant at 46, four years after her son Jack died, after not using contraception for four years, but not really trying either. She had assumed she was peri-menopausal, but instead found she was pregnant. My first reaction was a moment of jealousy (“she’s only a year younger than me and already has one other child”, I thought) but on reflection, even though I’m delighted for Anna (and all my friends expecting new babies, rainbow or not), I’m perfectly ok with the fact that I won’t be dealing with toddler tantrums at 50 and a teenager in my 60s.
It doesn’t make the question any easier to deal with. Recently I was invited to an event where I didn’t know many people and they were mostly mothers whose lives and chat revolved around young teenagers. I had perhaps subconsciously avoided situations like this previously and I left feeling a little raw. I had found myself answering the question over and over (because I’ve learned it’s better not to try to gloss over my situation while making small talk), “Do you have any other children?”
I can see in their eyes that they want the answer to be yes, because otherwise I would just be too sad. But I’m not. I’m sad my one and only died, but I am not sad that Zoe was my one and only, that my mother heart belongs only to her.