I get emails from a tarot card site every few weeks. These are messages about cards that supposedly have personal relevance to my life, though who knows. Perhaps everyone on the mailing list receives the same thing. This week's email dispatch tells me: The Empress symbolizes abundance, fertility. She can represent pregnancy or actual birth, as well as creation or the birth of a creative project. This card is a good omen if you are considering starting a family or having more children. What I am considering right now is the possibility that my family may already be complete, that I will not be having more children.Is it really so strange to imagine that my body will never again be inhabited by another human being? Walking around as a complete person, with my internal organs and chemicals and hormones and neurons working in the service of supporting my own life and not the emerging life of another person, is the default experience. Being pregnant, gestating and birthing babies, is the anomalous condition. And yet I admit to a pang of--what, sadness? regret?--when I think about putting away the crib and saying goodbye to the defining identity of my life for the past six years, being a new mother.
A few months after Nate was born, when I was safely past the hormonally tenuous first weeks post-birth and realizing with a thrill that the darkness of post-partum depression had been successfully eluded, I had a vivid dream. I was swimming in the sea, near a cliffside beach. I swam up to a reddish rock jutting out of the water and climbed up to sit. A friend swam up beside me. "Here," he said, "you forgot this." I opened my arms and took what he gave me: a baby. Slippery from the water, chubby, with a full head of black hair: a baby boy. "Of course," I told my friend. "Thank you." I looked at this baby of mine I'd forgotten I had and held him close. He was completely unlike my real-life babies, bald and blondish, both of them. But in the dream, I said, "Of course." I knew him as surely as I knew myself. I woke up with the lingering feeling of having connected with a real person. I woke up with the tantalizing idea that it could be possible there was a third baby waiting for me.
One morning when Nate is at his summer playschool and Emi is home with me, reading books and coloring papers, I decide that it is time. We clear the floor in the kids' room, making space for the crib's disassembly. When I pull open the drawer beneath the crib mattress, I find, in addition to the crib's assembly instructions and a small wrench, a collection of receiving blankets, a quilt from my grandmother, a crocheted baby blanket my mother made for Emi. I find plastic covers for plug outlets, an unopened box of contraptions to baby-proof cabinet doors. I find the triangular foam blocks we used with new-parent anxiety with Emi, but not with Nate, to prevent any chance of the baby rolling over in the night and suffocating. I find tiny, preemie-sized baby pants, so small I cannot reconcile them with my chubby 37-pound almost three-year-old boy or my 42-pound six-year-old girl whose body shed its toddler shape years ago. I put everything into a pile in the corner of the room and get to work taking the crib apart, unscrewing all the screws and breaking it down into pieces that can fit through the door and out into the hallway, out into storage.
What does it mean for my fertility to be over? After working so hard to embrace the identity of new mother, what will it be like to surrender to the notion that even that role is a relic of a particular time, its purpose as limited and temporally defined as burpee cloths and tiny spoons? It could be freeing, in a way, to have fertility return to being something I only think of in terms of preventing, just like in the old days, before babies were the point. And freeing to have those early newborn months officially, finally, forever in the past. But after all these years of being a "new mother," must I really make the transition into being a regular old mother, without even the promise of future "pregnancy glow" luster? without the undeniable joy of a small baby's throaty chuckle? without the endless surprise of a toddler's linguistic idiosyncrasies? With, instead, my kids getting older and eventually being teenagers and dreading being seen with me in public, no babies to make me seem less obsolete?
I put all the crib's screws and washers into a ziplock bag, labeled, along with the assembly instructions, as if later someone might need to know how to put it all back together again. But that someone won't be me. That dream-baby, the dream of the third baby, is just that: a dream. Here in real-life, I have my arms full with two children who aren't as old as they seem. The question of whether to have a baby or be in the world is a trick. Third baby or not, there is no escaping it: I am already in the world. It is here, all around me, whatever work I'm doing, whatever life I'm anticipating.
I realize as the last screw falls out of the side of the crib, where it held that pesky sliding rail in place, that this is the last of the baby furniture, the last practical vestige of my children's babyhood. I take apart the last screw, and, just like that, the last of the babies is gone.