The young mother wanted to be in that bathroom even less than I did. She scuttled out, her whole body curved in a protective crouch around the tiny bundle hanging in a sling from her shoulders, her nose wrinkled against the malevolent stench of a poorly maintained public restroom. I was there with my two youngest children because there is an inverse correlation between the cleanliness of a bathroom and my 3-year-old daughter's need to move her bowels.
While Rosie was hovering over the grimy toilet seat and I was herding her younger brother around the stall, trying to keep him from touching anything (one of my grandmother's most important legacies is the idea that the only part of your body that should touch a public restroom is the soles of your shoes), I caught a last glimpse of the other mother rushing out the exit. She had that swollen, stunned look I remember so well from the first months after each of my children were born, when exhaustion seems far too benign a word to describe the extent of your fatigue, when it seems like every part of your body is leaking and sore, when you have trouble remembering why you wanted a baby to begin with. The only part of her baby that was visible outside of the cotton sling was a tuft of mouse-colored hair. I knew how soft that hair was, delicate filaments of spun sugar. I could remember the sensation of silken baby hair against my lips, of a small, warm skull resting in the palm of my hand, the pulse fluttering under my fingertips.
Watching her stumble away on shaky legs, I realized with an absolute and sickening certainty that I wanted another baby.
"Mommy, wipe me," Rosie said.
"Me poop too," Abe announced, pointing to his diaper.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I have four children. Four is plenty. Four might be too many, if one is to accept the opinion of the people who pass me on the street and ask, horrified, "Are they all yours?" Personally, I think four is the perfect number of children for our particular family. Four is enough to create the frenzied cacophony that my husband and I find so joyful. Four is not too many to sit in rapt attention when it's time for the nightly chapter of "The Wizard of Oz" or "Twenty-One Balloons." Four is a gang that entertains and protects its members. Four fit comfortably in a minivan.
Four children is enough.
So why can't I stop thinking about another?
This may be nothing more than the most biological of urges. I recognize it; I've felt it before and I've seen it in my friends whether they're mothers of one child, of three, or of five. Abraham just turned 2. He walks, he has begun to put together simple sentences. He has even used the potty a few times. Even though we call him "the baby," he isn't one anymore, and perhaps my body is simply doing what evolution dictates; perhaps my uterus is sending a hormonal message to my brain as I watch him get ready to toddle off to preschool. OK, Mama, this one's browned, cool and ready to slice. It's time to get another bun in the oven.
But a person really mustn't be dictated to by her lady parts.
I turned 40 this year. I know many women who have happily had children well into their 40s, but I started this process younger than many of my contemporaries. At 29 years old, I was one of the first of my friends to have a baby. I remember touring the hospital in my eighth month, waddling through the labor and delivery suites in my red-and-white-striped Betsey Johnson minidress (the only time in my life I have ever worn horizontal stripes, because, well, why not?), staring at the other pregnant women on the tour. They looked so old to me, with their gray hair and their crow's feet. Almost a decade later, when I was big with Abraham, I could see the same look of pity on the faces of young pregnant women who bumped bellies with me.
My skin isn't the only part of me that's old. I pulled my back out twice last week, once, honorably, while lifting weights, and once, ridiculously, while turning on my bedside lamp. Perhaps this whole debate is just a pathetic clutching at youth. After all, wrinkled or not, if I'm toting around a newborn, then I'm young, right? But whatever the state of my skin and my muscles, my eggs aren't what they once were. We've already experienced the heartbreak of terminating one pregnancy due to a genetic abnormality. With four healthy children, I tell myself it would be irresponsible to give the dice another throw.
Never to feel the sandbag weight of a baby slung over my shoulder? Never to hold miniature, translucent starfish fingers in my hand? Never to match my breath to a baby's shallow wheeze?
I am carrying on such arguments in my head. I tell myself that after four children my belly is already so stretched and flabby that I have to do origami to get my pants buttoned. One more pregnancy and I'd be doomed to elastic waists for the rest of my life. I remind myself of what it would be like to confront the decision of going off the medications I take for my bipolar disorder. I remember the look on my good-natured obstetrician's face when she said, while checking how my Caesarean incision was healing, "Well, I'm not sure I really want to go back in there again." Ethel Kennedy reportedly had all 11 of her children via Caesarean section, but I can happily concede that record to her.
Other women in the park are having these same internal debates, I think. When a newborn shows up there's a pause, a hiccup in the general hubbub. We all stare, misty-eyed. We coo, we ooh. And then someone's kid whacks someone else's on the head with a shovel, or a toddler gets stuck on the top of the slide and gives a wrenching shriek, and we all briskly shake off that gentle longing.
My work, too, should make me want to stay away from the baby fog, whatever its seductions. When the babies were very young, I found it difficult to write. I told myself each time that it would be different, I was used to it now, but with every child, for the first four months, I would accomplish nothing. Even after I could return to work, I worked on baby time, stopping to nurse, to bandage wounds both real and imaginary, losing days to their sleepless nights. I find myself relieved that that time is drawing to a close. They need me as much as ever, but the way they need me is different; it's as intense but it's not diffused over every hour of the day. The older ones are gone all day, the little ones spend the morning with a baby sitter or napping. With a certain amount of discipline I can devote that time to my work. I realize that I don't want to go back to squeezing my writing into the cracks my children leave in the day and in my concentration.
The very fact that I can have this internal debate feels like a kind of gluttony. So many of my friends have struggled with infertility, so many of them fight ferociously for the chance to be a mother to even one baby. And here I want to gobble up so many more than my share. So, too, for now I have the luxury of economic security. I can afford to pay for preschool, for summer camp, for a sitter to watch the baby during the mornings while I work. There are so many people for whom the decision to have a child is determined not by the tugs of their wombs or hearts but by the exigencies of their wallets. We are lucky not to have gut-wrenching financial worries, but like most families we live on the income we earn, and our financial stability depends on our continuing to work.
The real reason not to have another child is because, when I think hard about it, when I get beyond the smell of a baby's head and the way it feels to take a bath with a newborn, I realize that I don't want to be there again, that none of the members of my family wants to be there again. As much as my husband sometimes misses having an infant in the house, he likes where we are right now. Mealtimes in our house are as raucous and boisterous as they always were, pitched at a volume that makes the only children who visit our house quiver with anxiety, but now it's not because we need to shout over a colicky baby's screams. It's because every evening each of the four children has news to report, a perfect score on a spelling test that must be announced with false modesty, an injury, either physical or emotional, to recount with excruciating detail. They talk over each other, vying for attention, bickering over who goes first, and at the same time solicitously pouring milk and helping mop up one another's spills. Divided evenly into two sets of two, the "bigs" and the "littles," they engage in elaborate and protracted fantasy games. Abraham has graduated to the role of prince's page or baby dragon, instead of being shunted off as a piece of furniture or tossed out of the room altogether. Finally, he has evolved from playing a prop to being an almost equal partner.
Even recognizing all this, I was still idly flirting with the idea of a fifth child until the other night when it became clear to me that my own limitations, and the needs of the children I already have, demand that four is enough.
I thought we were managing to pay enough attention to each of the children, to know who is anxious about the wavering loyalty of a supposed best friend, whose soccer cleats are too tight. Then the tooth fairy forgot to come.
It was my oldest daughter's 13th tooth, and by now she had the system down cold. I wondered if at 10 she still believed in glitter-clad fairies flitting from house to house gathering enameled bricks for their fairy castles, but she wasn't giving anything away. She presented the yellowed molar proudly, and tucked it carefully under her pillow in the same little box she'd used for the other 12.
The evening proceeded in its usual hysterical pace, an assembly line of bathing, teeth brushing, story time, and then each child demanding his or her very specific bedtime routine. One child must have someone lie next to her and sing the same two Pete Seeger songs, another requires an elaborate ritual of train songs in a slowly darkening bedroom. It is a good 90 minutes of tamped-down frenzy between the end of supper and lights out, and I often collapse in my own bed not long after the kids are tucked into theirs.
My daughter's face, at 6 the next morning, when she stood over our bed, was one of barely controlled fury.
"The tooth fairy didn't show up," she said. I knew by the ironic and disgusted quotation marks around the words "tooth fairy" that she didn't believe in her anymore. I'm fairly confident that she had begun to doubt even before the tooth fairy failed her, but there was perhaps one last vestige of trust, a glitter-encrusted faith in the mythologies of childhood. That was gone now. I had allowed it to slip through the cracks.
Later, I tried to salvage the experience with a kind of Passover Seder Afikomen hunt. I hid the tooth, she found it, and sold it to me for $13. It was OK, though there was something vaguely reminiscent of a cash transaction about the whole thing. Not a whole lot of magic.
My daughter had 10 years of the tooth fairy, I tell myself, a good long run. Still, it's a sign, I think, that my attentions are divided enough. It's a sign that juggling the needs, desires, fears, wants and teeth of four children is both joyful and difficult enough, without complicating matters with a fifth.
So this is it. Four wonderful children. More children than I ever thought I'd have, certainly. A big family. The perfect size for us. And yet, remember the eggshell toenails and buttery soft skin of a baby's foot? Just one more tiny mouthful of a foot ...