My husband and I do not harbor sorrow because we parent an only child; we celebrate our complete family.
“You just have one?” she asked. Her scrub top displayed a rainbow of colors, like a collage pieced together without a purpose.
She rattled this question with an even tone, as I stumbled into the grey dentist chair. The x-ray technician made this inquiry while she slipped the plastic into my mouth to take images of my teeth. A routine cleaning brought a personal and intimate question from a stranger.
“Yep. Only one.” I smiled without offering further explanation.
Our decision to have an only child invites speculation from family, friends, and strangers. There is an accompanying look to their question. Shoulders slumped, sad eyes, and disappointment manifests on their faces even before the inquiry has a chance to land. The regret boomerangs to the person who poses the question. My husband and I do not harbor sorrow because we parent an only child; we celebrate our complete family.
“Only” is a word that carries an array of assumptions. Some may conclude that my daughter is lonely and plays in her room without little interaction from the outside world. Words like “spoiled,” “weird,” and “difficult” are hurled in her direction. To exist as one appears to invite a stigma that I fail to understand, but my backstory is not maligned with regret.
Regret connotes remorse, a deep disappointment in what is an active pining for another outcome. Our days are not filled with the tilt of sadness, but unfold with laughter, struggle, and reconciliation. On Friday nights, we gather for family movie night, the three of us taking our seats in the living room. Blankets covering our bodies, the smell of buttery popcorn whispering in the air, the three of us laugh, and a joy splatters across the room. On some weekend mornings, my daughter grabs her bike, while I run in a steady cadence, chasing her shadow while still keeping her in my direct view. When we least expect it, she writes letters to both of us, expressing her love on colored sticky post-it notes.
All days do not beat to a linear rhythm and there are moments filled with struggle. Slammed doors, hurt feelings, and battles over homework exist in our world too. We’ve yelled at her and she’s screamed back. But this conflict isn’t the result of her only child world, it is the natural occurrence that persists in all parent and children relationships.
Reconciliation comes too. Discussions ensue over her angst and we attempt to soothe her concerns and voice our reasons for punishment. We push to create a constructive dialogue where we collectively hope that the lessons we explain to her might take hold and she remembers the guidance she received from us.
Throughout the seasons of our relationship, my desire for a second is only in passing. I might ogle at baby clothes or play with a friend’s son for a few minutes or wonder how others manage more than one child. But the siren of having a second never really took off.
In the early part of January 2006, I gave birth to our daughter. When the nurse swaddled and laid her on my chest, the flurry of anxiety, worry, and the questions of “what now” scattered inside of me. Afraid and nervous, I looked into her eyes and kissed her pink cheek. The nurse scooped her away for her first bath. A shivering pulsed through my body and I failed to witness those cries of her entering the world outside of my womb. I only know this fragment because my husband watched as she kicked, screamed, and fought her first bath as the water slid down her tiny tummy. When she returned to my room, she sobbed, only feeling comfort when she laid on my chest or when my husband walked her down the corridor of the hospital.
That moment happened over nine years ago. Writing that sentence is like a cold slap in the face because I am fascinated how the days can seem so consuming and tiring and long, but in retrospect, all of it moves fast. My memories of her birth are still fresh, almost as if it occurred yesterday, but I cannot even fathom that I’ve been mothering for so long. Motherhood fell into my lap like a sudden waterfall. As a young woman, I never recall saying, “I cannot wait to be a mother or I want this many children.”
My focus for the first 30 years of my life gravitated toward furthering my own ambitions. After getting married and many serious discussions later, we decided that we wanted to have a child. Making that decision offered many complicated debates on the ramifications of raising a human being. For someone who is entrenched in predictability and routine, I fought the change in my life. I continued working as an attorney after taking a three-week maternity leave. After months of trying to juggle my little girl with my career, something had to give. Reflecting now, there were so many fragments in the air. A father dying of cancer, a little girl who needed all of her mother, a husband who needed a wife and me, who needed to find the doorway to balance woman, daughter, wife, mother, lawyer, and self.
I could not do it all. Burned out and unable to manage all the downpour, I relinquished my legal career.
That is the first lesson my daughter taught me. Sometimes as much as you are unwilling to let go, you must.
Through the last nine years, my little girl offered lessons I never thought I could learn from her. Her ability to surrender to every emotion and mean it. When she wants to cry, she spares no tears. When she wants to laugh, she throws her whole self into the arc of the emotion. Her eyes fill with wonder at the blue sky, rainbows, the lizard that crawls across the driveway, and every new moment that intersects with her eyes.
Letting go. Crying when you need to. Laughing so that it echoes. Filling up with wonder at the smallest pieces of ordinary.
I am not sure how “just one” bears any regret at all.
Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former attorney turned writer and editor. Prior to attending law school, she graduated with an M.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is the managing editor for The First Day and her work has appeared in Brain, Child, The Huffington Post , The Review, Review and Mamalode. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri, and is currently working on a memoir that explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces.