When A Stranger Told Me I Needed To Have A Second Child

child's drawing on a chalkboard depicting a family

I was speechless. How to explain to this stranger my reasons for making my son an only child? And did I even need to explain my reasons to this virtual stranger?

“How old is your son?”

“He’s 5.”

“When are you having another?”

“We’re not.”

“Why not?”

“We’re blessed with Ryan.”

“No. He needs to have a sister.”

This conversation unfolded while paying for groceries at my neighborhood supermarket. I was speaking with a cashier who I had seen from time-to-time. Up until this exchange, our relationship hadn’t extended beyond, “Hi. Did you find everything you needed?”

On this particular day, however, my decision to have one child became the topic of conversation she wanted to pursue. And the cashier wasn’t shy about sharing her opinion with me. Not only was I wrong to only have one child, my second child needed to be a girl. Maybe she knew something I didn’t because I didn’t realize I had any choice in the matter. It’s not like there’s some sort of check-off list to identify what you want, you place your order, and then wait nine months for your delivery.

I was speechless. How to explain to this stranger my reasons for making my son an only child? And did I even need to explain my reasons to this virtual stranger?

Choosing to become a parent, or not, is such a personal, weighty decision. I never casually bring up the topic of parenthood in any conversation, and I go about my days assuming others will share the same consideration and respect for such a private matter. Evidently, that’s not the case.

Becoming parents was a responsibility my husband and I took very seriously. We waited until we felt we were “ready”—or as ready as two people can be. We discussed, we planned, we saved money, and nine years after we were married, we welcomed our son into the world.

After we realized just how hard it was to parent while we each worked full-time, I as an elementary school teacher and my husband in a retail position, we knew a second child would be testing the limits of what our marriage could withstand. The birth of our son brought with it a level of awe and wonder we had never experienced. But once the daily responsibilities set in, we also experienced a level of bitterness and resentment toward each other that left us feeling more like two roommates than two lovers. Parenting was hard. Parenting and working was harder. Parenting, working, and maintaining our relationship was the hardest thing we had to do—up until then.

Then, a few months after our son celebrated his second birthday, I was hospitalized with a swollen left calf and unable to walk for a month. The mystery of my swollen calf was never completely solved, and although my leg did return to a level of normality (both in terms of appearance and functionality), my legs weren’t quite “right.” They were heavy as if an elephant was sitting on them. They felt tight as if they were being squeezed by a giant set of pliers. I knew something was wrong. Almost a year and a half after the hospitalization, I was finally diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. I was put on a series of medications to manage and control the daily pain. The medications had a series of warnings and instructions to assure proper administration and dosages. And the medications had limits. Some had to be taken with food, some without food. Some prohibited alcohol consumption. And one strictly prohibited pregnancy.

Our decision to be a one-child family was finalized for us.

Because I was ultimately robbed of the power to make this decision, I felt even more disheartened. The bottom line was we weren’t having any more children because we couldn’t. My body was attacking itself, and the only way to try and help my body was by ingesting medication that wouldn’t allow another life to form inside of me.

The conversation at the supermarket was quick, and I’d venture to guess, one the cashier hasn’t thought much about since. But a couple of years (yes, years) after the fact, that quick exchange still disturbs me. Why would someone so cavalierly suggest what our family should and shouldn’t do? Why did I stand there and take it?

But what could I have said in response? What were the right words to say? Are there any “right” words?

Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer, who finds inspiration in her 7-year-old son and from her memories of her 12-year teaching career. Her writing has appeared in several publications and anthologies including: the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Role Reboot, United Teacher, L.A. Parent, MomsLA.com, and Lessons From My Parents, among others. She blogs at http://wendykennar.blogspot.com/.

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