We Have an Only Child—But We Were Never ‘One and Done’

courtesy Amy Stewart

There is a drawer in my bathroom that still contains four used pregnancy tests. Four tests, because I  didn’t believe the first one when it showed those two pink lines. We’d been trying for three years. So I ran and got more tests and peed like a champ. Still positive. It made no sense. Three years, a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility”… so we’d just stopped trying. And now two pink lines? I Googled “reasons a pregnancy test would turn positive.” I got back thousands of hits that said: “You are pregnant.” There were also maybe two links that said “Could result from a very rare form of uterine cancer.”

I immediately called my mom, burst into tears and told her that I thought I had a very rare form of uterine cancer. She had me take a deep breath and give her the details. When I shared the inexplicable positive pregnancy tests, she giggled a bit. “Amy,” she said, “Calm down. Call Josh. You’re pregnant.” She was right. And she forbade me from Googling anything for the next nine months.

There’s a reason my mom was always my first phone call. For my entire life she was continually there to shepherd me through the peaks and valleys. As a kid, I was labeled “sensitive” and “anxious,” but she always managed to calm me with two simple words: “You’re okay.” Still, I was the quintessential late bloomer, scared to leave the safety net that my parents had always provided me. When it was time to leave for college I was miserable. “Remember, I’m only a phone call away.” And she was. Every. Single. Day.

When the “two pink lines” was born, I told my mom we’d chosen a J name to honor my father, James, who had passed away six years before. It was one of the rare times I ever saw her cry.  JJ emerged (via emergency C-section) looking nothing like a newborn to me. His eyes were wide open and they studied my face for long stretches of time, as if he was trying to figure out if I was OK. As if, after 28 hours of crazy labor, he was saying, “You gotta calm down, mama. We can’t both lose our shit here.” This tiny person was telling me, in his own way, to breathe. In an instant, that wobbly girl inside me disappeared and was replaced by a woman who knew who she was. A mother. A protector. A warrior.

I had it all figured out. I was going to do cloth diapers, grow an organic vegetable garden, keep JJ away from anything that looked electronic or plastic, and I would still always have shaved legs. In the end I was nothing like this absurd vision of new motherhood. Yet, I certainly had lofty intentions, including trying for a sibling once JJ started preschool. In my fantasies, we would conceive on the first try and then painlessly deliver a baby girl. We would name her Susannah after my mom, Suzan. I knew what she would look like. I could already smell her sweet baby head. And JJ would be a fantastic big brother.

But life had other plans.

I never anticipated how much my world would change the day I was my mother’s first phone call: “Amy, I have cancer. It isn’t good.”

Our battle to cure her was long and vicious, spanning several hospitals and treatments. Eventually we all landed back home in L.A., and for six months my mom spent every un-hospitalized day with my family, and I will never forget that precious time. JJ adored having his Grammie around, and would curl up against her soft purple bathrobe while she sang him to sleep. Then one day, there were no more songs. No more anything. I clutched her hand while she slowly and brutally drifted away. I was gutted.

The depression that hit me was swift and relentless and was followed by persistent bouts of anxiety, insomnia and guilt. I had dropped nearly everything for nearly two years, all to save my mother’s life. Now that she was gone I had to figure out how to pick up where I’d left off and go on with mine. For one thing, Josh and I had stopped even talking about baby number two. My fictional little Susannah. But now it sounded so poetic. The perfect circle of life would be complete—death, rebirth, and the chance for that gaping crater in my heart to be filled by a beautiful new baby. Wouldn’t it? My brain struggled to process this while I consumed a diet of caffeine and anti-anxiety medications just to get through each day, and a host of other pills just to get through the night. I couldn’t even go to Trader Joe’s without having a panic attack and leaving my shopping cart somewhere in the dairy aisle. Who was I?

Also… my biological clock. There was that. I wasn’t yet ancient in the modern fertility landscape, but I couldn’t wait forever. When people would ask “So, you think you’ll have any more?” (as if they were talking about pizza slices) Josh and I would briefly make eye contact with each other and shrug. “Maybe.” Then we’d change the subject. My mental health had deteriorated so much that a decision like what to have for breakfast felt like an insurmountable task, let alone deciding to have another child. It hurt so much to know I really wanted another baby, but might be just too depleted to have one.

Then there was JJ. While I had been caring for my mom, this little boy had grown mercilessly fast. He was a sponge, taking in everything around him and pondering its significance. Like a little mirror, he reflected powerful feelings about the world around him. And he was going through something that most of his pre-K peers had never experienced: intense grief. His worry and separation anxiety intensified the more he digested what we had experienced and lost. This kid also needed some serious attention and healing.

Over the following year, I slowly started to find my footing, but things were still tenuous. And every month during my potential fertility window, Josh and I sidestepped the issue. We weren’t “trying,” yet we weren’t taking precautions, either. Still, the idea of another lengthy fertility evaluation made my head spin. So, we distracted ourselves with a different project: a major home remodel. An architect drew up plans which included an impressive second story with two more bedrooms and bathrooms. We kept staring at this amazing house on paper. It looked so… big. We suddenly saw what we were doing. We were creating space for another child.  It was straight out of Field of Dreams. “If we build it, she will come.”

It should have been exciting. But, for me, it was petrifying and heartbreaking because deep down, we both knew I was different now. Josh saw how hard I was working to rebuild my life, and that I was learning to function with the reserves I had. But every mom has her own personal fuel tank; some of us get a ton of mileage on two gallons while others need much more than that to tackle the basic, daily demands of motherhood. After years of running on fumes I realized that for me, being a mom takes everything. You travel to the moon and back dozens of times a day. How I envied the moms who could juggle four kids and a dog in their stilettos. I also envied the ones going bonkers at Target with a toddler and a newborn. I still do. But my capacity had simply changed.

The architect waited for us to make a choice: We could expand into something bigger or we could just work with what we already had. In the end, we chose the latter. We scrapped the second story plans and chose to renovate our existing structure. And I’m not just talking about the house.

We were going to embrace who we were, where we were, and take it from there. We were now the Three Musketeers, and if they were okay, I was okay, and if I was okay, they were okay. And to get to “okay,” I had to learn to embrace who I would become without my parents. Part of my process has been grieving my little Susannah, and imagining that her tiny spirit will find its place in another loving home.

Meanwhile, my mom’s purple bathrobe still hangs in my bathroom today. The same bathroom where I’ve kept four magic pregnancy tests to remind me of all I have. I wear that purple robe whenever I need to feel her strong arms around me. I now see that I hit the jackpot with my little family. One for all, and all for one. And for me, that is truly okay.

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Amy Stewart is an actress and writer who lives in L.A. with her husband, son and an Australian Shepherd who runs the household. She has appeared in over 40 popular TV shows, and only a few truly embarrassing ones. She loves to share any humiliating parenting stories. Say hello at amy@parentauthentic.com.