In the early days of the pandemic, when my seven-year-old, Noa, and I were out on our daily walks, we saw a father and son out on theirs. Like all parents of only children, I felt a swell of affection for these two: the dad doing his best in a pandemic, the kid, who looked to be about five, also doing his best, no other kids trailing behind them. The mother was nowhere in sight. I made up stories about them: Maybe she was a doctor at work? Maybe she was immunocompromised and couldn’t leave the house? Maybe he was a single dad? Maybe the kid had two dads and the other one was an essential worker? The possibilities seemed finite and I was sure that with time the mystery would reveal itself.
One day, I saw the pair walk into the building across the street and soon appear in a window one flight up. So, they were our neighbors! I don’t know why this brought me comfort, but it did. Putting the pieces of the neighborhood puzzle together was my new preoccupation.
On a summer day, Noa and I were out on our balcony and she was singing and dancing to Hamilton. The dad and son were out on theirs and cheered. We waved, said hello, discovered that the kids went to the same school, the boy a year behind Noa. It was hard to carry on a conversation yelling balcony to balcony over the stretch of traffic below but we tried. When George Floyd was murdered a few weeks later, the dad also stood out at night holding a light to the sky for nine minutes.
As the months wore on, I developed an odd, secret attachment to this family, their threesome a little mirror of ours. I liked spying on them at night, the lights of their apartment illuminated. Was the kid bouncing off the walls? Was he lonely? Were they getting by? I rarely saw anything but I liked knowing they were there.
And then one day the dad appeared on the balcony with a tiny baby.
So, that’s where the mom had been: sequestered inside, staying safe from the virus before giving birth. “Congratulations!” I yelled across the street to this stranger who was suddenly no more like us, busy with the task of keeping his only occupied in a pandemic. Now he had bigger, or maybe just different, concerns. “Thank you!” he said, holding up the swaddled baby and smiling. I tried to get the baby’s name and I think I gathered something about it being a girl, but it was again hard to hear balcony to balcony and eventually we just waved and went back inside.
Last April, sequestered at home, my old longing for another baby came back. The truth is that it never really went away. I just did a good enough job of suppressing it just in time to run out of time. I did a good job of justifying our choices, of seeing the beauty in our only, of reminding myself of the ease and depth of having one, of the myriad potential complications of another.
But when Covid came roaring in, the need came back in a kind of mania, a last-second panic. My daughter’s existential aloneness struck me as unacceptable and avoidable and my fault. Here it was, right in my face: stuck in a pandemic, she was on her own. Yes, of course, we were here, but for how long? What about when we were dead?
You’ll get pregnant and by the time you’re giving birth, all this will be over and then you’ll be stuck at home with a baby, my mother said back in April 2020, ever the pragmatist. Let it go.
She’s right, I thought.
Of course none of us knew this then, but those people who started the pandemic with this thought — I should have a baby anyway — have now had them under unimaginably difficult circumstances. Not the first women to give birth under harrowing conditions, of course, but still.
The baby across the street is growing. I see some combination of family members out on the balcony almost every day. I see them at night, seated at dinner, the baby on the dad’s lap or on the couch with the mom. I see the little boy running around the apartment. I wonder how they’re doing, how things have changed. I imagine the mom’s exhausting nights. I imagine the son’s jealousy and affection for his sister. When I last asked the dad how they were doing, he sort of laughed and shrugged and pointed at the world and we both nodded.
Perhaps these last years of isolation — of unfiltered sameness — have made us reckon with the choices we’ve made in ways that nothing else ever has before: to have a big family or a small one, to settle down in a city or on a farm, to live far from family or close by, to marry this person or another or no one at all. Never have our biggest life choices — partner, children, job, location — been seen in such stark relief. And also in such a skewed manner. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum. And yet that’s how our decisions have appeared, the background — like a set piece — pulled away. We are left simply staring at each other. Oh, hi. This is our life.
And yet, to be the ambivalent mother to an only child is to see pairs everywhere; it is to make endless and useless calculations — if we’d tried again when she was three or four or five; it is to worry that she’s getting both more and less than she should; it is to fear you love her too much and fear losing her too much; it is to play pillow fights and slime and to paint your own face along with hers because who else is she to do it with? It is to worry about where you’ll put the reserves of love you knew you had for another; it is to hope that you are doing what all parents do: the best we can with what we’ve got, knowing that it is often too much and not nearly enough.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She also written about marriage, motherhood and bagels from the neighbors.
P.S. Nine parents talk about having an only child, and how did you know you were ready to have a baby?
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