“Are you done?” When I got this seemingly innocuous question at a recent holiday party, time seemed to freeze. After muttering a slow but convincing “Yes, we’re done,” the new mom who asked went on to explain how she thought I might be “trying for four or five,” since I spoke so lovingly about those new baby days. What I wished I could say, but the party atmosphere didn’t allow me to divulge, was that I had indeed “tried for four” this year and lost two pregnancies in the process. I know why she was curious. I’m a young-ish mother of three who, theoretically, still has a few years of prime childbearing ahead of me. This is one of the reasons it was so hard for me to give up my dream of having another baby.
This mom was unaware of a critical bit of context during our conversation: I am a mother entering the medical field. As a third-year medical student, the rest of my prime childbearing years will be spent in a hospital, learning the art of clinical medicine around the clock. The window for our family to expand has closed, and though that reality still stabs with disappointment, the reasons are sound. Delivering a new baby in the toughest years of residency is possible, of course, but nurturing another infant would leave little time for me to be a present mother of my three (!) existing children. The pursuit of another child now strikes me as a selfish desire, considering what that my family is already giving up to make me a doctor.
When I reflect on my encounter with this well-meaning stranger, I’m reminded of questions I’ve asked of other women over the years. I’ve asked moms if they wanted to have more kids someday, and just recently I asked the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates whether her daughter had older siblings. I asked because I knew this child was an advanced reader, and having an older sibling contributed to my daughter’s early reading success. When her answer was “No,” instead of moving on, I came back with, “Oh, so she’s the youngest?” She replied, smiling, “She’s the youngest and the oldest.” I sheepishly laughed, as we often do, when we’ve stepped in something with our words.
Why did I assume this family had multiple children? What might have happened to this mother, that she didn’t have the opportunity to share? I’ve learned over the last year that questions about family size, even if they seem benign, may not “land” the way you hope they will. They may cause someone to freeze, to joke, or even to cry, if things are raw enough. A few months ago I would have cried if someone had asked, “Are you done?” A few months ago my answer to that question probably would have been, “We’re not sure.” The decision not to try yet again for a fourth baby was one that needed many conversations late into the night, and hours of thinking and feeling in silence. These decisions cannot be explained over cocktails or coffee.
Here’s what I pledge: I will not be angry with anyone who asks questions about my family’s size. I will give others the benefit of the doubt when they “trigger” me unintentionally. But I will use my experience to adjust my approach to conversations about family size and let others share only what they choose. I will try not to make assumptions. I will leave room for silence.
Mary Beth Bennett, MA is an MD Candidate at Dell Medical School in Austin, TX and a mother of three. When she’s not studying, she loves to hike, eat tacos, and read with her family.