On a sunny afternoon in June, I sat on my friend’s porch as we watched her two boys and my 7-year-old son bounce themselves silly on a trampoline. On the other side of the row of baby blue hydrangea bushes, in the neighboring yard, I saw a boy of about 12, playing Wiffle Ball by himself.
Over and over, the boy tossed the ball up, smacked it with the bat, and then scrambled to catch the ball before it hit the ground. It seemed like a tedious and painfully lonely sport, this game where the batter, pitcher and outfielder are all the same person. When I asked my friend if we should invite him over, she assured me that our boys were too young to interest him. “But he’s all alone,” I lamented. “He’s used to it,” she replied. “He’s an only child.”
The comment touched a tender spot. My son is an only child, and I deeply regret that. Far more often than I care to admit, I let him play video games or watch TV for longer than I intended. Any mother who works at home, or is single, or is married to someone who works long hours knows that this kind of bargaining is often the only way to get things done at home or to meet a work deadline. Along the way, I have been blindsided by the guilt of bringing a baby into the world without also giving him a sibling, a partner to share in his life journey.
The crazy thing is that I didn’t see this regret coming back when I had the chance to give my son a sibling close in age. I planned to have more children at one time, but pregnancy nearly killed me, and my baby was born dangerously premature. He spent two months in the hospital battling respiratory failure and multiple infections. The whole experience was so traumatic that I was too intimidated to do it again. Like so many other Latinas in this country, I didn’t have any support during the exhausting infant and toddler years because my family doesn’t live nearby. The health risk, combined with the 24/7 exhaustion of caring for a baby, made the idea of having another seem impossible.
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But now that my son is 8, I feel differently. I realized too late that once kids are old enough to play independently, their energy is directed toward each other, and that takes a huge amount of pressure off of the parents to entertain them. I noticed that my girlfriend was no more encumbered by two than I was with one. I’d venture to say that the parents of only children spend twice as much time on their hands and knees pushing Thomas trains around in mind-numbing figure eights, playing dolls, catching bugs, building Lego villages, and running after Wiffle Balls.
I know that I should just trust my instincts and be at peace with my decision. I was, after all, choosing on the side of caution, and that’s what mothers naturally do. And yet, I can’t help but wish that I might have focused on the 60% chance that everything would be fine. All of the preemie moms I met in the hospital have gone on to have healthy second babies. Around and around I go, second-guessing that decision. I tell myself that I should have simply accepted the risk and the subsequent sleeplessness and chaos because it’s worth it. Siblings have each other for a lifetime.
I know very well that I’m projecting my adult regrets onto my child. Only children tend to be resourceful, independent, have vivid imaginations, and ultimately develop a strong sense of self. I have to remind myself of this constantly. I have to remind myself that my childhood as an “only” was joyful and productive despite not having a sibling to watch my back in the school yard, to play dolls with, or to bounce stories back and forth with while lying in our bunk beds.
In the meantime, my son was laughing so hard at his friend’s antics that he actually drooled a little and had to wipe his mouth with the back of his sleeve. Next to me, my comadre—whose own sister lives an ocean away—was chatting away about this and that. I had to force myself to tune in, and to let my regret fall away, if only for a moment, like the twirling, winged maple seeds that our silly boys were trying to catch between their teeth.
In the neighbor’s yard, the older boy’s face glistened with sweat. He was deep in concentration. I knew the look because I was, for many years, just like him. It was the look of an only child enjoying the company of his oldest, dearest, and most faithful friend.