Last week we took our first vacation since becoming a family of three. We went to Disneyland, but at the last minute, extended our trip to spend a day at the beach. My husband wanted to see the ocean with our son, Oscar. I wanted to walk on hot sand, something I last did when I was sixteen, long before marriage or babies were a whisper in my ear.
My son squealed from the back seat when we drove to our beachfront hotel. “The ocean mama! It the ocean!” I couldn’t stop grinning at his glee. From our car we could see the ocean before us, blanketing the horizon. By the time we were dressed to go to the beach, my face hurt from smiling.
Once on the beach, we held hands and marched from the sand into the surf, stopping where the tide firmly packed down the sand. We stood far enough down the shoreline to get our feet wet. My husband on one side, me on the other, and our toddler giggling between us. Salty air breezed through our hair as the sun glinted off the ocean. Around us mothers carrying infants called out to preschoolers walking too close to the edge of the water, their attention divided between the babies they held and the others they chased.
We watched a wave crash, breaking onto the beach and rushing toward us, foamy, briny, and cool. My husband and I looked at each other and grinned. We lifted our son up and over the wave as it swirled around our ankles, jumping him into the water while he giggled. My husband and I shared his joy, laughing as the water splashed up and around our legs. It was a perfect moment as a family of three.
A long time ago, before I had one baby, I dreamed of a family of four. I could clearly picture my husband and me with two little ones in the back seat. I grew up as one of four children. My husband is an only child. Two seemed like a good compromise. A 1:1 adult-to-child ratio? Perfect. I went into pregnancy and expected to be pregnant again within a few years. This was a first pregnancy, I told myself.
Now two-and-a-half-years into mothering, I don’t plan to be pregnant again. We’re happy with the one child we have, and the closer we get to being done with diapers, the more certain we are that our son is an only child.
It’s an awkward place to be, finished with the baby stage while others in my life are not. This year I’ve held the newborns of three friends, cooed over them, then felt relieved when I gave the babies back at the end of my visit. I couldn't see myself holding another newborn of my own.
I no longer can picture us as a family of four. I can only see us as we are. It’s bittersweet when I think about everything I won’t experience again. I’ll never watch my stomach expand, filling with new life or hear the happy whooshing of a heartbeat for the first time in an exam room. No first flutters of a baby’s kicks in my womb. No laboring and pushing, no first cries, first tears, first hugs. No, all of my firsts with a newborn are past. I’m happy to be moving forward with my one.
Last month, I was in a conversation with other mothers who held their second babies. We made small talk about our toddlers and laughed while the kids played. During a lull, one of them looked at me and then at my son.
“Is he your first?” she asked.
“Only.” My response was soft and hesitant as I thought about what her next question would be.
“Oh! Will you have more?”
Expectancy hung in the air between us. Most of my son’s friends already have a younger sibling. I swallowed and looked down, then answered, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Oh!” She said, shocked. Her smile froze. She didn’t know what to say.
Our toddlers’ antics led the conversation into other topics before we parted ways to our cars. After buckling us in, I looked over my shoulder at my son in his car seat. He grinned, his eyes shining with happiness. I smiled back, still thinking about the conversation I just had.
I hesitate to commit to being a mom of an only child because when I do, I’m often told we have plenty of time to have another baby. I’ve been told so many times that my son and I are still young enough that I couldn’t possibly be able to make that decision yet. These statements never make me doubt my family size, but I tire of explaining that our family is complete with our only. I cannot picture life with another. I can only picture life with the one baby I prayed for; the one baby I have.
When someone is shocked by my admission we’re one-and-done, I feel out of place. I feel less-than, even briefly, because unlike so many of my friends’ kids, my child won’t have a sibling to squabble with on rainy summer days or in the back seat driving cross-country to Grandma’s house. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t fit in with so many of the mothers in my area simply because I am the mother of one, confident as I am in my choice.
I couldn’t stop giggling at the beach. I felt light with joy. My husband and I took turns playing in the waves alone, before taking time to play in them with our son. I waded far enough out in the ebbing tide to be knocked over by more than one wave, popping up after each one in a swirl of foamy water and sand. Oscar giggled each time a wave crashed into me, safe in the arms of his dad.
From the water, it was easy for me to see the larger families, the ones where each adult had at least one child to watch. I savored the freedom to swim alone, in the ocean, while my husband had just one child to watch over. I could see my son’s blue eyes shining as I swam farther and farther out, going just far enough to still feel sand beneath my feet as the waves bobbed around me.
The sun beat down overhead when I swam to shore, soaked and covered in sand. I could taste the salty air as I took Oscar’s hand and crouched down with him at the line where the water met the sand.
“Look! Do you see the clams?” I pointed. The tide rolled out and exposed, hundreds of clams no larger than my fingertip, shining gray, purple, and white in the sun as the water rushed back and forth over them.
“I see them, Mama! I see them!” He jumped up and down. “What are they?”
“They’re clams! Aren’t they pretty?”
“Yeah! They have shells?”
His dad walked toward us from his turn in the water.
“They do—did you see all the shells when we walked down to the water?” I asked. He stretched his hands up to me and I lifted him to my hip.
“Yeah! We go find shells? We dig? We build sand castle?” He turned to my husband and bounced eagerly, “DADA! WE BUILD CASTLE!”
I laughed as we walked to our towels.
“Of course, buddy!”
Building a sand castle proved difficult without buckets. My husband and I dug mounds of sand up with our son. Oscar sought out shells to dot them with, all while refusing to set his toes into sand that wasn’t hard-packed by waves. We finished our small monument giggling and sand-covered, a perfect day.
That night, at the hotel, I laid next to my son and rubbed his back as he started to doze.
“We played at the beach? We had fun?” His voice was drowsy.
“We did, bud, and it was so fun.”
“Let’s do it again, mama,” he whispered, eyes falling shut.
My heart full to burst, I pulled the covers around him and kissed his hair, smiling down at his sleeping form. His breath came like sighs. I looked up at my husband, then back at my little boy. My only. Before I went to join his dad I paused to think of all we did on vacation, and all we would do - as a family of three - when he woke the next day.
To many, “only” may seem to be a four-letter-word. To me, it’s perfect.
Guest post written by Deva Curnutte. Deva is a writer and stay-at-home-mom currently residing in North Dallas with her husband and son. When she’s not writing, she’s out on adventures with her family, enjoying a cup of coffee and a book, or trying to set a PR in spin class. You can find her thoughts about reading with her son at Everything in the Middle and see more on Instagram.
Photo by N’tima Preusser.
Deva is part our Exhale creative community and this essay is a product of our Storytelling Workshop. For more information, visit www.exhalecreativity.com.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode One and Done: Raising An Only Child