What I Really Want Is A Do-Over Baby

Waves of baby longing have been arriving with increasing, disconcerting frequency lately, and I’m daydreaming about a do-over — this time, I’d be the perfect mom.

I sat with an old friend on a park bench the other day, bathing in bright springtime sunshine. We lowered our masks for surreptitious sips of coffee as we watched our 9-year-olds play nearby. As we talked, a woman with a very new baby passed. She had the heedful shuffle of a person still recovering from bodily trauma and that unmistakable thousand-yard stare. My friend and I flashed wide, caffeinated smiles, eyes crinkling, and she returned a less cheery smile, squinting only slightly above her floral mask.

I peered into the stroller as the new mother walked by — friends tease that I crane my neck to see an infant the way others do to see a hot guy — and caught a glimpse of the baby, zipped into a snug sack, its eyes delicately shut, looking for the moment like the picture of serenity.

“Just one more?” I said to my friend.

“God, I want one too,” she said. “But one more baby means one more toddler.”

Typically I would shudder, but in that moment (and this is how I know I’m losing my mind) not even that sounded so tough. A precious two year old, just learning to make sentences, running headlong into furniture or else wrapped around me during all my waking hours like a barnacle? What I wouldn’t give...

Waves of baby longing have been arriving with increasing, disconcerting frequency lately, and not just when I see an actual tiny human out in the world. I find myself longingly looking back at baby pictures and videos of my kids from six or seven years ago, many made just before bedtime when we were coziest, silliest, lying together one-two-three in my big bed, laughing, practically sharing the same breath. I find myself moony with love as I read stories to my best friend’s toddler over FaceTime. She leans in to kiss the screen and I think I’ll die.

I pine for babies. But time marches on and my fertile window shrinks. The dream of one more is slowly receding. And like lights flashing in a bar about to close, my body seems to be issuing some kind of warning. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Do I actually want one more whole child? One more life to sustain, manage, pay for? Do I want to start all the way at the beginning again, with diapers and sleep training, preschool and play dates? No, I don’t think so.

Lately what I think I want is a do-over. I was 26 when I met the father of my children, and, spurred on by the passion and righteousness of youth, our relationship moved quickly. As we got hitched and had a miscarriage and then two babies, serious fault lines appeared. I was depressed. We drank too much. I cheated, he cheated. Our marriage ended when our younger child was just 3 months old, and my post-divorce reality — moving, working, panicking about money, keeping house with an infant and a toddler, having a toxic relationship with the drug-addicted man I thought was my salvation — was so grueling that the period is largely a blur. I’m not sure how I survived.

Motherhood isn’t easy for anyone, but I made it especially hard. It took a lot of therapy, 12-step recovery, and a commitment to learn to like myself in order to get my life back together. And writing a memoir about it all helped me close the book (literally) on that chaos.

I’m not perfect now, but compared to the mom I was, I’m pretty close. I’m annoying: sober and grateful, satisfied in my career and my relationships. My house is clean and I bake and hike and crochet. I was always loving with my children, but now I am present with them. Happy with them. I’ve become the kind of person I used to hate because she reflected back to me how bad my choices were, that there was another, better way.

And because of this stability, the sort that long eluded me, that feels hard-won, I dream of a chance to try early motherhood again, to do it in a regret-proof way. My current partner has a natural ease with my kids and a calm that soothes the whole household. He’d be so good, I think. I think about another pregnancy, a birth, another sweet reprieve from responsibility, a withdrawal into the formless nontime of nursing and naps and reruns. I bargain with the universe: Just give me one more baby, and I promise I’ll be present this time! I’ll pay more attention, I’ll enjoy it more! I’ll post more charming photos! I’ll scrapbook!

But even this is a fantasy. Or it’s a form of nostalgia, a longing to return to a way things never really were. I doubt I ever truly felt free of other responsibilities, even in the earliest days of motherhood. And if I did get to watch more bad TV with a nursing newborn, it was only after the birth of my first child, because by the time I had my second, I also had a toddler. I wasn’t watching reruns, I was packing up our house, looking for sublets, researching antidepressants, wandering aimlessly with the napping baby before preschool pickup and sobbing quietly into the Ergo.

Now, my son comes into the kitchen as I make dinner and leans into the sink to drink from the faucet.

“Get a glass,” I say.

“I’m good,” he says, wiping his mouth with a sweatshirt sleeve and heading back to his room.

He is 12, his sister is 9, and everything about this phase of parenthood is different, even the sound on the floors is different. Gone are the toys that play maddening electronic songs, the banging of wooden-spoon drumsticks on an overturned pot. Instead, my long-legged children lope through the house in search of chargers and pieces of fruit. They call me mom instead of mama or mommy. Mom — it sounds like a sitcom, like we’re acting. When did I become Mom?

My son hasn’t gone full teenager yet. He still tells me everything, still permits me a few minutes at his bedside after I say good night. His eyes still twinkle when we look at each other. And we crack each other up — he is funny as hell.

But the little-kid part of his childhood is over. As the cliche promised, time has flown. Maybe the yearning for one more baby is really a desire to turn back the clock, to remain in the crush of parental responsibility, of everyday details, and in so doing delay the inevitable reckoning, the big, existential one, with the fact that the work of motherhood is fleeting because life itself is fleeting. It grows clearer over time — it grew clearer this year, watching the climate crisis deepen and the pandemic ravage the world — that it’s all impermanent.

Sometimes the kind of pining I do for one more baby feels entirely out of my control, like something happening at a purely physical level. Just my weird, wild body sending its chemical messengers to my cells, playing a kind of trick on me. The same one that makes us procreate in the first place. As with other cravings, I’m learning how not to act on it. I take a cleansing breath when this feeling comes on and I remember the precious things I have now: freedom, time, quiet, sex. I can leave a nice candle or a Sharpie out on the coffee table without fear.

There is a sense of wonder, a clarity of purpose, and a radiant love that arrives with a new baby, and it is like nothing else. I will always miss those particular sensations; I’ll always want them. I know I might be better equipped to enjoy them even more in my present state, but I also know what I would lose if I began the work of parenting all over again. I’ll have to hold others’ babies, help babies into the world through my doula work, and revisit those halcyon days in my dreamlife, which grows richer, now that I get to sleep through the night.

Header Photo Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images