(ELLE) -- Don't get me wrong. I love being a mother.
I'm so crazy about my son, Aidan, that even my mom friends tease me about my unrestrained gushing. But I wasn't prepared to be pregnant for the second time.
In the picture my husband took of me right after I took the test, I sit hunched on the couch, my right hand covering my face as if I'm hiding from the paparazzi, the blue-and-white plastic stick in my left. So when this baby's heart inexplicably stopped beating in the ninth month of pregnancy, it felt like payback.
I was convinced on some level that she'd died because I hadn't wanted her enough.
I conceived Aidan through IVF and had him one month shy of my fortieth birthday. High on new motherhood, I assumed we'd have two children mainly because everyone has two children. Truth be told, my husband, Harlan, and I weren't totally on board for more than one.
While I was astounded by the intensity of my love for my son, motherhood also had left me drained, short-tempered, and frustrated by my inability to reboot my writing career. I missed my work and my upbeat former self, and I shuddered to imagine how long it would take to get them back with two kids.
It didn't help that when Aidan was 18 months old, Harlan got a job in Boston and we left the life I loved in Los Angeles for a cold New England town where we knew no one. I found myself alone all day with a toddler, waiting for my husband to get home, like a dog wagging her tail by the front door.
I definitely didn't want another child badly enough to endure the physical and emotional rigors of IVF again, so instead we had unprotected sex and thought maybe we'd get lucky.
Given my age and history with infertility, we knew it was unlikely, which probably explains our cavalier baby-making strategy. I didn't realize just how thoroughly ambivalent I was until I conceived our daughter right after the move to Boston.
I cried after our first ultrasound, but not for joy. I had loved my son from the instant I saw him but didn't know if I could feel that way about another child. I didn't want to feel that way about another child -- it felt like cheating.
I spent my second pregnancy glowering and resentful, cursing the stretch marks spiderwebbing up my abdomen, and snapping at my husband. There were happier moments, of course, like when we learned we were having a girl: I was overjoyed that Aidan would remain my only little boy. But such joy was short-lived, and Harlan, an only child who was initially excited about giving Aidan the sibling he never had, began to wonder whether I could handle the strain of taking care of both a toddler and an infant, not to mention whether our marriage would survive the stress.
It was hard for him to stay enthusiastic when I was so miserable, and both of us nervously awaited the birth of our daughter.
Then one night five weeks before I was due to give birth, I was lying in bed and realized I hadn't felt the baby move all day. Panicked, I rolled onto my abdomen, trying to stimulate movement, and pleaded, "Please move, baby. Baby, please move." I called Harlan, who was working out of town, and he assured me that everything would be okay. The next day, I went to the hospital, where the midwife on call moved an ultrasound wand over my massive abdomen.
"I'm not finding a heartbeat," she told me.
"There's no heartbeat," she said. "I'm sorry, honey."
I looked at the screen, at my daughter's body, the ribs and spinal column perfectly formed. I didn't see the flicker of movement I'd come to recognize as my baby's heartbeat either. But I didn't believe this woman, even as I frantically called Harlan to give him the news. He said he was coming home immediately and started to cry.
Harlan understood what I didn't, what I couldn't. I couldn't comprehend or cry until later, but long before I acknowledged my baby's death or felt any sadness, the words "I want another baby" sprang into my head -- unambiguous, clear as water, unsullied by doubt.
After eight hours of drug-induced labor, I gave birth to a beautiful, lifeless four-pound baby girl we named Nina.
After holding her, singing to her, and finally crying endless, helpless tears, I went home with Harlan, the delivery nurse's command -- "Come back and have another baby with us" -- ringing in my ears.
As we lay stunned on our bed looking blankly at the ceiling, Harlan turned to me and said, "We can adopt."
"Or I could get pregnant again."
"That terrifies me," he said. A silence ballooned around his words before he added, "Or we could just raise one really great kid."
My cheeks flushed with anger: I was supposed to be nursing a baby, not debating whether or not to have one.
In the weeks that followed, I was felled by rage and grief, getting out of bed only because I needed to care for my son. Doctors could not tell us why Nina died. These things just happen sometimes, they said. At night, like an amputee who still feels her missing limb, I would ache for the daughter I'd lost, convinced that her absence was a hole that had to be filled, that my pain would abate only if I carried another child to term.
Harlan, on the other hand, was determined to make a conscious decision about having another child. Rather than simply assume that two kids were better than one, he wanted to really consider what would be best for our family. Gently he'd remind me of my negativity during my second pregnancy and suggest that maybe we shouldn't try again.
I understood his concerns, as well as the inherent risks of pregnancy at my age, but I could no longer consider having an only child. For one thing, I couldn't stop thinking about something happening to Aidan. The worst thing possible had happened to Nina, after all, and if I lost my son, I would need another child to give me a reason to keep breathing.
Plus, my guilt over Nina's death continued to torment me, even when my mother assured me that it was not my fault. "Everyone is ambivalent about having children," she told me. "You were just more honest about it."
To make matters worse, in Cambridge, where we live, most families have at least two kids, and three is rapidly becoming the new two. Many of my mom friends in their forties were doing repeated rounds of IVF, many after a miscarriage, so desperate were they for a second. Their bellies, swollen with siblings to come -- and after they were born, the babies themselves (whom I usually couldn't even bring myself to meet) -- made me feel inadequate, as if I were less a mother than they were.
When the first of five (five!) pregnant mothers in Aidan's preschool class gave birth to a little girl, I almost said to her son, a 2-year-old in an I AM A BIG BROTHER shirt, "Aidan had a baby sister too, but she died and he never got to meet her." I had to bite my tongue.
Beyond my own guilt and desire to do what was right for my son, I had to deal with everyone else's expectations. A dermatologist I saw about removing a cyst on my face that had grown while I was pregnant advised me to postpone surgery in case I decided to have another child.
"Go have that baby!" she enthused. I began to protest that I was 43, when she interrupted, "Go have that baby now! A sibling is the greatest gift you can give your child." How could I possibly stop at one?
A good friend, the mother of two boys, told me, "Aidan doesn't need a sibling, but he does need happy parents." She was right, of course, but no matter how much Harlan and I thought about it, discussed it—with each other, with a therapist, with our infant-loss support group—it was hard to know which path would make us happier.
Even after I'd done Reiki in an attempt to find clarity and consulted an "insight therapist" who assured me that having another child was my heart's desire, I couldn't bring myself to nudge Harlan to toss the condoms and make a baby with me. Clearly this was not an intellectual decision we could make by analyzing the pros and cons.
If people decided with their heads to have children, no one would do it. Instead, with hope in our hearts, we leap. I asked myself: Shouldn't I make the small sacrifice of a few scary months and hectic years so that Aidan could have a brother or sister? So that I could feel the joy of a baby's first cry again? Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?
Instead, I just sat there, listening to the ever-fainter ticking of my biological clock and waiting for a sign.
Then, one afternoon a few weeks after the emotional second anniversary of Nina's death, Harlan and I had unprotected sex at a friend's apartment in New York. We were house-sitting for the week; Aidan was napping in the other room; Harlan had a raging fever, and I was dressed up and ready to go to a bridal shower for a friend who, of all things, had accidentally become pregnant for the first time at 44 -- with twin girls.
Suddenly my husband and I were clinging to each other on the couch, for once with no time for thought or discussion. When it was over, Harlan, wild-eyed, like someone possessed by an unseen spirit, held up his hands and said, "Be prepared!"
I immediately started displaying pregnancy symptoms: I was bloated and abnormally teary during movies, and I developed a bionic sense of smell, the odor of cat food assaulting me every time I walked through the front door.
When my period was three, four, then five days late, the one friend I'd confided in urged me to take a pregnancy test. With Harlan on the phone (he was again out of town for work), I held the plastic stick with shaking hands.
The test was negative. And...I was relieved. No, elated. Harlan's laughter and nervous chatter -- "Oh my God, babe, wow" -- told me he felt the same. I bounced around the house. I ate chocolate pudding. I looked through my wedding album for the first time in years, swooning and giggling at every shot.
I was surprised by my response, and I knew what it meant: I did not want to have another baby. I probably hadn't wanted one all along. I had been temporarily swayed -- by the myth of the spoiled, lonely only child, by fear of losing Aidan, by grief and guilt over Nina's death -- but the truth is that Harlan, Aidan, and I are just fine the way we are.
Sometimes as the three of us walk down the street, Aidan between us, Harlan and I hold his hands and swing him into the air.
Each time, he laughs and shrieks, "Again!" And each time I am struck by the perfect symmetry of our small family. Not that I'm free and clear from doubt -- I don't always believe the books that swear that only children are just fine.
The big broods I see every day on the playground -- the siblings fighting, hugging, chasing each other -- can trigger acute bouts of envy and self-doubt, and I'm stricken with sorrow by cute toddlers who remind me of what I'll never have again. When people ask if I'm going to have more kids, I don't proudly announce that I'm done. Instead, I blurt out that I lost a child, as if to rationalize my decision and assure them that I'm not one of those selfish moms who puts her own needs first.
But...I am one of those moms. I put my fear -- of another pregnancy, of something being wrong with my child, of all the ways having another child might strain the fabric of our family -- squarely before the benefits of giving Aidan a brother or sister. I need to respect this fear, like the fear of sharks or household fires, in order to protect my family of three, to preserve the delicate happiness we have finally created.
Of course, safety often comes at a cost. I do still wish, more than anything, that I had two children: Aidan and Nina. But now I know that longing for the daughter I lost does not mean I want a replacement. And when I find myself doubting my choice, I wrap my arms around my son and remind myself how lucky I am to have this one great kid.