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A Single Pleasure

"Just one?" People ask kindly, but with what seems to me an unmistakable subtext. I respond with a bittersweet smile, "Yes...just one." Once, with a complete stranger, I even found myself apologizing: "I wanted more children, three at least but couldn't have any more."

I grew up in a home teeming with older brothers and their friends. Neighbors on all sides had two children at least. Our suburban street was a freeform playground on which we roamed in loosely formed packs, a mixture of ages, sizes, and abilities, all of us. All of us, that is, except one boy. He was an "only" who lived at the end of the street with his seemingly ancient parents and their aged Great Dane. Bright, shy, and aloof, he was unschooled in the ways of sibling squabbles and delights. But there was something tender and special about him; he was also insightful and kind, and, I realized only recently, remarkably like my 10-year-old son.

Unbeknownst to me, my biological clock had stopped ticking at age 39. I tried in vain to get pregnant for a second time. At 42 I conceded defeat. Initially, I burned with envy when I saw mothers with two or three young children. I furtively looked inside cars and counted car seats, and peered into restaurant windows and counted heads at the tables. One day, during an outing to the park with my son and a friend of his, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in years. The kids, ensconced on a bench, were merrily snacking on crackers and juice; with an appreciative glance, my friend asked, "Are these your boys?" My heart skipped a beat as I imagined claiming both of those rosy-faced cherubs as my own, just this once, but I quickly came to my senses. "Just this handsome fellow here," I replied, putting a hand on my son. But the fantasy was acute, and I realized with a jolt that all afternoon I'd unconsciously been pretending that the playmate was my second child.

"How about you?" I asked, girding myself for the inevitable I've got a Timmy and a Jimmy and, with a pat to her belly, a Ginny on the way. But she answered, "I've got a ten-year-old daughter." Not a flicker of remorse. I blurted out something about my secondary infertility, and what a difficult time I was having accepting it. She looked at me knowingly. "So you wanted more, too?" I asked.

"Oh, no!" she said. "One's just terrific. We love it."

I was dumbstruck.

Later, I sought out my friend Ruth (age 93, with 1 daughter, 5 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren). I asked if she felt that her daughter was deprived because she'd never had siblings. "Oh, my dear, don't worry about that!" she said. "There's plenty of love in the world, and your son will find more than his share. But you've got to get to the bottom of your guilt."

But how? I'd deprived my boy the rough-and-tumble love of a sibling. I felt this guilt quietly on some days, but on others, the feeling would batter and bang, a jackhammer on my heart.

One evening during dinner, when my son was 6, my husband and I told him that he probably wouldn't be getting a baby brother or sister. He dove gleefully into his mashed potatoes. Mouth full, eyes sparkling, he declared, "Well, if you two did have another baby, I'm sure it would change things. And, you know," he whispered conspiratorially, "it might not be for the better."

Who could've guessed? Our son loved things the way they were. I realized that I'd spent so much time feeling guilty, I'd never thought to ask him what he wanted.

Every six months or so, I'd ask if he still liked being an only. Most of the time he looked at me as if I were crazy. Finally, realizing I was projecting my unresolved feelings onto him, I stopped asking. He hasn't brought up the subject.

And neither have I. Because I think it comes down to this: Being a parent  -- of one or four  -- is a constant struggle with the unknown, with what lies before you and what might have been. There are no formulas, nothing you can perfect, predict, or control. Raising children is one enormous gamble, hearts and souls tossed onto the roulette table, with no way of knowing how things will turn out.

And I am frequently struck, no doubt like all other parents, with intermittent, unavoidable, wistful waves of "what ifs." What if I'd had my son at 30 instead of 35? What if we'd moved to the suburbs? What if we'd had not one, but more? This is the awesome quagmire of parenting. You wake up each morning to face all over again everything you don't know, crash into bed at night praying that, of the hundreds of instantaneous decisions you made during the day, you got at least a handful of them right.

This afternoon I watched my son playing tenderly with his baby godbrother, Owen, who's 3. He lives four floors below us. My son's name was one of his first words. Though he's not a "real" baby brother, who's always here no matter what, he's around a lot of the time. He's broken my son's toys, and they've fought and made up. They make each other laugh and cry, and they even tell on each other. One of Owen's favorite things is to curl up on my son's lap and be read to. Occasionally I'll look at the two of them and succumb to a crushing wave of what-ifs.

Then the words of my friend Ruth will wash over me, and  -- with gratitude  -- I'll think about the wide web of family and friends and neighbors we've woven together over the years. And I know that though we never gave our son a sibling, there's an ocean of love all around him, and he, an intrepid swimmer, is already happily in over his head.

Gina Barnett is a freelance writer whose play, T 4 2, won a TheatreFest Regional Playwriting award.