On Parenting: Three's a Charm?

I was in the second trimester of my third pregnancy, and my overarching feeling was, well, anticlimax. I know, I know. I was growing a human being inside me, the miracle of life, and all that. Still, my psychic response to my third pregnancy was, “Here we go again.”

Don’t get me wrong. My husband and I wanted a third child, and genetic testing showed a healthy baby girl, for which we were enormously grateful. But I feared that nothing about baby #3 — not the pregnancy, delivery, first smile, or first day of preschool — would be as profound as those events had been for our first or even our second. I worried that, as a 40-something mom with two kids, I’d lost the capacity for wonder.

Seven years earlier, when our son, William, was born, every moment took on urgency. His rapidly growing head was surely water on the brain; his colic an early sign of bipolar disorder. At six months, on a trip to the ER for a bonafide ailment — the bronchiolitis that almost killed him — I wept as I stared at his chest X-ray. The image of his tiny ribs laid out in such perfect, heartbreaking symmetry pierced something so primal in me I couldn’t move. I would never forget the look of vulnerability in those stark white bones. I knew that at my deepest core there now lived an urge to protect them — and him.

It wasn’t just the hard stuff that moved me. As our firstborn, William will forever be the child who breaks new ground, not just for himself but also for my husband, Michael, and me. He is the frontiersman of our parenting lives, the little ice cutter clearing our path. His sister, Jessie, came three years later, and, though she arrived like a burst of sunshine (and none of the colic), her milestones didn’t carry the same weight. For one thing, I didn’t invite thirty people to her first birthday party and make them watch as we opened the gifts. Instead, we met another couple with kids at a Mexican restaurant and sneaked in a miniature cake from Whole Foods, which she mauled while sitting on Michael’s lap.

Dropping Jessie off at preschool never devolved into 45-minute pow-wows with other parents about lead-free lunchboxes. I’d breeze in and out. Sometimes I’d even do the once-unthinkable and let a babysitter take the kids to school. With every mortifying public tantrum, I’d learned to calm down. With every spilled-upon party dress or earsplitting scream, I’d learned to let go. And with every small hand reaching for mine, every crashing-into-my legs hug, my heart had opened.

And so I prepared for our third baby without the anticipation I once had, that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster: You’re scared, you’re excited, and you’re hoping you don’t wet your pants.

But the truth was I missed the rawness of those genuine firsts. The process of shedding my pre-parent self was long and painful, but there was something satisfying about getting through it. Could I let myself be transformed yet again? And, if not, what would it mean for our new baby?

This is what I was thinking as Michael and I went in for an ultrasound. At the hospital, we stared at the screen until the white circle of our baby’s head appeared in what looked like a dark cave. And then a tiny hand popped into view like a greeting, the thin white bones of each finger splayed out in perfect, vulnerable symmetry.

I knew I’d seen something like those bones before, yet the pounding in my chest was suddenly, inexplicably new. I froze, captivated, and without warning, felt the cold thrill of tears running down my cheeks. I thought: Maybe this one will surprise me after all.