I was cleaning up after my younger daughter's first birthday party, tossing out the plastic forks, the balloon plates, and the baby-farm-animal wrapping paper. I propped open the garbage can, set up a clear shot for the pointy "I'm One!" hat with the pink pom-pom on top, and then it happened: I hesitated.
I started again, angling my arm so that my throw would guide the point of the hat directly into a discarded glob of rainbow Jell-O salad. This time, I stopped myself completely. I heard a little voice inside my head utter words that I never thought I'd hear: "Wait! You might need this hat again."
"What?" screamed the voice from the other side of my head. "You have two children! That was the plan!" It was true: All along, we'd intended to stop at two kids. Ours turned out to be girls. My older daughter, Blair, wore this same birthday hat three years ago, and my little one, Drew, got her turn this afternoon. After today, there wasn't supposed to be any more wearing of the first-birthday hat.
So why was I frozen over a garbage can, feeling the same rumbling I had felt at 33, when my biological clock started ticking and I found myself checking out babies in strollers as if they were hot guys?
"You are done!" reminded the second voice. "Done!"
Except for one small problem: Maybe I wasn't done.
I remember the moment I decided that there was no way on God's fertile earth I would ever have three children. It was Christmas 2003. My cousin Cheryl, who weighed approximately 98 pounds, was carrying her 3-year-old son -- her third and youngest -- who also seemed to weigh 98 pounds.
"Three is too many," she stated flatly (presumably to me, though it seemed more like a confession to the universe). "We're outnumbered now."
At that time I didn't know if I wanted even one child, but I was certain I'd never want three. Three meant that one would always be the odd kid out -- the one who wouldn't get a window seat in the car and would have to ride alone on Blackbeard's Lost Treasure Train at Six Flags.
The day Blair was born, I informed my husband, Thad, in the delivery room, "You'd better pay attention, because we are never doing this again!" But we did -- largely because I was an only child and, while it was cool having all the attention from my folks growing up, it was also kind of lonely.
The more I thought about it, the notion of having additional kids didn't seem too daunting. Once the poopy diapers and strained peas and bedtime tantrums were done, we'd have a big gang to fill the table at dinner, to wake us up on New Year's Day, and to sing "Happy Birthday" to each other. The more the merrier, I thought: If raising two kids could bring me so much happiness, imagine how great it would be to have 10 (okay, maybe not 10).
Was I the only mom who thought she had reached her self-imposed kid limit only to feel a weird biological urge for more? To find out, whenever I came across a woman with kids I asked her this question: "Are you done?"
"Absolutely," shouted Grace, a mother of three, as we chatted at a birthday party. "No more for me."
"I definitely could have lots more," whispered Emily, at the library, who looked like she might go into labor with her third child any minute.
"My husband's done," said Jenn, a mom of two, as we discussed a recent scare that sent her to purchase an early-pregnancy test. But given her wistful reaction to the result -- no bun in the oven -- I could tell she wasn't.
Then there was my friend Sally. She and her husband decided to have a third child, and they wound up giving birth to twins instead. (And they have nothing on that California mom of octuplets who had six kids, tried for more, and ended up with 14!)
"Are you kidding me? I'm so done," Sally told me.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"But how do you know?"
"If you don't know ... well ... that means you're not done," she said, raising an eyebrow, as if she expected this revelation to propel me to jump into the sack and get busy.
Despite my insistence that I was merely doing research, I realized Sally was right. The women who were finished didn't wait a single beat before responding. They knew. And I didn't. Deep down I believed I had enough kid-love left to try for another.
There was, of course, one more person I had to poll: my husband. I waited until one night after we'd put the girls to bed. We were lying on the couch watching Jeopardy! when I found an opening and popped the question: "Are we done?"
"Are we done with what?" he asked.
"Are we done having kids?"
Thad stared silently at the TV for a moment, as if he was waiting for Alex Trebek to give him the correct response. Instead he deflected it back to me: "Are you done?"
"I don't know," I said.
"But they finally both sleep through the night, Vicki," he said. "Plus, we'll need a bigger house because I don't want them to share a bedroom. And I'll need to get a minivan because I can't fit three seats in the back of my sedan. And college -- they'll have to be really good at field hockey or get scholarships, since we'll be practically ready to retire when the youngest one graduates." He thought about it for a moment, then added, "Oh, no. I'll be one of those old dads...."
I waited patiently for Thad to say, "Yes, we're done." But he never did, leaving the door slightly ajar. Not that it mattered. Because up in the attic, in a plain, unmarked box, I had already hidden the "I'm One!" hat with the pink pom-pom on it. Just in case.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.