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Why Having a Third Baby Felt Like the Safe Choice

Maybe I wanted closure. A third baby would allow me to savor all the lasts in a way I hadn’t with my daughter. Last pregnancy. Last birth. Last yellow newborn poops.

Maybe it was my internalized view of what a woman should be. I could show the world that, at 37, I was still young, still sexually viable, still desirable.

With full-time school for both kids looming on the horizon, I chatted with other stay-at-home moms about their plans for this great unknown full of child-free hours. Some talked excitedly about returning to full-time work, while others seemed equally thrilled by the prospect of managing a household without tiny wreckers of order. But when I thought seriously about what my life would look like once both kids were in school I felt not joy, but fear.

When I have to answer questions about what I do, it’s with a sense of relief that my youngest child is still home part-time. So when I say that I “write,” I can add that I do this “part-time.” On a good day, maybe fresh after being published in the sort of outlet non-writers have heard of, I’ll change “I write” to “I’m a writer.” If I’m totally honest with myself, the fear of having to lean into my chosen work full-time, of having to own my decision and its attendant risks, played no small role in my desire to have a third child.

Ultimately, my husband and I left the decision up to fate — and unprotected sex. Which is, of course, a decision. When the two pink lines bled onto the pregnancy test, I spent that first night consumed by panic, worried we had made a terrible mistake and that I had wanted a third baby for all the wrong reasons. But, after a few days, panic gave way to joy, which gave way to relief — relief that I had a few more years to figure myself out. But even this relief was tempered with a sense of shame that, for me, stay-at-home motherhood still felt like a crutch.

I no longer loathe the work of stay-at-home motherhood. While it can be a grind, much of it brings me great pride, joy, satisfaction and, yes, fulfillment. I also recognize how privileged I am to agonize about these questions at all. Many women balance full-time jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, and struggle with far more serious problems than my largely philosophical ones. But I’m angry that a girl can still grow up assuming that she will find her identity as a domestic caretaker without ever seriously interrogating what kind of identity might suit her best, what kind of person she might want to be outside of “mother.” And I’m angry that even now, the fear of owning my own life still lurks under the surface, whispering that I’m not smart enough, hardworking enough, determined enough, and that if I were no longer firmly held in by the cozy ropes of motherhood, I might not be enough.

Sara Petersen’s essays about feminism, motherhood, and the performance of femininity have appeared in The Washington Post, Vox, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, and elsewhere. She is working on a collection about finding her feminist rage through motherhood. You can find her on Twitter @slouisepetersen.

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