With a Heart Wide Open

Mandy Hitchcock Loss

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I never thought I would want four children. Three always seemed like a good number to me. Two was too few. Four was too many. My husband and I always thought we’d have three. And now we do.

But only two of them are living. Our oldest daughter Hudson died in May 2010 of an incredibly aggressive bacterial meningitis infection. One day she had what seemed like a normal fever, and the next day she was fatally ill. Her little brother and sister never got to meet her. They recognize her pictures, say her name, and generally know that she is their sister, but they have no idea what that actually means when she isn’t here, among them, bossing them around, arguing with them over toys, fighting with them for our attention, snuggling with them in our bed in the early mornings, protecting them from bullies, and cracking up with them over some secret kid joke involving Daddy’s nose hair.

I want my two living children to have another sibling.

I want them to have the playmates I never had growing up. (I am one of four, but my siblings are from my mother’s first marriage and are much older than I.)

I want them to have a larger support system when they get older and have to deal with their aging parents.

And, more than anything, if through some terrible and cruel fate, we lose one of them, I don’t want the other to be left alone. Our daughter was only 17-months-old when she died—we have decades left during which something could happen to one of our two living children.

I want my two living children to have another sibling.

And yet there are so many reasons not to have another child. There are the mundane reasons. I am almost 39 and Ed is almost 43—we’re hardly old or out of the new-parent game, but damn, we are tired. Three infancies is a lot. We’re exhausted. I often feel like I’m losing my mind simply managing the ones we have, and the idea of adding another to the mix seems truly absurd sometimes. We’re ready to move on to the next phase of our lives, when our whole family can do things together unhampered by a too-small kid. Family trips will be less expensive. College (should they choose to go) will be less expensive. It will be easier to get a table at restaurants. We’ll get to keep a guest room. I won’t have to endure another pregnancy, the last one of which was pretty hard on my body. I won’t have to swear off alcohol for another nine months of pregnancy or moderate it for another year of breastfeeding (and let’s be real—this is huge with small kids in the house). The list goes on.

And then there are those reasons that are not mundane at all. What if we are pushing our luck with a fourth? Our chances of genetic abnormalities keep rising as we get older. Could I handle a devastating miscarriage? Termination for a genetic problem that is inconsistent with life? A stillbirth?

And what if something does happen to that fourth child someday? Every morning when one of my two living kids sleeps even a few minutes past the normal wake-up time, a knot begins to form in my stomach, and it doesn’t go away until I hear them stirring. I know lots of parents have the same knot, but mine is laced with icy cold fear, fear borne of the experience of holding my daughter in my arms when she died after what began as a perfectly normal illness. Right now, I can barely fathom putting these two beautiful babies on a school bus a few years from now, let alone into their own cars to drive off by themselves someday. It seems that I hear almost weekly about another catastrophe befalling the child of someone in a friend’s circle. And while I don’t live my life waiting for the other shoe to drop, I also know that Hudson’s death has not somehow rendered us immune to tragedy—tragedy does not discriminate.

And what if I am simply trying to fill the hole that Hudson’s death left in our lives? What if I am trying to fill that hole with a third living child or perhaps with just enough chaos that the hole won’t be as gapingly obvious all the time? If, underneath all of this, I am really only trying to fill the hole, I will be ultimately and terribly disappointed. Because filling that hole, with one more child or a hundred more, is impossible.

Ed and I have been back and forth a dozen times. A text from me reading, “I’m back on Team Have One More” has become a running joke. It’s the hardest decision we’ve ever faced together. And like any two responsible adults who can’t make a decision, we left it up to the universe. But given our very good fortune with getting pregnant in the past, leaving it up to the universe ultimately meant that we were, in fact, deciding to have another child. And when I saw the second line appear on the pregnancy test, I thought all my doubts were resolved.

Then, just a few days later, when I learned of the sudden death of the young son of yet another acquaintance from yet another seemingly ordinary cause, I was knocked to the floor. I thought about the tiny cluster of cells growing in my belly, still smaller than the head of a pin. What have I done? I thought. After all of this internal debate about having another child, all the weighing of pros and cons, what I have done, ultimately, but lop off yet another vital part of my body, another piece of my very soul, and agreed to let it go out into the world largely unprotected? What have I done but create another living, breathing opportunity to have my heart shattered? What have I done?

Having one child, or several, is the most irrational decision any person can make. I am both exhilarated and terrified about bringing another child into this world.

But what I understand now, in ways that I didn’t before my daughter died, is that my fear, though real and powerful and justified, is rooted in the deep desire of all parents to control what happens to their children.

What I understand now is that I am not in control of very much at all that happens to my children, and in order to manage my fear, I must accept how little control I have.

What I understand now is that accepting how little control I have means leaving my heart wide open at all times.

And what I understand now is that leaving my heart wide open at all times is the only way to live after Hudson’s death—not just survive, but truly live.

We’ve just made the most irrational decision in the world. I have no idea whether it was the right decision. Yet at the same time, I know absolutely that it was.


About the Author

Mandy Hitchcock

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. She is currently re-writing (for the third time) her first memoir, and her essays appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her on her , and .

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January 2015 – live & learn
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