About a week ago, some water in Katie’s sippy spilled out into our diaper bag. Even though Eric now rarely has instances of needing his diaper changed on-the-go, I have still been using our diaper bag as an all-purpose bag. I cleaned it out a few months ago, but since then we’ve been living off the top of it. Moms out there, am I alone in thinking that the bottom of the bag can be a fearsome place? Graham cracker crumbs, long-lost socks, and whoa, that round Gerber toddler meal…

I was aware that water had spilled, but it was more in quantity than I thought. A few days ago (yes, I said days, but just got to it this afternoon) I began to smell a bit of a tell-tale musty smell. While that smell is charming on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, it is not a good sign coming from the diaper bag.

Even I was surprised to see how black was the life form growing. It had also spread to the front pocket. Ugh. Emptied totally, the diaper bag took a ride in super hot water in the washing machine.

A little while later, I checked excitedly on the bag. Having a clean, pristine, organized diaper bag always feels so good, as if for that moment I am a highly organized mother who is on top of things for once. Yet when I looked into the bag, the life form still clung to it stubbornly. So I washed it again.

The punchline is that our diaper bag is soiled and ruined beyond redemption. Whatever is on it does not want to come off, and it is everywhere on the bottom. I can’t put diapers in there, and I don’t want Eric’s spare pants or sweatshirts to touch it either.

In truth, Eric doesn’t much need a diaper bag anymore, or perhaps it is that I do not need one for him. Like Katie, he is ready for a little backpack. He is ready to move on.

Am I?

Our brown and light blue diaper bag has been with us since shortly after Katie was born. It has never ripped, has stayed mostly clean, has  traveled everywhere with me through two children. In the interim between Katie’s first backpack and Eric’s creation, it stayed safely in the downstairs closet—hopefully waiting to be used again. When Eric was born, and when I packed the diaper bag for the first time, it was like seeing an old friend. So many of our baby/newborn things are that way. As Eric has grown and inherited so many of Katie’s baby items, each one has been a symbol that sparks the thought in me, “Oh, I remember when Katie used that!”  The diaper bag is one such talisman that links together two gloriously beautiful times—the times of my childrens’ babyhoods.

I do not know what to do with our diaper bag. Believe me when I say, it cannot be salvaged or put to another use. Objectively, it needs to be thrown away. It feels like throwing away part of a really significant time to some degree. When I really probe my feelings, though, I realize that my sentimentality is not about the diaper bag; what I have to reckon with here is the underlying knowledge that we have wanted two children and are unlikely to have any more. Even now, it is painful and impossible to write that we won’t have more. Mothers, do you know the feeling I mean? Just as most of us spend our whole young lives wanting babies, we then arrive at this point where we have to let go of the idea of having more. I’d be lying if I said that, for me, this thought isn’t sad. I have loved having my babies, making my babies, holding my babies, delivering my babies, cuddling my babies, smelling their little baby-ness. I love everything about having children, and everything about carrying and delivering them. It is hard to think of not having more, wondering who else there might have been.

I have not yet reckoned with the finality of it. I would not be sorry if by some turn of events we had a third one, or more. Yet I also know that our resources (of finances, time, energy, etc) can do two children better than we could do three. I am speaking for just our particular family, and I don’t generalize here. Each family has different resources they choose to allot—for us, two is the number we feel we can do. The past two nights, we have spent time as a family reading in the evening. Bill has been reading older books to Katie, while I sit nearby with Eric and read to him. There has been such a beautiful balance to it. Some families have the resources to balance more than two children, and I say, more power to them. But two, three, four, or five—somewhere, sometime for most of us women, we come to the same moment of deciding to stop.

At best, that moment is bittersweet. We know we make the decision for good reasons: perhaps it is the expectation that our children will attend universities, and we know we have the resources for four of them to attend but not five; possibly we have three and worry that four will cause teams to develop; who knows? Even though we know our reasons are rational and planned, and even though we feel a sense of joy in doing what is best for our family, still there may be part of us that wishes we did not have to relinquish our childbearing years.

For they can be years of such immense beauty and discovery about Life. Our children are unbounded love. It is a time of magic and awe. I love being a mommy, even when a day is hard.

So what do I do with the diaper bag? It is difficult to give it up, well, difficult to give up what it represents. And I cannot even begin to start sorting Katie’s and Eric’s outgrown clothes. Part of me, the irrational part, still believes there could be a chance that another little baby of ours will need them. Every time I come close to tackling those bins in the garage, a pang in my heart turns me away to another task. I am not ready to give childbearing up just yet, even if I know I need to.

This is the other side of motherhood I’ve heard few ever mention. As girls we are often vocal about wanting babies, or not, but at the end of bearing our children we often only whisper what is in our hearts. You hear it, sometimes, in soft spoken answers to questions about having more. “It wasn’t in the cards,” I have heard. Or, “I wouldn’t have been sorry to have another.” These little expressions of longing tell so much about the decision many of us encounter. I am not sure I will ever be able to say with absolute language that “we are done having children.” I am working on getting there, though, because I find great value in owning and naming decisions.

Until I can name it, though, our baby things are staying on hold in the garage. Sometimes the biggest grace we can give to ourselves is time.

With my Katie June, five days old… November 3, 2007