A second child first

by Beth Jackson


They already had a child, a daughter. She was four and he was not her biological father.

“He’s not your sperm Dad,” is what they told her, in a way that was both bold and technical – rather like their daughter who would grow to become a chemical engineer.

They were not a conventional couple and somewhat proud of it. It made their bond both intense and complicated – as if they valued being soul mates before any vow or certificate, but also valued being apart with a distance to be whom they needed to be as individuals before being a couple. In reality it was as difficult, as romantic, as impractical as any conventional marriage. Their daughter was a beautiful diamond, both clear and complex, at the centre of their bond.

And now she had just discovered she was pregnant. Another child. His biological child.

A couple of her friends would later ask, “Is this one his?” which made her not quite so cool with being open and unconventional. It was an important difference – genetics are central to identity and development. But it now felt value-laden. As if implied within this question was an assumption that this child was more important, perhaps he would even love it more? Somehow naturally hold it closer?

Trying to fight normalcy felt like beating your head against a brick wall. Of course he would love a second child differently, as she would, because the experience and the child would be different. But would the nature of the difference be haunted by this biological event, an intangible and insidiously discrimination? It just shouldn’t matter yet it was the upper most thought in her mind. When she had decided to keep her first child, she had made the decision alone. She wanted that child for herself. She put motherhood before him, before being a couple. He could choose for himself if he wanted to be part of it/them. In her mind she was alone.

But this time she wasn’t. She had another child and a partner … a job, a house, a known future … and this second child had to become part of that, must not threaten that. She really didn’t want it – the stress, the sleep deprivation, the chores, the relentless demands ... Oh hell it was happening all over again, just when things were becoming civilised.

They were both pro-choice and committed feminists. But how could she terminate ‘his’ child? Of course, from the outside, it seemed such a natural development, something to be truly happy about. As if they had had a kind of practice run and now they could be a proper family. How could she express, even to herself, the fear that what might spell consolidation for a normal couple, might actually be a threat to them? It was unknowable and manifested a feeling of unquiet within her.

She told him. She talked to him – as best she could.  She wanted him to want the child and, in a way, to put it before her, just as she had put their daughter before him. She wanted him, not so much to insist that she have it, but just to passionately express his involvement and ownership and thus leave her no real choice.

But he didn’t. Instead he said “It’s up to you.” He could probably sense the unquiet within her. He was also probably filled with his own sense of dread for all the stresses another child would bring. She also believed that his response was likely a feminist one, an ethical one – that an unborn child should not be separated from the mother’s body, their well being was one and the same.

But all she felt was alone. So alone.

She couldn’t get rid of this baby. She simply couldn’t. She didn’t know what it meant – for their relationship, for her daughter, for her career. But she couldn’t keep it just because it was ‘his’. She could keep it because it was hers. In that fearful and painful aloneness, private and ecstatic, the white hot crucible of her heart forged another diamond. The cost was incredible – a life-long pledge to the unknown. But it was driven by love and there was, in her mind, no other life worth living. In that moment, a second child was put first. She had done it before it dispelled the unquiet – within herself, she knew, there would be no discrimination – is that what she had really feared?

She allowed herself to dream of another child, the opportunity to do things differently, to employ what she had learned from the first time. She could see it, feel it – she would be more calm, less fearful, less anxious. She wouldn’t let the nurses take her newborn from her and put her in the nursery and tell her to get some sleep when she was filled with wonder and relief and exhilarated fascination. She wouldn’t bother to establish meaningless routines for her baby’s organic and relentless development. She would be a better listener. She would enjoy this second child. It would be wonderful.

Fatherhood was something she couldn’t properly comprehend. Her children came from her body, there was no mistaking it, and the bond was fierce, total, unquestionable. Oh please god just let this baby be healthy! Not that she believed in god. As it turned out, the baby, a beautiful chubby boy, did bring with him pressures unbearable for their relationship.

He left her when the baby was eighteen months old. Then she really was alone.


© Beth Jackson

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem