Memoir: Daughter Dearest

A wild, consuming passion drove Kathryn Harrison to have a third child at the age of 39. Little did she know that this time, motherhood would plunge her deep into the mysteries of her past.

By Kathryn Harrison
mother and daughter at beach image
The author with her daughter Julia on Iron Pier Beach, Long Island, 2002.
Photograph: Joyce Ravid

THE CONVERSATION always ended with my husband staring, as he tends to do when he has run out of things to say, at the blank white page of the ceiling, his head resting heavily on the back of the couch. Sometimes I waited for him to make a definitive pronouncement; more often I got up and wandered into the kitchen. It was never a fight but a question I’d been raising, and my husband deflecting, for years. I wanted a third child, and the line we’d drawn between us and the possibility of Down syndrome or any other blight visited on a woman’s aging eggs drew ever closer until, suddenly, it was in sight: my 40th birthday.

Wasn’t it greedy to ask? Wouldn’t we be punished, my husband suggested, with whatever portion of misery might descend on the parents of two healthy offspring who petitioned God or the gods or just plain luck for another? “It’s not as if we have two boys or two girls and are holding out for the unrepresented gender.” The point didn’t dissuade but provoked me in its symmetry. Let’s shake things up, I thought, let’s get uneven, let’s have a baby. I wanted one, I wanted one, I just did, and when I pointed out that it wasn’t as if he’d felt ready to have either of the first two, my husband was politic enough not to challenge me. We both knew there was no discouraging this desire.

Our daughter was five and our son three when I began my campaign. If anyone had asked me to articulate my insistence on a third child, would I have admitted the reason? I wanted emotional insurance. I didn’t imagine myself a woman who would soar once her nest was empty. What I foresaw was closer to a plunge. If we had a third, when the older ones went off to college I’d still have a middle schooler, and by the time that child went to college I might have at least the promise of a grandchild.

My husband reminded me of the cost of raising children, not just financial but psychic. Would we have the energy to give a third as much as we had the first two? Maybe more, I argued, as by the time the third arrived, the others would be so much older, almost a set of junior parents. Usually the one firmly on the rational side of any marital disagreement, my husband reiterated his fear that having “already won the lottery,” as he referred to our having been blessed with the two children we had, if we asked for another we might be punished by the fates. I relayed his superstition to my doctor.

“Are you kidding?” he said. He leaned forward, having just told me I was “perfect and beautiful”—which might sound creepy, given that the assessment followed his having peered with a bright light at what neither I nor my husband had ever seen. But he was an obstetrician; the beauty he saw, fertility. A couple who had had two healthy babies, he said, was that much more likely to have a third healthy child.

“But I’d be so many years older this time around,” I said.
He smiled. “That’s what amnio is for.”


“WOW,” FRIENDS SAID when they ran into me on the street, and they said, “Congratu—” but most of them never finished the word before silently doing the math and arriving at a new conclusion: accident. They kept their eyes averted, seemingly stuck on my swollen midriff. I could have rescued them. “Oh, no,” I could have said. “She was planned.” But I liked watching them struggle, their discomfort announcing that this pregnancy was different from the earlier two. And it was, but not in ways I could have anticipated.

First Published September 27, 2011

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I am beyond dissapointed at MORE for publishing Kathryn HArrison's story, but not for the most obvious reasons. I didn't make it past her first paragraph before I got a hint of her character. Do you know how offensive it is to write Down Syndrome and associate it with the word blight? The remainder of the article did nothing to change my opinion of Ms. Harrison. She seems to need to wallow in her "glass half empty" approach to life. MORE magazine, you should be aware that October is Down Syndrome Awareness month. All of your competition selects stories to honor that. As a magazine that has older mother's as your reading audience, maybe you should be more careful next time.

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