Q. My husband and I have a son, just 3, who is multiply handicapped, and because of that we don't know whether to have another child or not. While our son has many problems, his condition is now stable and he attends special education preschool five mornings a week, which is great for him and gives me a break.
My husband is a wonderful, adoring father -- I couldn't ask for better -- and we love our little boy more than anything.
We both want more children and we talk in general about having another baby "soon" but always seem to push it off until "a little later."
My son's geneticist and my ob/gyn are gently encouraging us to have children sooner rather than later so the risk of birth defects is lower. At this point they tell us that another baby would probably have less than a 5 percent chance of having the same syndrome as our son.
I wonder if our hesitancy to have another child is based on fear or if it's a sign that we are just not ready. I know you can't tell us whether or not to have another child, but perhaps you can tell us how to make that decision. I'm afraid we may push it off until it is too late.
A. All responsible parents wonder whether they should have that second -- or third or fourth -- child, and most of them have some doubts during their pregnancies too, although they probably don't admit it.
Such caution is certainly understandable. Anyone who takes care of a baby around the clock -- and around the calendar -- knows how hard the job can be. A child with handicaps makes it that much harder.
You'll find it easier to make the right decision if you first figure out what you'd do if you got pregnant, had an amniocentesis and found that the second baby had the syndrome too. Even then, it would take great courage -- and some counseling -- to terminate the pregnancy or to decide to rear another child with multiple handicaps.
Once you think you know how you'd react, you'll want to look hard at the odds. It's true that you have a 5 percent chance of having another child with this syndrome, but you also have a 95 percent chance of having a normal, healthy baby.
There would be many other advantages. Your son would not only have the pleasure of a playmate, but the chance to teach the baby whatever skills he knows. A child may be handicapped, physically or mentally, but he still wants to love, to help, to feel important.
A new baby would profit by the relationship too. Children who grow up with the handicapped tend to be remarkably empathic, as long as their parents don't resent the handicapped child, or act like he always comes first. And you and your husband would benefit too.
A healthy, normal child would do much to assuage your natural guilt, for no one plays that "should-a; would-a; could-a" game better than the parents of a disabled child.
This baby would seem like a miracle, skipping over milestones that would be mountains to your son. At times this normal development will generate a great deal of wistfulness in you -- and a little anger too -- but you will also feel an incredible joy, a peace that other parents can only imagine. Contrasts make us appreciate the accomplishments of the disabled as much as the able.
Another child would also help you see that your son is very important, and that he has many extra needs, but he is still just one member of the family. By having to split your time and your focus, you'll realize that you and your husband deserve a little attention too. This will keep your marriage strong, which is particularly important for a handicapped child. He needs all the support he can get.
Above all, another baby will stretch your ability to love -- the most expandable and rewarding emotion of all. The more love you have, the more you can give, and the better you will feel about yourself.
And having said all this, be warned. Another baby will give you many glorious days, but there will also be days when you can't believe you'll make it, especially at first, for you will be more tired and harried than most mothers and more isolated, too.
This reaction won't be as strong if you prepare yourself for another baby now. You need to get some household help once a week if you can possibly afford it; to join a support group, if you aren't in one already; and perhaps to read a couple of new books.
The positive, upbeat approach in "The Boy Who Felt No Pain," by Robert Marion (Addison-Wesley, $17.95), will help you remember how strong the human spirit really is, and "Since Owen," by Charles R. Callanan (Johns Hopkins, $16.95), is a family tale of love winning out over woe, and how two parents have used the system to help their disabled son -- practical suggestions that might help your son too, and make your job a little easier.
While a second baby is an appealing idea, it's a decision only you and your husband can make. Count on your soul-searching and researching to help you make the right one -- the one that's right for you.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.