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From Chapter 1 of Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only

The New Traditional Family

Is it a factor of economic restraints, more complex lives, increased fertility, pure good sense, or something else that is changing the makeup of the family unit? When you were growing up, you probably knew or knew of a family with four or five, even eight, children. In those days, raising a station wagon-size family neither attracted attention nor caused alarm. But mention a family with five or six children today and someone is certain to groan, “How do they do it?” “Why do they do it?” “There must be a better way.” There seems to be. Never before have there been so many choices in family type or size. Our ever-evolving definition of family is broadening and diversifying to encompass blended families, biracial families, homosexual-parent families, and single-parent families. Even though family policy and laws are slow in catching up to current lifestyles, different choices are widely accepted, especially those revolving around single, or gay and lesbian parenting and adoption. Families are getting smaller and the only-child option is becoming increasingly popular.

The preference for smaller families is evident. In 1972, 56 percent of those asked in a large national opinion study thought that three or more children were ideal; in a similar study done in 1998 that percentage had dropped to 39.1 Although both men and women may still state a preference for two or three children, the number of women who have one child mounts steadily.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1972 there were between 8 and 9 million only children. By 1985 the number had grown to 13 million, and by the beginning of the new millennium it approached the 16 million mark, confirming psychologist Sandra Scarr’s claim in the mid-eighties that “many serious parents . . . are planning to invest their best efforts in one or at the most two children.”2

Those who study demographics agree that the one-child household is the fastest-growing family unit. It surprises many people to learn that one-child families outnumber families with two children and have for more than a decade. “Fertility rates in many places are dropping rapidly, especially in the richest countries, where, to put it simply, any two people are not producing two more people.”3 There are a number of explanations for this trend. People marry later, leaving them fewer childbearing years and a greater chance of facing infertility or secondary infertility; more and more people opt to have and raise a child as single parents and one is realistically all they can handle; one out of almost every two marriages ends in divorce, often before a second child is considered or born, and predictions are that divorce rates will not change much in the foreseeable future.

But probably one of the greatest influences on the changing family is the influx of women into the workforce. Over 77 percent of women with children work, many with young children. By 1998, 67 percent of parents both held jobs outside the home.4 Beyond the stresses of working, many feel a second child is more of a financial strain than they can, or want to, undertake.

Long gone is what we once called the typical or “average” family that was made up of two children, a father who worked, and a mother who stayed home to raise her children. Today, that family as we knew it, of Ozzie and Harriet fame, makes up barely 3 percent of American families.5 Whether women work outside the home or devote themselves to their families full-time, the family is smaller. Over one-fifth—and climbing—of all families with children has one child. Between 1980 and 1990, there was an increase of 76 percent in the number of women ages forty to forty-four with one child, who, because of their ages, were unlikely to bear a second. If changes in childbearing patterns and family styles continue, which they are more than likely to do, it’s safe to predict that more and more families will have one child.

The Way It Was

Forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago an only child was not the desired lot. Although there were exceptions, in most cases if a couple had an only child, something had intervened to prevent them from adding to their family.

What we view as normal in the childbearing arena has a lot to do with what was considered normal as we were growing up. Decisions about how many children to have are equally affected by what is accepted at the time we are deciding. “I had two children because at the time [thirty years ago] it was the American thing to do,” explains Betty Plumlee.

Susan Leites talks about the childbearing milieu thirty years ago. “Many women admitted they were afraid to take care of themselves. They married and had the obligatory two or three children whether or not they wanted them. It was the ‘right’ thing to do. Having one was easy for me because I was a painter committed to my career. I had rebelled anyway; I didn’t feel constrained to follow the norm. I don’t think the number of children a woman had then corresponded to how she felt about having children. Women followed the conventions of the time.”

Says Jamie Laughridge, a former editor of Woman’s Day Specials: Bridal Magazine, “It was so much easier for our grandparents and parents. They didn’t know what we know or have the career opportunities we have. Women’s lives were mapped out: You fell in love, got married, had children. No concern over options or how many children to have. No fears of being trapped in the house or of losing your job if you took too many or too lengthy maternity leaves because mothers weren’t supposed to have jobs. It seems women may have been better off. We simply know too much.”

In the past there were many reasons why people felt the need to have more than one child. For one thing, children were more isolated. Parents feared the spread of disease. A child with strep throat or chicken pox stayed home for two or three weeks. Swimming in public pools was avoided during the polio scare. Today children are immunized against most childhood diseases and given antibiotics for the less serious illnesses. Usually they return to school and their normal routines within days. “The absence of ‘health isolation’ was one of the factors that made me feel having only one was okay,” admits Susan Leites.

Higher mortality rates were also a factor early in the previous century. Today’s parents are not faced with the threat of smallpox, influenza, and many other diseases that took young lives. Unless you need extra bodies to harvest the crops and milk the cows as families did in colonial America, more than one offers no economic gain.

“Around the world there is a pattern of one man and one woman raising one baby for about four years, that is through infancy,” theorizes Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior. “Similarly, around the world there is a pattern of couples divorcing after about four years of marriage. About 25 percent of worldwide divorces occur with one dependent child. So we are going back to that trend which is quite suitable.

“In hunting and gathering societies a woman bore four to five children, but only one to two lived. Women tended to bear their children four years apart,” explains Dr. Fisher. “For four years each child was an only child, nursed and nurtured by his mother within a large social group. After about four years the child became more independent of the mother, actively joining the huge social network on which he depended. This natural four-year cycle of childbearing parallels the universal divorce peak that comes in the fourth year of marriage.” Based on her findings, Dr. Fisher believes that “being an only child is a common incident in human family life that has probably been going on forever.”

The Trend Toward One

During the baby boom years, when the parenting tune was, “A boy for me, a girl for you,” the percentage of families with one child ranged between 10 and 13 percent. Today that percentage pushes toward 30. The same phenomenon can be seen in European countries, which were the first to see slower birth rates. Italy has the lowest birth rate per woman at 1.2; Spain and Germany follow at 1.3 children per woman; and Ireland’s is 1.8, dropping from 3.5 children in 1975.6 America appears to be following Europe in the reduced bearing of children as well as in the diversity of family structure. In

China, one child per family was the national goal and a public mandate was enforced in an effort to control population. From 1979 until recently,China’s strict one-child policy included steep fines for bearing a second child, forced abortions, and sterilization.This book is neither a plea for zero population growth, nor an extended argument centered on preserving our natural resources and Social Security reserves by limiting families to one child. Rather it looks at societal and personal attitudes toward bearing children and the realities that surround those feelings and decisions. Having babies is too private and too irrevocable to be determined by dated ideals and social pressure or by legal standards and threats, as the Chinese government finally recognized.Japan, a country with one of the lowest birthrates in the world, is attempting to use government and business influences to increase the number of births. Japan’s strategy is the reverse of China’s—companies are offering bonus dollars and the government is providing monthly subsidies to parents who have second, third, and more children.7

In theory, Americans can still have or adopt all the babies they would like, but parents, especially mothers, are pulled in many directions, presented with other options beyond having large families, and concerned about how to meet the demands and needs of the child they have. Roughly twenty-seven years ago Maggie Tripp delineated what would eventually become one of the underlying motivations for keeping families small. How right she was! In the book Woman in the Year 2000, she wrote, “. . . there are literally thousands of people testing a new kind of marriage. It is a marriage changed primarily by a new breed of woman—and by men who accept, desire, prefer her. She is the un-dependent woman. She knows what she wants and what she wants includes her own development as a self-contained entity. By the year 2000, all women of intelligence will emulate her.”8

Now into the millennium, women no longer muse and mumble over what might have been. They take action. On average, over 50 percent of women are likely to start or continue some form of higher education,9 enter law or medical school, or pursue graduate work in fields once controlled by men. Women head major corporations, hold key government and executive positions, run their own successful businesses, and match their male counterparts in training, performance, and technical skills in myriad fields. A comparison between women in 1983 and today is striking. In 1983, 7 percent of dentists were women versus today’s 17 percent; among female lawyers the jump during the same years was from 15 percent to 29 percent. Today there are more policewomen and female security guards than in the 80s—13 percent were women in 1983; today the figure is 29 percent.10 Similar inroads can be seen in the accounting, computer programming, and medical professions, among many others.

The influx of women into the workforce has greatly altered childbearing patterns. Whether or not women hold jobs outside the home, they have a new purpose beyond making babies, as Maggie Tripp predicted. To them, bearing two children no longer seems as compelling as it did to their mothers. Women do not bear children—especially second children—without seriously examining the effects on their family.

Lisa Turk’s analysis is germane to many women today. “I know some people think when you have one child that you are not very maternal or think you like your job better than you do your child, but I love everything about being a mother. Work is not more important to me, but it is part of my life, a big part of who I am. I know I would have to give up a lot professionally and economically if I had a second child.”

Since the mid-1960s young men have been less able to support families on their own.11 We’ve known for a long time that working mothers are also good mothers and that work does not put their children’s development or well-being in jeopardy. The difference now is that many mothers work as an economic necessity and/or to provide more for their children, especially better education. To working mothers, the juggling and the stress are worth it. “One doesn’t simply ‘have kids’ anymore, as a part of the natural course of life’s events,” Cheryl Merser aptly states in her 1987 book about thirty-year-olds, “Grown-Ups”: A Generation in Search of Adulthood.12

The number of married couples with children declined sharply between the seventies and the end of the nineties, from 45 percent to 26 percent. In fact, fewer people are marrying and they are marrying later; marriage among 35-44-year-old women increased 78 percent in the last decade.13 In real numbers, the marriage statistic is the lowest it’s been since 1958—8.3 out of every 1,000 Americans marry. In major cities like New York, the marriage rate fell 30 percent during the late nineties; Houston saw a drop of 23 percent between 1995 and 1999.14 This doesn’t mean that women are giving up their maternal rights for careers and personal adventures. Quite the contrary. “Very few women get to their late thirties,” Dr. Daniel Levinson, psychologist and authority on the stages of life, told a New York Times reporter, “without strongly wanting to have children.” 

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Copyright Susan Newman, Ph.D.  

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