Photo by Sage Kirk on Unsplash

Conflicted about adding another child to your family? Deciding to have one child or several is monumental. It can cause all kinds of self-doubt, friction, worry and, frankly, stress. You and your partner may disagree on the number of children you want, making the decision all the more difficult.

In speaking to those with one child who are deciding whether to have a second, I regularly hear similar struggles and conflicts: “Is one child enough?” “Will I regret not having another child?” “Will my child be lonely?”

So many people have been brainwashed into believing that children need siblings. That an only child will be spoiled, selfish, difficult. Decades of research have debunked those myths, yet the stigmas hold fast.

In spite of persistent stereotypes, families have steadily gotten smaller. And, surprisingly, the desired number of children has also decreased. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic, from 1936 through the 1960s more than six in 10 adults thought that having three or more children was ideal. Today, “50% say one or two is best.” 

Why more families embrace fewer children

Leah Ruppanner, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne and a mother on the fence about having a second child, was the lead researcher in the study, “Harried and Unhealthy? Parenthood, Time Pressure, and Mental Health” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Her team looked at the data of 20,000 Australians collected over 16 years from that country’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics survey. Her team discovered that with the arrival of a second child a mother’s mental health declines and anxiety doubles. She points out, “The increased time pressure associated with second births explains mothers’ worse mental health” which is greater than that for fathers and is explained by the fact that mothers assume a greater proportion of caregiving even as children age. Dr. Ruppanner believes that women are “probably not going to have two children, they’re probably going to have one … or none.”

If you are having the one-child debate, consider this story out of China, once famously labeled a one-child nation: When China lifted its repressive one-child policy allowing parents to have a second child, the response was anything but what the government hoped for. It did not result in more babies to address the country’s economic concerns and aging population. How did this end up happening?

One analysis put it this way: “A 2016 survey of 10,000 respondents across 10 provinces in China found that more than half of couples with one child did not want another. In wealthy areas, this ratio rose to over 60 percent.”

Limiting family size is the trend in countries like Australia, Norway, France and England. One recent account noted: “Within the decade, half of British families are expected to have only one child, while another study found that 70 percent of Canadian kids under 14 didn’t have siblings. Birth rates have plummeted in low-birth states such as Japan and high-birth ones such as India alike.”

The Pew Research Center makes it clear that U.S. fertility rates have dropped in every age group with the exception of women over age 40.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story

The reasons for having fewer children are strikingly similar in the U.S. and most developed countries. Women are prioritizing education and establishing their careers. Hence, they are choosing to delay starting families, something that often limits family size.

The high costs of childcare and raising a child also factor into the decision. Unlike liberal parental leave policies in Sweden, for example, the United States has minimal policies in place making the struggle of managing work life and home life more difficult for parents.

When The New York Times asked almost 2,000 young men and women why they were having fewer children than their ideal, their top reasons were akin to what women are saying in other countries: 64% said childcare was too expensive; 54% wanted more time with the children they had; 49% were worried about the economy.

Why one child could be your ideal number

Most people do a reality check before adding another child to their family. The era of getting married and have the requisite two children is long gone. Family has new definitions that include single parents, gay and lesbian parents, and, of course, one child. Many other dynamics point to more one-child families: The decline in marriage, the increase in the number of single women having babies, women in the workforce, the difficulties and expense of adoption and, if needed, infertility treatments. 

When you factor in student debt, delaying marriage (or not marrying) and combine those factors with The Motherhood Penalty in real dollars and job security, it becomes quite understandable why one could be your magic number.

We have been brainwashed into believing that siblings are socially or intellectually advantageous — or both. Necessary. Yet, as a means of insuring positive development and happiness, siblings are not mandatory. What should be mandatory is being a happy parent. Happy parents tend to be more engaged parents with happy kids…and some research indicates that mothers of one are happiest.

If you’re still on the fence, consider reading The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide