Introduction: Filling Your Nest, but How Full?
“Parenting shouldn’t be distilled into a binary of joy or misery any more than we should discuss the merits of “children” versus “childlessness” without considering the place in between: having just one kid.”
–Lauren Sandler, thirty-five, the mother of a two-year-old
When you thought about becoming a parent, you may have been very clear and emphatic about how many children you wanted. Perhaps you decided you didn’t want any children and now wonder if you might want one. On the other hand, you might have been positive you wanted two children; there was no shaking your confidence, that is, until you experienced parenting one child. Suddenly, the decision may not seem so obvious or absolute.
Maybe you decided one was just right for you, but everyone from your parents to perfect strangers has an opinion they gladly offer whether or not you ask. A whole range of “what ifs” take over, your conviction weakens, and you are no longer 100 percent sure of what you want. You may fear you won’t feel like a family with only one child, or you may fall prey to the lingering negative preconceptions associated with the only child. You speculate that your child could end up being lonely or bossy or worse. Too often you hear, “He needs a brother or sister.” Really? You become unsure.
Most everyone agrees that a second child dramatically changes your life and the life of your firstborn forever. As big a decision as having or adopting another child is, deciding not to is a commitment you may not be ready to make. You look in your garage or storage area and ask yourself: Do I hold on to the crib, the high chair, and the rest of the all pink (or blue) baby paraphernalia? Or, do I tag them with prices and put them on the front lawn? Selling seems logical, but you may find it reassuring to allow the memorabilia of babyhood to clutter the basement for another year or so while you make up your mind.
How do you decide whether to add to your family when social pressure and pessimistic attitudes about singletons sway you toward a second child? What’s wrong with having just one? Is one enough for you? For your partner? What constitutes a complete, happy family?
–Patricia, a dentist, the mother of a three-year-old child, isn’t sure. She contacted me to talk about whether or not she really wants a second child. She is not an isolated case of a parent second-guessing herself.
–The husband of an almost-forty-year-old wife wants to give their five-year-old a sibling. Originally adamantly against the idea, his wife has agreed to see a fertility specialist, but isn’t sure she can cope with another child.
–A friend, age thirty-four, has been teetering on the second-baby fence and feels pressure from her family to have another. She hesitates, knowing her career will be in jeopardy if she takes another maternity leave.
–At the time a couple adopted their first child, miraculously, they were offered a second. They weren’t sure they could comfortably afford two children or give them the attention they felt they would need.
These examples illustrate the conundrums people face regarding family size. They ask themselves, Is having one child better than having two or more? Will I live to regret having only one child? Will my child suffer needlessly as an only child? Who will my child turn to when we, as parents, pass on? These pages will help you better understand the realities of the single child and the single-child family. Much has changed since your parents had you.
When it comes to the complex calculus of mapping your family’s future, one thing is certain: whether you are thinking about having one child, have one child and are sure that’s all you want, or are deciding to have a second child, size matters. It matters in how you view yourself and in how others view you. It makes a difference in how you function, how you manage your life, your career, your family, and other personal relationships.
How you feel about the number of children you have or don’t have matters more than the actual number. You could feel like Maureen who says, “Our marriage is perfect. We have one perfect son. Why would I want another child?” Or you could be in Phoebe’s camp. She worries her daughter, age six, will miss the special bond Phoebe shares with her own sister.
Parents who consider stopping with one child are likely to find themselves on the defensive because many people still believe that children without siblings are at a disadvantage and are more likely to be selfish and spoiled. However, an established and growing body of evidence indicates that people who make these claims are misinformed. Most people, when asked, answer they want two children—usually, a boy for him, a girl for her. Or they say, “I wanted one of each.” Despite what people say, the U.S. Census reports the single-child family is growing at a faster rate than families with two children.” This well-kept secret isn’t new. Between 1976 and 1998 there was a jump in the only-child population from 9.6 percent to more than 17 percent. During those same years, the percentage of families with three or more children shrank by 21 percent. The rise in one-child families continues.
With so many people having just one child, it is important to understand the facts and dismiss the myths. The roots of familysize preference and opinions about only children run deep and opinions are hard to change. It is this thinking, coupled with the new definitions of family and the economics of raising children, that makes it so incredibly difficult for parents to stop at one or make the jump from one to two children.
To complicate matters, emotions run high when men and women enter the family-size terrain. As you read about how others made their decisions, you’ll realize that you, too, must move beyond logic and factor in several issues. These include your feelings about your own childhood, how you related to your siblings, what friends are doing (and saying), the media portrayal of family, your career or job, your dreams, and heading the list: the annoying and inaccurate stereotypes that stigmatize the only child.
You may find yourself surrounded by well-meaning but intrusive people (if you haven’t already), all of whom have an idea of what’s right for you and are eager to tell you. Unsolicited and unwanted opinions frequently flow from grandparents, friends, coworkers, even strangers in store checkout aisles. Gloria, herself an only child and the mother of one, receives comments all the time and finds them disconcerting: “It was my decision; I wish people would stop questioning me. They really don’t know why I have one child or what might be going on in my life that’s out of my control.”
Family configurations are many, and decision-making influences are everywhere—from your mother to the pregnant woman you pass in the hall when dropping your child off at pre-K. What (and how) you decide is subject to scrutiny and comes with megadoses of pressure that increase self-doubt. This is a decision you want to get “right” so you don’t feel negative and guilty. Men and women worldwide have come to realize that having one child is desirable from a wide range of viewpoints and practicalities. Today only-child families are a given and rapidly becoming the New Traditional Family.
The Tough Questions
The Case for the Only Child is designed to unravel your questions and clarify the concerns you may have about formulating a “yes” or “no” decision to have one child. You will learn not only what it is like to raise an only child, but also what it is like to be one.
Eliminating your confusion involves finding answers to these questions:
• How will more children affect my life, marriage, or partnership?
• What impact will a second child have on my job? Will I need or want to stay home?
• Do I have the support system, money, and other resources I will need?
• How much is my cultural or religious upbringing influencing me?
• Does my child need a sibling?
• Will my only child fare well in the world or be at a disadvantage?
• Do I want another child for the benefit of my firstborn or so someone will care for me in my dotage?
• What do I want versus what family, friends, and society tell me I should do?
Your answers will vary depending on your partner (or lack of one), pressure from family, job and career plans, finances, and much more. Responses to the first few questions will help you answer the last, most crucial one. Isn’t the solution to the last question the crux of the matter? What others have gone through before you to make the same decision will aid you in sorting out the complications. Their thinking will clarify yours. Many of them were unsure initially just like you, but decided one child was the answer. You will find out why they celebrate and treasure their family.
You will be a more content and effective parent if you are confident and happy with your decision. Take your time so that the choice you make is well thought out and reflects your feelings, meets your needs, and allows you to fulfill the dreams you have for your future and the future of your family. If it all seems complicated and overwhelming right now, it won’t be after you consider “the place in between—children and childlessness—having just one child.”