Literally, from the day my son was born (one of my nurses had four kids and was very chatty), people started asking if and when I wanted more children. First of all, why do strangers care what size family I want? It’s not as if we are an aging society, destined to die out within a generation or two if we do not increase our fertility rate. [Although the U.S.’s national fertility rate is at record lows, ~2.1 births per American woman, it is still well above that of most European and many Asian countries.]
Second of all, why shouldn’t I quit while I’m ahead? I feel like I won the kid lottery with my son – he is sweet, smart, curious, sociable, fun, and has been an easy baby from the start. I love him more than I could have imagined, and I am sure he alone could keep me busy and entertained for the rest of my life. Besides, my husband and I figure we’ve used up all our baby karma with our son, so a second kid is bound to be more work. [Who ever heard of a family with two angel babies? There’s always one that was colicky, in and out of the hospital, and/or didn’t sleep / nurse / like his carseat / etc.] Our quality of life is fantastic with the 2-to-1 parent-to-child ratio; my husband and I trade off responsibilities so that no one gets burned out. Our son is a good sport about being dragged out to dinner, doctor’s appointments, international vacations, baseball games, grocery shopping, baby showers, road trips, concerts, and most other errands and activities, which allows our family to be together most of the time without compromising what we want/need to do. A second child would almost certainly make our family less cohesive and mobile.
Righteous indignation and logic aside, however, it never occurred to me to have only one child. Both my husband and I have siblings, and we couldn’t imagine our lives without them. It was only after I heard my cousin Chris’ Smart People Podcast interview with Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, that I first seriously considered stopping at one. In her interview last June, Ms. Sandler began by articulating and knocking down pervasive only child myths. The stereotype is that only children are lonely, spoiled misfits with selfish parents (because they waited too long to start their family, don’t want to further compromise their lifestyle or careers for additional children, etc.). In fact, however, the sole differences between children raised without siblings and their counterparts from larger families are that only children tend to be more intelligent, more accomplished, and have higher self-esteem. This does make some logical sense. In a time of diminishing resources, families with just one child are able to devote more time, money, energy, and attention to that child, who is often more secure, mature, and successful as a result.
Ms. Sandler also challenges the two main reasons parents have a second child. First, while well-meaning parents want to give their first-born a playmate, Ms. Sandler points out that many siblings have contentious relationships, in part due to the inherent competition within a family. By contrast, equally- or more-rewarding bonds can be formed with friends. She even suggests that only children have better relationships with themselves, a lifelong shelter from loneliness, that comes from a strong self-image and time spent on their own. The second, and even more prevalent reason for having more than one child is the parents’ desire to disperse the burden on caring for them in old age. This is clearly a legitimate concern, but Ms. Sandler cites research showing that one child usually bears the predominant burden of caregiving, regardless of the number of siblings.
There’s definitely something to be said for not spreading the family too thin. My husband and I love to travel, but going abroad with a baby is tough, and I cannot even imagine dealing with two kids on an international flight or in a foreign marketplace (much less, what happens when the kids outnumber the parents!). And while, to date, my son has flown for free, paying for two or more extra plane tickets would likely make such trips a financial impossibility. There’s also the perspective thoughtfully articulated by Shawn Taylor, that the world is an increasingly scary place, so bringing one child into it and striving to provide for and protect him or her is enough of an endeavor in itself.
As I said, I have never engaged in this (mostly internal) debate, since I always assumed I would have more than one child. In my universe of close friends and relatives, I do not know of any who are single children. There is clearly something unique about being an only child. There’s even an entire magazine “devoted to the world of only children of all ages,” as if the rest of us simply can’t understand what it’s like to be or have an only child. In fact, however, singletons are becoming more common, representing one in five American kids today, up from one in ten just fifty years ago.
So my son will likely grow up with lots of only-child friends. But, whether because I subconsciously have bought into the stereotypes and misconceptions about only children or because I truly love having and raising kids, it is highly unlikely that my son will be my one and only. Not because I think he’s lonely (he has his dad to play with and makes friends everywhere he goes) or will be mal-adjusted without a sibling (he can learn social skills from his peers) or won’t sufficiently care for my husband and me in our later years (hopefully, we will have planned well so will not have to be a burden on anyone). I will have another child for me, because my baby is growing up far too fast and the only way I can celebrate his journey is to console myself with the promise that I’ll get another chance to nurse a tiny newborn, watch a wiggle worm learn to crawl, and get to know a new human being whose life will be forever intertwined with mine. So the stereotypes are definitely wrong – it’s the parents of multiple children who are the selfish ones!