to have one or more than one (child), that is the question

This has been on my mind a bit, as I’m feeling the need to either make peace with having an only child or think about when or how I could have more than one. It’s a never-ending list of pros and cons. I’ve been reading some books, such as “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One” by Lauren Sandler. This is mostly a book based on both quantitative and qualitative studies, a sort of peer review of literature as seen through admittedly subjective eyes. The author is attempting to back up her personal choice to have an only child with evidence that such a choice is not a selfish one, in other words, not detrimental to her child or society. It’s great fodder for thought, though, when you’re considering having an only child yourself.

The author of One and Only brings more than just personal desires into the picture though. She addresses the myriad of reasons people choose to have small or large broods, everything from politics, to religion, to environmentalism. She actually presents arguments for larger families alongside her argument for only children, and tries to reconcile them with her own choice.

I feel like in the end, my desire for a second child mirrors what Tina Fey puts into words in Bossypants, when she asks herself, “Do I want another baby? Or do I want to turn back time and have my daughter be a baby again?” That struck a chord in me, because wanting another baby, for me, has nothing to do with improving my life or the life of my daughter, and everything to do with my fear of “losing my baby”, a sort of anticipatory grieving that I would try to fix with a second baby. It is the fear of loss, the deep sadness of missing those baby days while thinking forward to my daughter’s teenage and young adult years.

It is also the fear of growing old and having one child who, in this dystopian future that I imagine, wants nothing to do with me. Again, Tina Fey sums it up perfectly: “What’s so great about work anyway? Work won’t visit you when you’re old. Work won’t drive you to get a mammogram and take you out afterward for soup. It’s too much pressure on my one kid to expect her to shoulder all those duties alone. Also, what if she turns on me? I am pretty hard to like. I need a backup.”

Working in the medical ICU, I watch people die, I watch them depend on their children for comfort, security, and life-or-death decision making. I think to myself, I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. You never know… your child may grow up to hate you, or move overseas, or just be uninterested in any type of caregiving. And what if, god forbid, something happens to her? I’m left childless, and 90 years old with no living relatives whatsoever. God knows no one’s third cousin or old college friend shows up to their death bed. At least none have in the case of hundreds upon hundreds of the deathbeds that I’ve attended.

But is that really how I want to choose a life for myself and my daughter? I wanted to be a mom, and I’m having that experience, and it’s wonderful. It’s also exhausting and financially straining, not to mention freedom-limiting. A second child would blow those inconveniences out of the water. Both children’s experiences would be limited, and my own own desires would be pretty much squelched completely for at least a period of years. I would be sacrificing not only the freedom (mine and my daughter’s) to do what makes us happy, but possibly the chance to be the best parent I can be. I think of the moments when I’m at my worst as a parent, and it’s always because I’m tired and overwhelmed with responsibility. Isn’t it worth any cost to avoid doubling or even tripling those times by adding another dependent human to the equation? Do the bonds of siblinghood and the reassurance of having split my hopes between two children outweigh the fact that I can’t be the type of mom I want to be if I take on anymore?

In the end, the “pro list” for having another comes down to this: I don’t want to be all alone when I’m old. I will someday long for a large family, won’t I, on holidays and special occasions? I have always loved large holiday gatherings, a sense of belonging simply by being a member of the family, a clan that accepts and wants your presence merely because you exist. My chances of being a grandma also significantly decrease if I have only one. I don’t want to be the one at a nursing home, my only child off living her own life, no grandchildren’s photos to hang on the wall, graduations to attend, family vacation photos to moon over. I worry about those dark, sad times that will exist in the future, but I’m not sure I should make huge life decisions based only upon worst-case scenarios.

If I’m going to do strictly what is in my daughter’s best interest, I do fervently believe that being an only child is a great advantage. Only children are even more successful and mature, birth order studies show, than oldest children. They show greater resilience and coping skills, less depression, higher reports of happiness in life. In general, the traits they tend to exhibit in most studies are the traits I’d like my child to have. They also tend to be closest to their own mothers, and more likely not to sacrifice their own ambitions or needs for someone else’s (or society’s). More only children choose to have only children themselves than any other group in the sibling order. I don’t look on back on my childhood and wish to have grown up with a sibling… in fact, I remember my happiest times when I did not have stepsiblings. I created close friendships in my early adulthood and “adopted” sisters, and went on to be an auntie in every way that it’s possible except by blood. And my mother? She says she is absolutely 100% glad she had only one child.

I think, in the end, not wanting to take any time, energy, or resources from my daughter will win out over fear of an unknown and not-yet-existing future. I think my daughter will be happiest as an only child, even if she sometimes longs for more family ties. As an adopted child, she is likely to long for that anyway. In fact, we all long for something, we all want something more, no matter what we have. We all agonize over whether or not the choices we make today will create a better or worse tomorrow. The important thing to ask ourselves, in my opinion, is what our goals are for this day, this moment, and strive for that.

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Categories: parenting

17 Comments »

    • My ideal family was always one daughter, just as I was growing up. But it’s those fears that I think create the desire, that and wondering if M would be better off with a sibling than without (I lean towards better off an only).

      • You started with what you want and then ended that reply with M again. Haha. It is very hard to not over think all of these things and constantly take their needs into consideration. What if’s don’t get us anywhere when it really needs to be a decision from our heart.

      • Well what I want is to do what’s best for M! Also, sometimes I want one thing and sometimes another. Or I really love the baby age so would like another baby for that reason, but want to raise an only child. For me, what I want in my heart is complicated and not simple at all. I have conflicting desires.

      • Also, from something you said in your post, cousins and other family do step in. My great aunt Jean never had any children and never married. She had polio and got her last cast off on her 16th birthday. She wasn’t actually my great aunt but my dad’s mom’s cousin. My aunt, her cousin’s daughter, ended up being next of kin and executer. People step up!

      • I’m glad that’s the case with your great-aunt, but at least in my 7 years of nursing practice, five of which has been in critical care, I find that the ones who sit by your bedside hour after hour, and do the real “heavy lifting” of caring for a family member, are members of your immediate family: spouses, parents or children, and then siblings and grandparents. The only exceptions to this rule are patients from foreign cultures (Middle Eastern, Hispanic, South Asian) and lower-income African American families.

  1. I could’ve written so much of this myself. In fact, I have a post half-written about this. I have landed on staying a one-child family. When I’m not in Pennsylvania I’ll send you a message and finish my blog post.

  2. I have 5 children, but I find myself identifying with a lot of what you write here. Some of my kids are out of the house and by the time Primo starts kindergarten he will in essence be an only child. I have wrestled with my desire to provide a sibling for him to grow up with and my need for some easier times ahead. Raising a 3 year old and teenagers is exhausting and adding a baby and all that comes with them would sink me I’m sure. He will most likely be raised as and feel like an only child with lots of auntie/mommy figures in his life. It’s the best I can do for him while maintaining the sanity of our home, so it will have to do.

    • But like I said in my post, it will more than “have to do” and a lot of people choose to have only children as their first choice for a family because of all of the benefits that your undivided (well, at least amongst siblings close to his age) attention will provide. And he will still have the opportunity in the future to be an Uncle and have those sibling ties!

  3. I have three… Two young teens and an almost four year old. She was wanted and longed for, damn secondary infertility, but she was also a bit of a shock – everything in our lives had moved on but my heart, and my heart wasn’t the part of me that was staying up all night or being limited in our choice of activities due to having an infant in tow. We adore her, but she is such a challenging child.

    I know it’s a totally different situation, but she’s essentially going to grow up an only child. The major drawback for us has been her non-stop need – I mean, of course, bc she’s a kid. But our oldest two are quite close in age, and we had no idea how much their closeness and ability to entertain each other took the pressure off of us. Our youngest doesn’t have s built in playmate, and that has made things very different.

    So I do feel like I’m depriving her – her older siblings do play with her, but it’s not quite the same, and they have to be asked. That being said – I don’t have it in me. She is very high needs, still, in a way I had not experienced with the older two, and there isn’t much left of me to share after meeting her needs. What you said about being your best you, her best mama, we for sure have decided that is ultimately in her best interest, to have a mom who can fully engage, vs a sibling to be there when I’m no longer able to do that.

    Of course, I say that knowing she still has two (much) older siblings.

    And I was the third of five kids, my husband was an only. We both pretty much think we each had a better childhood than the other one, lol. He has a hard time not seeing my siblings as strange friends I feel obligated to stay connected with – despite my being very close to my oldest and youngest siblings, one six years older, one nine years younger. It’s a strange dynamic, like we’re raising our older two like I was raised, and our littlest like he was raised, as an only.

    Sorry for the long comment!! Tl;Dr: Being a better mom trumped making sure my youngest had a close sibling.

    Also – I understand the need to make peace with your choice, but… anything could happen. Maybe it’s just peace with your right now you need, considering the hard day with M’s sister?

    • I love reading your long reply! Birth order and our different experiences fascinate me, I think because it is ultimately so defining. Or is it? Everyone claims their childhood was better either because they were an only or because they were a sibling (better than claiming it was worse, right?)

      I think the hard day got this train of thought off and running, but ultimately it made me realize where my priority is… and that’s on giving M every single opportunity and bit of my attention I can. I’m fairly confident I can’t do that with a sibling.

      • And knowing yourself and your needs and being willing to make choices based on that level of honesty with yourself, is seriously like half the battle! 🙂 I definitely had the “do you want another baby, or do you want this baby to be your baby again?” talk with myself.

        Another major change for me between my first two and my youngest was how painful it was for me for the older two to get older, to be growing up, and feeling like I was losing something so precious by them not being tiny anymore (my mom was baby obsessed… I’m sure that engrained thinking fueled my own desire for more babies) – and sure, I kind of was, but what I know now is that it’s not a loss, it’s a change. The growing and learning and changing is just as amazing, a lot more fun, and comes with a lot more sleep!! Plus the ability to use logic and reason, lol. So with my youngest, I’ve been able to relax and enjoy her growth and development so much more! Such a gift. It’s also been a gift to truly feel “done” after so many years of wishing for just one more!

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