Photo by Jon Pinder: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rofanator/
Despite the growing number of single-child families in the western world, my husband and I stand out among our friends and acquaintances for having just one child. For us, it is a choice, and yet we still find ourselves flinching at flip phrases like “one and done”, which seem both to overstate the strength of our conviction and to underestimate the complexity and emotional weight of our decision; probably the hardest decision we’ve yet had to make.
However many children you have, there are always trade-offs. People who choose not to have any – an increasingly vocal group – sometimes resist the suggestion that they’re missing out on something, but of course they are. Having a child is a deeply profound experience that can’t be accessed any other way. Parenthood is life-altering in a way that is literally impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. Our son, now seven years old, has brought more joy into our lives than we could ever describe, and made us better, kinder, wiser people too. But I don’t have any trouble understanding the choice not to have children (as a friend of mine once said: “no-one can make a better argument for not having kids than someone with kids”). For sure, non-parents are missing out on something, but so are the rest of us. Children suck up huge amounts of our time and energy, and not just while they’re babies but for years and years, sometimes for the rest of our lives. As parents, we give up all kinds of valuable and meaningful opportunities – for work and career, travel, leisure, learning, relationships – by channeling so many of our resources into our children. There’s always sacrifice.
My husband and I have absolutely no regrets about having our son and no resentment for the sacrifices we’ve made and continue to make in order to raise him the best way we know how. But there’s no tension between those sentiments and the admission that we may not want to make a whole lot more sacrifices for the sake of being parents again, or that we have found being parents seriously tough at times, especially during the first few years. I look at the photos and home movies now and all I can think is how ridiculously cute our boy was as a baby and toddler, and how crazy quickly everything passed, and it makes me want to go back and slow it all down so I can savor every funny little stage (the staggering, the babbling, the utterly single-minded obsession with Eric Carle’s ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’) more than I did at the time. But if I step back and review my memories honestly, I see all the hard parts too: the relentlessness, the physical demands, the loss of control over my time and movements, the maddening frustrations of dealing with a pre-rational being, the sometimes barely bearable boredom. The tight knot at the cleft of my ribs when, at the end of a full day’s hunger strike, he callously rejected my desperate attempts to get him to eat just one chocolate raisin. The performance anxiety. The constant guilt. All those hours spent at Chuck E motherfucking Cheese. We have simply never reached the point of being ready to commit to going through that again. In the early years it seemed unthinkable that we might have a baby and a toddler together, especially as we’ve never had family close by, and now we’ve left it seven years, and our son is almost civilized at times, and the idea of going back to the start seems just as wild.
Some of our concerns are longer-term and largely related to money. My husband earns well but works in a changing industry where re-structuring is not uncommon and the future is somewhat uncertain. I’ve taken my foot off the career pedal to be around for my son. We live in a city (Atlanta) with a relatively low cost of living but would likely have to move somewhere much more expensive, like London or New York, if my husband lost his job or wanted to change employers. With one child, we could live comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment and probably retain a similar quality of life. It keeps us a bit nimble, and keeps my husband in a relatively strong bargaining position at work.
Then there’s the question of retirement. I sometimes wonder if we’re uniquely paranoid or pessimistic, as it doesn’t seem to have stopped any of our friends from expanding their families, but it’s a significant worry for us. With the world’s population ageing and medical technology advancing all the time, there’s a pressing question about how people are going to be supported in their old age. It already seems certain that government will be able to pay out less and people will have to work longer. Put simply: a second child would imply a radical reduction in our retirement savings. He or she would also, obviously, take half of our assets when we died, meaning our son would get half as much as he currently stands to inherit. We’d like to be able to offer him the same sort of safety net our parents will likely be able to provide for us but, given the shifting economic picture, it’s hard for us to be confident about our capacity to do that for one child, let alone two.
It’s also pertinent to note that the last thing our planet needs is another western consumer. Now, I don’t stand in moral judgement of others for their decisions about family size – being all too aware of the tangle of factors involved, I don’t presume an understanding sufficient to evaluate anyone else’s choice. But, in our personal deliberations, environmental sustainability (which, in case you’re not aware, is about people, not just trees) has been a consideration; a check, if not the biggest one, in the ‘con’ column.
And there are also fears. Knowing how tough we’ve found it raising one healthy child, the prospect of having one with health problems or a disability, or having twins – or more! – or even just having a really physical, active child like some we’ve met feels genuinely daunting. Every pregnancy is a gamble. People have said it’s a gamble we’d be willing to take if we really wanted another child, and perhaps there’s some truth in that, but, again, it’s just too simple. What does “really wanting one” mean? A blind urge that automatically overrides every other concern? I’m just not sure my husband and I ever make decisions that way. As you’ve probably deduced by now, we’re not exactly close-your-eyes-and-jumpers.
And we have fears about not having another one, too. While the notion of a ‘spare’ child as insurance for the loss of the first is clearly much less apposite than it once was, I don’t discard it altogether. Losing my son and at the same time ceasing to be a mother, losing that now central part of my identity, would be uniquely devastating. My husband feels the same way: in one of our many conversations about The Number Two Question, he confessed that, were our son to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, he would probably feel a strong instinct to get me pregnant again. So, by sticking with one, we are gambling too. And, while our son is thankfully pretty unlikely to die before us, one of us being left to live widowed for a good number of years with a relatively small family, and therefore perhaps at a greater risk of loneliness, comes with much shorter odds.
There may also, of course, be a cost to denying our son a sibling. We both have good relationships with our sisters and as a result are acutely aware of what makes siblings different from friends: the shared history and family, and the special, unconditional nature of that bond. But of course there are also many people who are not close with their siblings and have negative memories of them, involving conflict, competition, pressure, jealousy, even bullying. You never know what you’re going to get. And, for our part, we quite enjoy not having to play referee, or split into two teams at the weekends, or worry about how we divide up our limited time and attention. I can tell my son as much as I like that he’s my favorite.
Despite their stubborn persistence in our culture, the old stereotypes of only children – that they’re spoiled, selfish, lonely and socially maladjusted – have been repeatedly and conclusively disproven. But raising an only does, I think, present certain (modest) challenges. We have found, for example, that we’ve had to work hard to teach our son to compromise and take his turn, and to convey the message that he’s not always the center of the universe; a message that otherwise could have been sent quite clearly by a sibling. Obviously, we also have to go outside the immediate family to give him social experiences with peers, and are perhaps especially attuned to the need to nurture his relationships with his cousins and friends. We may feel a stronger obligation than other parents to give thought to how we can best protect him from being overly burdened by us in our old age.
For some, the decision about family size is simple and straightforward: plenty of people know from the outset what they want and never waver. For others, like us, it’s harder, and for those who find they don’t have a choice because of biology, finance or other factors, there may be great heartache involved. But, whatever your experience, there’s always sacrifice. There’s always a potential child waiting in the wings, who you’ll always slightly yearn to meet. Our son won’t have a brother or sister. We won’t get to experience the particular pleasures of seeing our children grow up together, or the comfort of knowing that they’ll have each other after we’re gone. But our relationship with our one and only child – our uncontested favorite – will also be different than it would have been if we’d chosen to have another. The road we’re on we might not have taken, and so far it’s a beautiful road.