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Why I’m Only Having One Kid
Here is a guaranteed conversation starter: Tell someone you’re an only child, born of an only child, who has decided to have an only child. Being an only child is somewhat unusual to begin with. Two generations is rare. But three in a row? It is the genealogical equivalent of a unicorn.
I know this because I am a unicorn. My mother is an only child. My father was raised as an only child. (Technically, he had two siblings, but they were older, lived in a different state, and were so estranged that I never met either of them; now both are dead.) As a result, I have no aunts or uncles. I have no cousins that I know of. I have no siblings.
After people have wrapped their heads around this, the next words out of their mouths are usually, “Why did you decide to just have one?” I don’t mind this question, but I’ve realized it carries with it two contradictory assumptions. The first is that there must be a reason. As a society, we have bought into the circular notion that since most people have siblings, it must be better to have siblings, leaving people like me to explain — and sometimes aggressively defend — the choice. A friend of mine once had a stranger approach her as she was shopping for zucchini in Trader Joe’s and tell her that if she didn’t have a second child, she would be ruining her daughter’s life.
On the flip side, our bias toward and familiarity with having siblings is so strong that some people assume only children can’t possibly be the result of rational choice. There must have been a fertility challenge or health problem or age issue or a disagreement or a divorce or a lack of cash.
Even if I had a functioning pancreas, a previous uncomplicated pregnancy, and years of fertility ahead of me, I would still choose to be one and done.
In reality, there are lots of possible reasons, some chosen, some not. For me, the decision to stop at one child has been less difficult than the decision about whether to have children at all — I was so terrified about what becoming a mother would do to me both emotionally and physically that I agonized over it for years.
Whereas becoming a mother required a giant leap of faith, the fact that I’m an only child made the prospect of having just one child less scary than it might otherwise be. But that’s not to say that it was uncomplicated. There’s an inevitable sadness that comes when you realize that, when you choose one door, you are permanently closing others.
In my case, it would be easy for me to claim that my decision was based on something out of my control. I have a chronic and incurable disease — type 1 diabetes — the management of which often feels like a full-time job. My pregnancy with my daughter was emotionally and physically difficult and ended with a dramatic, unexplained placental abruption necessitating an emergency C-section five-and-a-half weeks before her due date. I am also closing in on 40. The prospect of another pregnancy is unappealing, frightening, and increasingly unlikely.
But even though this would be enough to justify a decision to call it quits (if not make the decision for me outright), they’re not the reason I’m not having another. Even if I had a functioning pancreas, a previous uncomplicated pregnancy, and years of fertility ahead of me, I would still choose to be one and done. This essay is my attempt to explain why.
The fact that I am an only child who does not come off as terribly messed up has made me a case study for friends who are on the fence about whether to have a second child. (Most end up doing so; I try not to take it personally.) As a result, I’m well acquainted with the arguments for and against having just one kid — and I have considered them myself.
Putting aside the people who know that they affirmatively want multiple children, I’ve concluded that the ambivalence many of us feel about whether or not to have another child is driven primarily by fear: fear that being raised without siblings will mess up the kid, and fear of regret on the part of the parents. The decision is made harder by the fact that it’s irreversible; last I checked, the return policy on babies is pretty strict.
I do worry sometimes about my daughter having to take care of us when we’re older, and being left on her own when my husband and I are gone.
I’ve got a headstart on the first one, since I’m an only child myself. I’m happy to say that most of the cliches do not worry me. I’m not worried, for example, that my daughter will be lonely. One of the great things about being an only child — and there are lots of great things — is that you get used to spending time alone and flexing your imagination. You also learn how to develop relationships and friendships with people of all ages. As a kid, I had friends who were my age, but I also was comfortable with adults, and formed lasting relationships with elderly neighbors. Being able to interact across multiple generations is a skill that is only becoming more valuable as I age.
I’m not worried about our daughter being socially maladjusted. On the contrary, I believe that my own only child experience made me better able to adapt to different social situations. What’s more, not having to compete with siblings gave me sense of internal confidence and security that I think made me feel less of a need to compete or to put other people down.
I also don’t worry that she will be an entitled, spoiled brat. Sure, the fact that there’s just one of her means that we’re able to provide more opportunities than might have been possible if she’d had a sibling. But being privileged doesn’t mean being spoiled, and being a brat has much less to do with whether you have siblings than it does with how you were brought up. My strategy for not ending up with a child who’s an asocial jerk is quite simple: I’m teaching her not to be an asocial jerk. (Another bonus of only parent-dom: lots of time to read about child development and educational philosophy.)
I do worry sometimes about my daughter having to take care of us when we’re older, and being left on her own when my husband and I are gone. (Existential distress is one of my strong suits.) I also have noticed that my doubts about our decision rise and fall in tandem with my concerns over my own parents’ health. But for me, the most powerful source of anxiety is my own fear of future regret. It doesn’t matter that I have absolutely no desire to actually be raising a second child right now. I hate making decisions that I can’t back out of, and I hate closing doors. The decision to have — or not have — children requires both.
I’m sure there would be wonderful things about having a second child.
As a result, my FOMO — the fear of missing out — is strong. Do I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have another child? Yes. Do I fear that, as we and she get older, we might regret not having had another? Yes. Do I worry that my daughter might someday tell us that she wishes she’d had a brother or a sister? Yes. Do I think it would be nice if she had a sibling whom she was close with, who could be with her throughout her life, and help her when we’re gone? Yes, yes, and yes.
But these questions all rest on assumptions for which there are no assurances: that this imaginary second child would be healthy, that the siblings would get along, that we would be able to provide two children with the same attention and opportunities as we are able to for one. They’re based, in other words, on fantasies — and fantasies are not a smart basis for this consequential of a decision. What I know for sure is that having a second child would affect our current dynamic, and that it would be impossible to add to our family without threatening what we already have (which was one of the reasons I was so scared of having a kid to begin with).
Instead of being consumed by FOMO, I’m trying to pay more attention to JOMO — the joy of missing out. Doing so allows me to embrace my current reality, rather than be tortured by what-ifs.
Right now, I am happy. I have a healthy little girl who is joyous, confident, thoughtful, and kind. My husband and I have a loving relationship and the time and energy to nurture it. I have a stimulating and satisfying career, and I have been able to maintain my creative pursuits — all of which make it easier for me to be the partner, person, and mother that I want to be.
Parenting is the most important job I can imagine, and most of the time, I feel able to live up to my own standards — while still taking care of myself. A friend once described parenthood to me as less fun, more joy. As the mother of an only child, I feel like I’m experiencing both.
With that said, I also know that on most days, my sense of balance seems to be hanging by a thread. Just an hour less of sleep per night disrupts my ability to be productive (and pleasant!) during the day. Not being able to stick to my exercise routine makes me grumpy and messes up my blood sugar. I worry about money. I get stressed about logistics. I am always running at 99 percent of my capacity — which means that I’m never bored or under-stimulated, but also means that I’m constantly teetering on the brink of overwhelm.
I’m sure there would be wonderful things about having a second child, but I also fear, based on experience and self-awareness, that it would tip me over the edge from busy-but-fulfilled-and-happy to busy-but-always-exhausted-and-perpetually-stressed.
Would I survive? Of course. But if presented with the option of keeping the life I’ve created for myself or doing something that I know would threaten its balance and add to my stress levels, I’d prefer the former. And unlike many challenging situations in life that come unbidden — for example, Type 1 diabetes — this is a situation in which I actually do have a choice.