“Are you still single?” “Do you think you’ll get married?” “Do you want a family?” “Now that you have a boy, are you trying for a girl?”
These are the default conversation-starters for prying aunties and nosy bystanders everywhere. We’d never ask someone how much they weigh or how much they make, but for some reason family choices are juicy and ripe for discussion. Maybe they’re softer, easier questions that play to our emotions instead of our physicality or monetary worth. I’m not sure why a bank account is off limits but ovaries aren’t, but there you go. Maybe because not all women have money but all women have a uterus? Who knows.
What I do know is that I never got so many “well-meaning” questions as I did when wondering whether to have a second child. As my son got older and older, I felt somehow conspicuous, like without a pregnant stomach, I was making some kind of declaration: “Just one for us, thanks! All done!” People (often older people) would ask me in a vaguely condescending way, “Oh, you just have the one?” Like everyone else was having a pool party with an enormous brood while my son and I sat alone in a darkened room knitting and weeping. It made me feel pitied and maybe a tiny bit defensive, a common sentiment among parents of only children who feel like they somehow didn’t get the proper family-life memo.
I hate to admit it, but when I got pregnant (relatively easily) with our second son when our first was 5, I was relieved, like I could join the two-child club at last and avoid years of questioning stares. Most of my friends have two kids. Most people I know told me (solicited or not) how important siblings were. There’s been so much written about only children: Are they lonely and selfish? Smarter and more successful? Completely normal, well-adjusted people? In possession of happier, more emotionally attuned parents? The analysis of single-child families has spurred all sorts of attention, from defensive screeds about why one child is best to apologetic pleas from parents who have one, only one, and would love another but just can’t, due to money, secondary infertility, you name it.
It’s exhausting. Why do we need to validate ourselves so much? I’m not immune: I spent plenty of time obsessing over whether having another child was right for us, what outsiders would think if we had one child (I just now had to restrain myself from typing “only one,” since this is how reflexively apologetic the one-child mindset can be), and whether I’d regret it forever if I refilled my birth-control prescription indefinitely.
About that regret: I understand the feeling firsthand. I was an only child until I was 8 and remember how lonely it was. And while we were debating having another, my mom was dealing with health issues, and I know how helpful it was to have my brother just down the street. I didn’t want to be a burden someday and leave my only son with too much responsibility. I wanted him to have a built-in friend and helper. Ultimately, it was that simple.
Jewish tradition, like many, teaches that children are a blessing. And it’s natural to want to have as many blessings as possible. Larger families provide a sense of camaraderie, support and legacy (day care and college tuition bills be damned).
But having more than one child is also hard. I know! My son was an only child for almost six years. We’d gotten into a groove. We slept well. We had a routine. He was self-sufficient. Oh, happy day, we didn’t have to pay for diapers anymore! When deciding to have another, we wondered if we really wanted to rock the boat. And I talked to a lot of people about the pros and cons. Why do people have one child and stop? To spare you from asking this prying question of strangers on the playground, here are the answers I found:
News flash: Kids cost money. Lots of it. For starters, day care here in Massachusetts is the second-costliest in the country. And let me tell you, there’s nothing more liberating than sending your child to school and seeing those bills disappear. And there’s nothing more depressing than seeing those bills start up again when you have another. Many families felt torn between choosing career or kids, and the cost of child care for more than one kid would outweigh their income. It’s an impossible decision. So why make it?
Life with one child is just plain simpler. One schedule to contend with. One soccer team, T-ball team, dance recital, you name it. Parents of only children get to enjoy some degree of freedom and more time to pursue their own careers, hobbies, lives and Netflix agendas.
Several parents I talked to had a child with disabilities: behavioral, physical, what have you. Maybe they just had high-strung or demanding personalities that made the notion of adding another simply too much. One child absorbed all of their attention, and rightly so.
This is huge. We treat pregnancy like such a rite of passage. But it’s tough and scary! Many people have difficult pregnancies. Pre-eclampsia. Placenta previa. Bed rest. Traumatic births. On and on. For some women, getting pregnant again simply isn’t an option, or it isn’t worth the enormous risk. For so many of us, how many children to have simply isn’t something that we can engineer.
Just because a woman had one child doesn’t mean she can have another.
In all of these scenarios, having one child somehow seems selfish. You save money! You save your health! You save your time! You save your sanity! You’re not going to put yourself through ongoing years of misery and bills experimenting with endless fertility treatments! How could you not? And, as any parent knows, sacrifice is the holy grail of modern parenthood. The more you martyr yourself, the more honorable you are! Right?
No. There are no right choices when it comes to family size. But there is a wrong choice: Asking somebody why they have “just the one.” It makes us feel like we’re eating a cold, rubbery omelet alone at a shabby diner and begging for someone to join us. It’s condescending and pitying. If you’re unsure of what to say to someone who has one child but feel the need to editorialize, just tell ’em how lucky they are.