Having it All by Raising Only One?

Here’s what we don’t talk about when we talk about having it all: mothering less. Not willful child negligence, but simply having one kid, and no more.

I’ve watched most of my friends tread into the tunnel of second children, few of them to emerge as how I remember their former engaged selves. They tell me there’s hardly the time to even consider maintaining a self.  “You don’t have any idea how hard it is—it’s more than twice as hard,” many of them say repeatedly, impatient and dazed. It’s true. Our family life, busy with plentiful travel, the delights of urban living, late night rock shows and dinner parties, and the frequent freedom to binge on a novel over a weekend, allows as much freedom and pleasure as parenting without a trust fund could possibly offer. There’s a reason that in a study of 35,000 Danes, parents of only children were found to be happier than anyone else.  We have the rich pleasures of parenting, time for work, and also some measure of freedom for ourselves. Researchers across disciplines and cross the world say there’s nothing but support for singletons as the way to balance the profound joys of parenting with the constant clamor of the rest of our lives.

It seems the more of a parent you are, the less you are of anything else. Women devote about 13 hours a week to childcare, up from about 10.5 half hours nearly a half century ago—when they didn’t work outside the home. Each child adds no less than 120 hours of housework a year. Meanwhile, over the past century, adulthood has come to promise more than just duty, but pleasure.  We envision a liberated existence, one of satisfaction and fulfillment, a life built upon intentionality and individualism rather than obligation and role filling. This liberated adulthood exists at odds with parenting.

It doesn’t take forced population control to raise the number of a country’s only children—the relative incompatibility of parenthood and modernity has taken care of that.  We search for a partner who will satisfy our desires, develop a career that reflects our strengths, build a life that suits not just our needs, but our wants.  Meanwhile, our bodies get older, our fertility more fragile.  We make our sequential choices and often these days, they add up to one. The US has more only children than ever before, now over one in five, which is double the number since my mother made the choice to stop at one in the mid-seventies.  Last month’s UK Census estimate that an astonishing half of British families have just one child; the same count put Irish single-child families at one third. A global study found that the lower the overall fertility of a country, the happier its parents are.

Could it be that those of us who are keeping or families small have cracked the impossible code?  Dare I say that we might have it all?  I must amend that—in the US, I’d suggest that we come as close as we can get.  What it would truly take to reconcile parenting, professionalism, and pleasure is something even more elusive in this country: policy.  When it comes to paid parental leave and child care, the US offers the weakest support for parents of almost any country on earth.  We’re on par with Swaziland.  To paraphrase parenting and happiness researcher Robin Simon, we are the country that offers the least systemic support and simultaneously demands we love parenting the most.

Without structural change, what’s a girl to do?  For me, the answer is to mother fewer children, so I can better love my one kid, and myself.  Though in truth, even if Shulamith Firestone were drafting our nation’s family policy. My daughter would still wake me before dawn, and have the periodic tantrum before school.  I’d still miss her when I’m not with her, and occasionally long for freedom from her when I am. I’d still pay a price to parent.  And I’d be happy to.  Just as I am now. I respect myself as a mother for straining at times against the myriad limitations of a parent’s life, and I think my daughter does too.  Because through me, she’s learning what it means to be a mother and a worker, but also a wife, and a friend, and deep lover of engagement with the larger world.  To me, that’s having it all.

Comments for:
"Having it All by Raising Only One?"
  1. Thank you. You have articulated many of the things myself and other women I know with one child have not been able to put into words. I have never preordered a book until now!

    • Julie Cable Powell

      Thank you so much for writing this. As the youngest of five, I somehow have always gravitated to only children: friends, lovers, husband. When I had my only son in my mid-thirties, I couldn’t have been happier and not being able to have another didn’t even bother me. My son was eccentric, creative, brilliant and had a close circle of friends. However, there is one caveat to having an only child. If, like me, you are faced with their death,(he was 17 and full of potential), you will be left alone. It sounds selfish and Darwin-focused to plan for such a thing but I’m here to say that losing my only child has made the loss that any bereaved parent feels, so much more difficult to cope with because you’ve lost your role as a parent at the same time. I still think that only children are as happy–and often very mature–as non-onlies. After all, a person can be screwed up in any dysfunctional setting!

  2. Jennifer Tepper

    Thank you! Thank you! Maybe now my mom will stop harassing me!!!

  3. Margaret Vigneulle

    I am an only child of a mother who was the youngest of seven and a father, an only child. My parents died in a car accident when I was in my early thirties. Not only did I have to face the reality that I lost both at the same time but although there were distant familiy members, I felt at that time and even thirty years later, I am all alone. Since I do not live where I grew up, I also do not feel I know where “home” is as no one is there.
    Obviously my home was where I made it for my family but not the home of roots.
    I have two children who were brought up to be independent. Their independence means they do not call very often but they don’t ask for money or a car either. Each have extended family connections via their spouses so they experience the family dynamics of multiple children. One child doesn’t want any children and the other has one.
    Being an only child has great advantages and some disadvantages but it is simply life without a choice.

  4. Thank you very much for tackling this subject, Lauren. Your words have been extremely helpful to this mother of an only child.

  5. Edna Russell

    I heard your interview on NPR today, and you stated that the worst PC action was to have only one child. I listened to CSPAN earlier in the morning, and heard a man criticizing people who had “5 to 10 children.” I can’t imagine a total stranger asking you if you would have children, and that you responded to the inquiry.

    That’s one thing you learn from a sibling: give up no information.

    Another thing about having a sibling is that, since memories change over time, you can compare notes, and arrive at a consensus regarding your past. She agrees that she tried to kill me for the first few years of my life. I agree that she scared the crap out of me when she walked in her sleep. She shared trips back home when Dad was sick and in chemo so that neither of us would lose our jobs. She plants flowers for Mom now, trims the bushes, plants trees, I work on her old MG, setup a pump in the basement,

  6. kjb

    I am intrigued by your book. I have a 3 year old daughter and my boyfriend (not her dad) and I are considering not having any more. He loves my daughter as if she were his own and she loves him back. Because she stays with her dad every other weekend, I get a taste of freedom that I truly enjoy and would not otherwise have if we decided to have another child. This may seem selfish to some, but my partner and I have demanding careers and long commutes so getting a weekend free of parental duties makes us better parents when she is around.
    I can’t wait to read your book!

    • maggie

      Why would you feel selfish? Don’t listen to others or make excuses. Simply follow your heart. Parenting is a hard job. I say, parent one the best you can, with the most love, and you’ll do great! Speaking as a very fulfilled 53 year old only child with an only child son of 24 who is also a very happy, well adjusted adult who had a very happy childhood. We both have been asked, don’t you ever miss not having siblings? the answer is always no, because we never knew any different, and the family we have is just perfect, thank you very much! end of story.

  7. Gigi

    I am an only child and now an adult. My mother was 41 when I was born and father was 45. My father retired when I was 5 years old. I was blessed that my parents guided me well through life as they were experienced in life and established.

    Being an only child gave me strength. It taught me that lonliness can happen and how to overcome it. It also gave me deep compassion/empathy for others. It taught me to be self reliant,entertain myself when no one was around and prepared me with strength for things I would experience as an adult. Over the years I’ve heard negative remarks about being an only child.

    From my experience there’s pro and cons in everything out there. Human beings compare everything, black or white, gay or straight, left or right. The beauty of this world is that we have been blessed with so many different type of situations, people etc. Just let it be and it can as it is.

  8. Liz

    Great piece. Your position is positive and sharp, and your emphasis on policy is key. Reading this made me feel proud of – and happy for – my family, too. Congratulations on your book!

  9. Ramona

    I think it all comes down to what you value in life. I valued my role as a mother and my opportunity to shape and mold the lives of my daughters so that they would hopefully go out and make some positive difference in the world. I was in my early thirties when I gave birth to them and so I had had my college years and most of my twenties as an independent woman who basically did whatever I wanted. Once I had children, I never thought that I should be able to live that same way. Yes, they took a lot of time and attention, but I relished that period of time because I knew it was temporary. Now, facing an empty nest, I am phasing back into the independence and freedom that I knew before they were born. But I would never give up the intense parenting years that I had with them. It has made my life so much richer and shaped me into a better person. I can look at my daughters and be proud of who they are and the investment I made in their lives. Did I always have time to pursue my own interests and desires? No, but I really can’t say that I missed out on that much–and now in this new season of my life, I have all the time in the world.

  10. Cheryl Mathieson

    I am 46 years old and an only child. My mum was a single mum until she met my step dad when I was 10. He died some 8 years ago so once again we find ourselves as we were,except I have a husband and 17 year old twins! No choice in the having one or more debate for us, a fait accomplis! I was never unhappy as a child as I had a loving extended family and my mum and I are very close and always have been,we live only a few miles apart. However as I get older I do find myself wishing I had a sibling or two. It’s about having a shared history,someone to discuss family matters with. My mum has a brother and a sister and although living long distances from each other have a close friendship/ relationship. Don’t get bogged down with research and studies ,cost of parenting etc. my own children would at times gladly be only children, but I know they will always have each other if not now in the future. They are the centre of my very busy world and we are all going on a trip of a lifetime for their 18th birthday,things don’t come to a standstill because you’ve got more than one child believe me…..

  11. Tonya


    I am an Only and my husband is an only and we have only one. I loved growing being an only. I got to do lots of things that other kids with multiples didn’t get to do. Not to mention I had to learn to do everything at home and I learned to be self sufficient.

    Thanks for the great article!!

  12. Troy

    As a Male only child I cannot wait to get your book.

  13. Simone

    Hi there,

    I just listened to your interview with Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY. So glad you were on her show! I am the mother of 3 year old daughter, and my husband and I have decided that one is the best choice for us. I am constantly debating the decision in my mind and I am frankly getting tired of giving myself a hard time. I love having one child, as does my husband. We see it the best of both worlds, in addition to the fact that I had some postpartum depression/anxiety that was extremely trying for us, and I am in my late thirties etc. I feel I can be the best mom, wife, person if we have just her. Although there is no way I would do it again, I keep seeing most of the other mothers I know having more and I feel like they are more “motherly” than me. My rational brain knows I am a great mom and simply having more children (and less sleep) doesn’t make you a better, or more dedicated, parent. Thanks for writing this and reminding me that life is complicated with or without siblings. What is important is how I parent, not how many people I parent.

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