One And Only
About my new book, out June 11 from Simon and Schuster:
I’m an only child with an only child of my own. I’ve found that discussing the choice to stop at one kid is as loaded with anxiety, doubt, judgment, and misinformation as any conversation I’ve had. I got the anxiety, but the judgment seemed a little nuts. So I spent a couple of years investigating who only children really are, whether stopping at one kid is an answer to the question of how to reconcile motherhood and modernity, and what more of us might mean for the world. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about our assumptions.
By demystifying the perceived problem of the only child, I want to legitimize a conversation about the larger societal costs of having more than one. We ask when people are having kids—never a kid, never one child at a time, which is how it usually happens even when bigger families are the plan. If a kid has no siblings, it’s assumed that there’s a hush-hush reason for it: they don’t like being parents (because they are selfish), or they care more about their status—work, money, materialism—more than their kid (because they are selfish), or the parents waited too long (because they are selfish).
As desires and identities evolve, we continue to deify old myths instead of creating new ones. We delay childbirth in our classrooms and boardrooms, working and wishing, dating and dishing. Our bodies get older. Our lives get crazier. Our dreams expand instead of contract. By the time we’re ready to admit that we’re never ready, it’s tougher to conceive. And even if it’s not, it’s tough to conceive of doing it again. This is the story of most people in the developed world: we’re in a fertility panic. But there’s a different, if related, panic that governments and grandparents alike ignore. It’s the terror of raising an only child.
Lonely. Selfish. Maladjusted. These are the words that Toni Falbo, the leading researcher in the tiny field of only child studies, uses to explain our image of, and anxiety about, only children. I’ll unpack the myth at length, but here’s a teaser. On loneliness: as kids, we’re usually fine. As adolescents, we’re often disempowered and isolated. As adults, we face the logistical and existential nightmare of our parents’ aging and death alone. But the good news is we develop the strongest primary relationships with ourselves. On selfishness: as long as we go to school, we’re plenty socialized to play well with others. On maladjustment: we’re fine. In fact, we’re pretty fantastic.
And yet so many of us are beholden to social and cultural pressure, to the threat of stereotypes. If parents no longer felt they had to have second children to keep from royally screwing up their first, would the majority of them still do it? What if, for those who didn’t feel otherwise compelled to have more kids, they decided instead to opt for greater pleasure and autonomy, for other opportunities for personal advancement and self-fulfillment? If the literature tells us—in hundreds of studies, over decades of research—that my kid isn’t better off with a sibling, and it’s not something I can truly say I want for myself, then who is this choice serving?
When our internal desires clash dramatically with accepted wisdom, it’s incumbent upon us to wonder why. I believe that when we interrogate our assumptions, we find they’re usually coming from the culture, which expects us to behave. We need to be more assertive in questioning why exactly all our children need siblings. Because if I’m going to choose to have another one, while billions of other people do the same, I should be able to know the reason. And if it’s not because I want to—I mean really want to—have another child, there’s a body of supposed knowledge I need to start questioning. For myself. For my daughter. And for the world I brought her into. Instead of making the choice to fulfill whatever breeding assignment we’ve been given, we can instead make our most profound choice our most purely independent one. It might even feel like something people rarely associate with parenting: it might feel like freedom.