Monday, July 23, 2007
Why we are having only one child
There are two hot new trends in my social circle: divorce and second children. Some couples are separating, others are reproducing, again.
We won't be jumping on either bandwagon, I'm afraid.
It's no surprise to see that as families grow, marriages are strained. I can cite, off the top of my head, a half dozen peer-reviewed studies that all say more or less the same thing: about two-thirds of couples experience a big increase in hostility and disagreement in the three years after the birth of their first child. According to the current numbers, half of marriages won't survive.
Why? Oh, I know the conservative line, and so do you. They blame the divorce rate on feminism, gay marriage, Murphy Brown, etc. In short, it's Satan's fault. But social scientists who study marriage and family--people like Phil and Carolyn Cowan at UC Berkley, John and Julie Gottman at U. of Washington, psychotherapist Joshua Coleman, and historian Stephanie Coontz--have actually asked couples about their troubles, and they discovered that there are many factors driving the divorce rate that have nothing to do with the dark prince of evil (unless you're referring to Dick Cheney and the Bush Administration's economic and family policies).
These include economic instability, more hours at work, social isolation, longer life spans, ambiguous roles, and unrealistically high emotional expectations. In their two-decade study of 200 nuclear families, the Cowans discovered that "the normal process of becoming a family in this culture, at this time sets in motion a chain of potential stessors that function as risks that stimulate moderate to severe stress for substantial numbers of parents."
In plain English, becoming a parent today can drive you crazier than a shithouse rat. Once upon a time, parents had a village to raise their children. Today, it's usually just you, your equally crazy spouse, and whatever help you two can afford.
Many parents cope admirably with the stresses of modern life. But for others, it's too much. Here's a fun fact: When the Families and Work Institute asked 1,000 children what they would change about their parents' work and how it affects family life, only 10 percent of kids made wished their mothers would stay home more and 15.5 percent made that wish about their fathers. Instead, the most popular wish by far was for moms and dads "to be less stressed and tired"—-which tells me that a) parents are really stressed and it affects their relationship with children; and b) it's the quality, not quantity, of time with parents that matters most to children.
Thus I think part of the secret to building a happy family today is knowing where to draw the line. I'm often asked when we are going to have our second, and people who don't know me well seem surprised when I reply, Never. "But you seem to love being a dad," said one person, eyebrows raised. It's true. For example: Recently my wife went away for four days and I took time off work to take care of Liko. By the end of our little vacation, I was in a terrific mood; I felt better than I'd felt in years. When I am able to give him my full and undivided attention, nothing makes me happier than to be with my kid.
But that's the problem. I can only rarely give him "my full and undivided attention." Among other things, I have to work. I have a one hour commute to my work. Outside of work, I have dishes to wash, relatives to call, emails to check, blogs to read, errands to run. So do you. It's not that our lives are harder than those of previous generations. My grandparents had it much worse, in many ways. They had their own problems, like, you know, the Depression and World War II. Our specific, contemporary problem is that our lives are rootless and overstuffed. Every time you have another child, life gets that much crazier. "Two kids are twice the fun, ten times the work!" says my friend Jodi. No kidding.
I don't want to put that strain on my life and my marriage. I've had one child. He's a great, beautiful gift that I never expected to receive. I know he wants a sibling--he's asked for one, several times, provoked by the bulging bellies of his friends' mothers--and I know that in many ways, he'd be better off in a larger family. But then the higher brain functions take over and I do the math of money and hours--and I look at our divorcing friends--and I know that we can't and shouldn't do it. He deserves to have two parents who love each other, who get along, who have civic and intellectual lives outside of the family.
Perhaps our hearts aren't big enough. Maybe we're not tough enough. But I think three is enough.