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.


Matt said...

I completely support and understand your decision, and I sympathize with you with respect to being asked about additional children. We decided to have two - it was our decision, it was right for us. But, in our conservative area of the world, everyone wants to know 1) when are we going to have more, and 2) don't I wish I had a son. Well, never, and absolutely not. I've devised my own ways of nicely disagreeing and then diverting the topic of conversation.

But their interest in our reproduction, coupled with their complete misunderstanding of the 2-working-parent lifestyle and my primary caretaker role (as well as all of the stressors you list), strongly points to a society in transition. The remnant of the 'village' in which I was raised wants us to have more kids (um, be fruitful, such as it is), but the isolated independent culture that has developed in the past 10-15 years doesn't want to offer any assistance in caring for them and expects us to take care of them on our own.

From a sociological standpoint, I don't know where this type of situation is headed, but it certainly makes for interesting times.

KC said...

Financially, even one kid doesn't make sense for some couples, but of course those least able to afford kids often have the biggest families.

Adventuredad writes now and then about the "financial incentives" to have more kids in various countries around the world. Some places are family friendly. The USA sort of is, sort of isn't.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Matt: I think you really put your finger on the problem, in your second paragraph: "The remnant of the 'village' in which I was raised wants us to have more kids...but the isolated independent culture that has developed in the past 10-15 years doesn't want to offer any assistance."

K.C.: It always amazes me when people (like Leslie Bennetts, author of "The Feminine Mistake") talk about reproduction and childcare as though finances were the single most important factor for anyone to consider. That's clearly not the case for most people.

I mention money in my post, and believe me, it's not a small issue. In deciding to take turns staying home with our son, my wife and I cut our income by about 25 percent--this, in the second or third most expensive city in the country. Perhaps we could have a second child on two incomes, and have him or her be raised by a nanny or in daycare, but I just don't think either of us would like that. I'm not even sure it would make financial sense.

No, in the end it's not a financial decision: it's about the overall quality of our particular lives.

chicago pop said...

My own sense is that there is a middle ground between liberal/urban anomie and rural "happy village" society. A number of ethnic groups use extensive kinship ties as instruments for accumulating capital and as a social safety net. Other groups -- both in the US and abroad -- organize for these purposes through churches or mosques. Educated liberals tend to reject some of the constraints/obligations that go along with such forms of community, which means that experience of isolation and independence are partly a matter of choice.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Ah, how funny that you should mention that. I'm in the process of editing essays on this very topic for Greater Good, where I work. I wish I could link to them, but the issue won't be out until September. Sufficed to say that research into immigrant groups reveals the middle ground you're talking about--possibly you've seen this in action with your wife's family. I'll also note that there's an interesting new book by Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld called The Age of Independence, that uses Census data to describe the growth and relationship of independence, isolation, and the rise of non-traditional unions for young American adults. For an academic book, it's very readable, and I think many parents will see themselves reflected in Rosenfeld's research.

Unknown said...


I second your article, whole-heartedly.

Anonymous said...

Wherever one finds himself in life is a result of a series of choices, whether good, bad, or indifferent. We are never victims unless we choose to be. Yes things happen to us, but we always have the choice of how we react to it, and deal with it, that includes where we live, where we work, etc. A great many couples today are choosing to live AWAY from the "Village" of their origins, and to live in conditions that are not conducive to "village people" visits. So they suffer that loss, but make up for it by creating a "village" atmosphere among their friends and community. To a large extent, the "family" we choose among our friends becomes more important than the family of blood lineage. Yes, everything is a choice.

Unknown said...

I like this post, and am totally in agreement with the final paragraph. My daughter also wants a sibling; my hope is that soem folks close to us will ahve a baby and she can play the role of big sister that way.

Anonymous said...

I really loved this post. I write a blog by/for/about parents of only children and I'd really love it if you'd consider submitting a shorter version of this post (say, 500-1000 words) for it.

You can drop me a line at no.little.emperors @

Anonymous said...

On the point of only children, I can share with you the experience of my wife and I who are ourselves both only children. This post may come off a bit one-sided, but I just thought you might find the perspective interesting.

Without hesitation we both decided that if we were to have kids we would have at least two. There might be deeper personal motivations at play, but here are some points we agree on:
- providing your children with siblings provides them an outlet for socialization (the process of learning how to develop relationships with peers) which is not easily provided by schools.
- my wife and I are now resposible for two ageing sets of parents, with no siblings to share the burden with. Thinking about a posting abroad? Want your child to be able to do the same?
- in a world where families are shrinking, where there is no longer the proverbial village, your children can benefit from having an extended family... economically, socially, culturally, religiously (if that is your thing) etc...

It sounds like a small thing, but having someone you can call at 1am to take care of your kid/house/etc. while you take your spouse to the hospital can help you through life. I know really good friends can do this for you, but in my experience people most often rely on family/siblings to do such things.

The economic argument is a valid one from the perspective of the parent today. For some, it may mean you can't get that new car or house, and for others it might mean public schooling rather than private. But it's worth weighing into your decision from the perspective of the child 50 years from now... just a thought. Thanks for the interesting blog.

Anonymous said...

@ jeremy adam smith, 12:10 pm: hi there, read your piece on onlies with interest (i have a 4 year old son who'll be a singleton). then i went to the article you mentioned: New Americans, New Familes.

have to say i recognized a lot of myself, an american-born chinese daughter of immigrant parents, in the family structures and values of mexican-american families described in the excellent article.

i'm still making my bones as a writer and indie filmmaker and i would NEVER have dared attempt such a thing and had a child without the hands-on help of both my retired parents and in-laws (also chinese/taiwanese). they relocated to where we live to be close to their grandchild and to play a role in his care.

so i definitely see a great deal of value to modifying the "traditional" extended family to fit our modern/americanized/feminist ways.

in fact, i'd venture further and say that the normativization of the heterosexual nuclear (christian) family was something actively shored up by legislation as well as social mores for certain immigrant groups. for example, not many people know that debate surrounding the racist anti-chinese exclusion acts of 1882 often centered on the "innately unassimilable" and "unchristian" feudal chinese practices of polygamy and lack of a christian marriage ceremony as proof that chinese were undesirable. the exclusion acts of 1882 were enacted in part to disrupt chain migration of first the man, then his spouse and their several children plus extended kin.

just an example to show how social norms (such as the heterosexual nuclear family) are shaped by legal/juridical practices, before a person even crosses the border into america, so to speak.

great blog, i'm glad i found it and Greater Good!

Variations On A Theme said...

First of all, love your blog. Just found it and started showing it to the stay-at-home dads I know. Second, what you say completely makes sense, but since every experience is different, I've found that having two is often easier, because they play with each other, keep each other company, etc.

Maybe it's just because having one was such a huge transition from having zero, the transition to two wasn't quite that intense. Or maybe it's because the first was so ridiculously strong-willed and the second is so easy-going.

elizabeth said...

i once heard someone say about their kid, "this child is our first....and our last! but we'll give him EVERYTHING!"
"but siblings," i wanted to respond.
i think this is the first wave of parents that grew up in mostly 1-3 child homes. when one grows up and is used to being the center of one's world (or very close to the center) it's hard for them to make the necessary sacrifices it takes to raise 1 or more kids *and* deal patiently with a partner who has faults as well. i was raised in a big family and i can tell you that i continue to reap the rewards of numerous lifelong friendships in my siblings. the sacrifices today that dh and i make to welcome another little one into our home are not small, but i wouldn't have it any other way. it would be hard to make these same sacrifices had i grown up in a small family or maybe as an only child because i wouldn't know the benefits that growing up in a big family provides the children.

Momma said...

"There are two hot new trends in my social circle......"

Just in regards to this particular part of your post, if there is any unhappiness, is there any way to branch out to see other aspects of life? Many social circles are not like this: unhappy family, divorce, single children, etc...

It's all a point of view, that's all I'm saying. Not to say that you aren't correct in many aspects, but to say that this is the trend in many relationships, it's true. But what a sad fact.

Anonymous said...

I hope that being Grandmother will not prevent me of participating this discussion, my son was the only child, he and his wife have 2 babies, both in diapers now. I read carefully this post and comments. Everyone has a good point. My son's Family is under stress now, I can see it. It is chosen stress. They want as little help as possible and they have little experience. Relax, people! Accept more help, let people in your life, and enjoy every moment you have. Power of Parenthood is very short. In 15-20 years you all will have as much free time to do whatever you want, and hopefully you still will be able to enjoy it too.

Anonymous said...

Loved your post. My DH and I have just decided to have one child...and one child only. Just b/c you have more siblings, doesn't necessarily mean you will get along with them. I am the middle child of three and neither of my sibs talk to each other...and I am the peacemaker, which is stressful at times. My mom was an only child, my dad, 1 of 5 children, yet has no contact with any of them to this day. My DH and I know ourselves and think that we could give one child a better quality of life/our full undivided (non stressed) attention. We would like to be able to provide him/her with what he/she needs as well as socialize him/her during the rearing process. I think we have made a sound decision. We know our limitations, know what we can offer, and know what we desire out of life. We want to be parents...but GOOD parents...not stressed/burnt-out parents unable to offer what we NEED to offer to our offspring.

My sister has two boys and it's VERY stressful...half the time she's trying to pull one off of the other and is too stressed out to give them what they truly need or what she really wants to give them!

Heather Brown said...

I totally understand your position and had many of these same thoughts myself before deciding to go for baby #2. I myself am an only child and my life with one (after the initial adjustment period to which you referred) was east. I maintained a lucrative work from home career and spent most of my time with, and more importantly WITH (truly present) my daughter. When we decided to go for another, many of those financial and relational questions lingered. What would happen to our marriage? My relationship with my first? Would we be able to travel? What about my career? Etc.

The surprising answer is that after our second daughter was born, not only did those things work themselves out, but we were blessed with other wonderful gifts I never anticipated, not the least of which was more and deeper unconditional love for us all. My marriage improved - I had been very attached to my first, to some detriment to my relationship with my husband. We are all more balanced now. My daughter has received opportunities to love and give and share in deeper ways. My career - things finally aligned giving me the courage to leave a high paying but unfulfilling job to dedicate myself to work that is my passion, a dream I've had for years but never realized because I didn't trust enough that I would be able to "make it." I have found the truth is, we are only limited by our own limiting thoughts and things in our lives expand to our expectations of what is possible. We have made some sacrafices to make our family life possible - living near my husbands parents (instead of Southern California :) and living in a smaller house, joining freecycling instead of always buying new things, but all the sacrafices have been material, and living simpler is better for us spiritually and for the environment and the gains we have received in terms of love and family far outweigh any sacrafices of material wealth, which is fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying. It is true that in order to make room for some new blessing to come into your life, you have to let go of other things, but I don't believe multiple children automatically means the death of marriage or a fulfilling lifestyle. In my experience it has been quite the opposite.

I really enjoyed your blog and will continue to follow.

Anonymous said...

As I read through the comments, what I find interesting in the on-going debate is that no matter how you slice it (and this is the thing that a neurotic like me can't shake), making a conscious decision to have only one child (for any reason, rational or otherwise) seems to be perceived as an inherently selfish choice on the part of the parents.

I grew up in a socially conservative area and I constantly deal with an internal struggle that stems from the implicit belief on the part of those I know and love that the 'urban trend(s)' of dual-'career' couples, moving away from the 'village,' and the 'one-child family' are all by-products of an increasingly selfish and self-centered generation that has somehow lost its roots.

While I believe in the comments regarding the almost 'magical,' spiritually beneficial ways that things work themselves out and the importance of expanding our expectations and our positive mental outlooks, it's bothersome to think that if my husband and I decide to stop with one that we could very well be grouped in with all the 'selfish' parents of this increasingly crazy world. SO, maybe I should just have another child to prove that it will, in fact, all work out and, most importantly, to guard against any perceived selfishness that I might be permeating.

I always find it refreshing and so comforting when I meet the rare person (and, believe me, I poll a lot of people) who doesn't view my gut feeling that having just one child probably makes the most sense for my family as anything but a reasonable, responsible, and loving decision.

Oh, on another note, all of the full-time working moms in my corporate office are DEFINITELY having two children + nanny. So, it's not just the social conservatives who think having one child is less than ideal. They, however, don't think I'm selfish for only having one child. They just think we're poor.

At this point, the only thing I'm currently certain of in this modern parenthood debate is that I'm going to need to enlist the help of a therapist to get through it!

-New to SF
-Hetero/Married(12 years)
-Early 30s/Dual 'career'
-Mother of one fabulous 4-year-old

Anonymous said...

I think there's no 'right' or 'wrong' answer to whether to stop at one.

I however, feel it's important to take a step back...and as another reader pointed out...look at your child's future 50 years from now. A decision needs to be informed, taking into account both the present and the future practicalities. Neither my husband nor myself have extended family nearby...and I don't want her left with the sole burden of caring for us when we age. If it so happens we can't conceive again, we want to try to help her learn how to build a world with deep connections with friends and that she will have someone to count on should anything ever happen to us.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have a wonderful 3.5 year old daughter. My husband, who is turning 50 next month (I am turning 40 in 2 mos.), decided in September that he did not want to have any more children and after having unprotected sex for close to a year, he finally found a way to let me know. I read the postings and know that I will eventually be ok with being the mom of an only, but I do worry about my daughter's well-being when she is an adult. Her two cousins are 23 and 21, and they don't live nearby. My brother and I (we're both adopted) don't talk, and he doesn't have his life together, so having children would be disastrous. The fact is, my daughter will find herself with few direct relatives one day. From what we see today, she is a people magnet, and I will teach her to build fulfilling relationships with others, but as a mother I still worry whether my husband's decision will leave our daughter with less support than she could have had, if she had a brother or sister. I do know that nothing is a guarantee. For all parents of singles out there, make your will/trust, health directives, end of life intents clear. You will be making a difficult situation less so for your child when your time comes. Thanks for everyone's thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely written. My wife and I have a 4 month old boy. We're both in our early 30's, both working professionals, and we live in Los Angeles. It's amazing how many people have already asked us when we're having a second. I have employees that report to me at work who have 3 kids. Some of them make less than half of what I do (I earn over $100k) and some have spouses that don't work. I worry that these employees are over extending themselves and the burden of raising 3 kids is taking both a financial and mental toll on them. They don't have time to afford "luxuries" such as exercise, sleep, vacation, etc. I don't care what anyone says, but it is virtually impossible to raise 3 kids in Los Angeles on a salary of $50 to $60k. Even if money is taken out of the equation, I don't see how it's possible for two working spouses to devote attention to more than one kid. I think American culture is still stuck in the 60's where mom stayed at home and baked cookies, dad had a well paying job with a pension, and a house with a white picket fence was affordable on a single income. Welcome to 2010 where healthcare costs a small fortune, college tuition is rising by double digits, and job security has long vanished. Anyways, just my 2 cents. I should also add that fatherhood is great and I enjoy spending quality time with my single child.

Shannon said...

I understand why people ask us "are you ready for another!?!". Being a parent has exceeded all of our expectations. Not only is our child adorable, entertaining and incredibly funny-he's been a great sleeper and eater to boot! In having such a relatively easy child we are also very honest about the challenges. My husband and I are both business owners which means no mat leave and I had to go back to work three weeks after of giving birth and I could hardly even stand up at that point. Pregancy and birth takes a huge toll on women's bodies and natural birth was incredibly painful-although also the most spiritually enlightening experience of our lives. For us, having someone for our child to play with, relate to, learn from, keep them busy, or to take care of us when we're older are not strong enough reasons to have another. But I understand why people do. And the difference of opinion and the sharing of our experiences is wonderful. It's the judgment part one both sides that could use some extra understanding. My theory (and it's just a theory!)is that somewhere is our genetic make-up is the urge to replace ourselves, as well as the urge create one male and one female replacement-heterosexual parents equals having one girl and one boy child. Who knows? What I do know is that I couldn't have gone through life without becoming a parent. Our one kid feels like enough. It's fun, we are able to make money, take time to oursleves, work out, travel, spend equal time with our son, maintain and grow our business' and live deeply satisfying life as a three person family. I think that with our little guy we just got it right the first time.

Anonymous said...

We only have one and we're not having more. Our daughter is now 6, and our friends and family have just finally started to believe us when the answer to "When are you having the next one" is "never".

I agree with every word you say. I think some people (certainly not everyone, of course) are pressured by family into having more kids when they don't want more.

My family tried to guilt me into having more kids because it is "selfish" to only have one. But I didn't let the guilt trip get to me. (One of my brothers doesn't want any kids and my family is not shy about letting him know how "selfish" he is. He's even more "selfish" than me.)

Anonymous said...

We decided to have one beautiful amazing child. I applaud your stand. Being a parent should be a wonderful and very personal gift back to yourself, your child and the world. I don't think you have to make excuses for "why" you so deeply and lovingly chose to have one child. It is so sacred and personal. Cheers to you and yours!

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

Anonymous said...

In the research of National Institute for Child and Family Development, siblings naturally engage in conflicts. As a parent with more than one child, or a professional who works with children, it can be difficult to know what to do when children are fighting over a toy or squabbling about who gets to go out the door first. But there are some simple steps that actually teach children how to handle conflicts appropriately. Siblings will learn to find out their problems independently and be willing to forgive. Siblings can face out problems more than only one child.

Mark Spunde said...

In the research of National Institute for Child and Family Development said siblings naturally engage in conflicts. As a parent with more than one child, or a professional who works with children, it can be difficult to know what to do when children are fighting over a toy or squabbling about who gets to go out the door first. But there are some simple steps that actually teach children how to handle conflicts appropriately. Siblings will learn to find out their problems independently and be willing to forgive. Siblings can face out problems more than only one child.