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Is One Child Enough?

The one-child household is the fastest growing family unit in the U.S., and now outnumbers those with two children. On my own street, four of the nine families with kids have a single child. So our daughter is unlikely to be the only "only" in her kindergarten class.
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Happy mother embracing and kissing her son
Happy mother embracing and kissing her son

In the blogging world, I'm known as Miss Minimalist. Every week, for the last three years, I've been waxing poetic on "less is more." For much of that time, my husband and I lived overseas and owned only what fit in two duffel bags.

After such an experience, I thought we'd perfected the art of "enough"--in other words, knowing exactly how much (furniture, clothing, commitments, etc.) meets our needs and makes us happy. That is, until we recently had our first baby, and began pondering if we should try for another.

It's the most difficult decision we've ever faced, and not one we feel comfortable leaving to fate. Furthermore, the matter is pressing; with my biological clock ticking (fast), we don't have the luxury of waiting until our first is out of diapers. So for the better part of ten months now, we've been asking ourselves: "Is one child enough?"

Yikes. People are not possessions, and it's a far cry from determining the optimum number of shoes or sweaters to own. In contrast, babies seem to fall squarely into the "more is better" category. But I wondered: is that true for every family? Or might one baby make us happiest?

When I posed this question on my blog, the response was overwhelming--in fact, the post surpassed everything else I'd written in popularity. What transpired in the Comments section was a spirited and fascinating discussion on why I should (or shouldn't) have more than one kid.

Some people wrote that they couldn't imagine life sans their siblings; others said they could do just as well without them. Some people loved their singleton childhood; others recalled being bored and lonely. Some moms felt the more kids the merrier; others emailed me privately to say that life had been more manageable (and even more pleasant) with one.

I'd inadvertently opened the floodgates on a hot-button issue. Lively debates ensued on the personality traits of only children, the environmental impact of procreation, and the burden of elder care (which seems to fall disproportionately on one child, no matter the number of siblings). Stories were told, memories were shared, advice was offered, grievances were aired. I was both applauded and admonished for considering stopping with one.

While grateful to hear everyone's opinions and experiences, truth be told, I began to feel more confused than ever. I had hoped to come away with a clear tabulation of pros and cons; instead, I discovered that the question is so deeply personal, it defies any attempt to analyze or intellectualize it.

In fact, for me, in the bewildering haze of 300+ comments, what stood out like a beacon was this simple statement from Sandra:

"Having read your blog for a couple of years now and without "actually" knowing you, I would've imagined you with only one child and a daughter at that. For some reason, it just seems like you..."

Oh my goodness. Yes. It does. It just seems like me, and my husband, and the way we would design things absent any social pressures or only-child stereotypes.

And if I'm totally honest with myself, it's exactly how I've always imagined our family: the three of us catching fireflies, splashing in puddles, snuggling in front of the fire on a winter night. The three of us reciting the alphabet, reading bedtime stories, working on algebra homework. The three of us rambling the English countryside, strolling the streets of Paris, visiting temples in Thailand. There's never a fourth in the background, no shadowy image of a boy or girl yet to come.

I look at my daughter laughing, crawling, taking her first teetering steps, and I don't want for more. She satisfies my desire to be a mother, to love purely and unconditionally, to show this big, beautiful world to a new little being.

We're completely and perfectly happy with things as they are. And that's what tripped us up: simple math would dictate that if we had more children, we'd be even happier. But I've come to realize that the calculation is a little more complex. Our happiness comes from a delicate balance of time for our little one, time for each other, time for our careers, and time for ourselves. Changing any part of that equation could very well tip the scale in a negative, rather than positive, direction.

Of course, my daughter's happiness figures prominently in the matter as well. We do worry how she'll fare without a brother or sister; but she's already quite the extrovert, and we plan to provide her with plenty of play dates and other social opportunities. We live in a close-knit neighborhood with scores of children, several of whom have already "adopted" her as their baby sister. And as many readers informed me, sibling bliss (in either childhood or adulthood) isn't guaranteed.

What we can guarantee is our undivided time, attention, and resources--not to spoil her, but to support her in any way we can. I'm fortunate that I can stay home with her while continuing to write; a second child would mean putting my career on hold, or putting them both in day care. We'll be able to afford the classes, camps, and activities of her choice, and she'll have a generous college (or travel, or small business) fund as a young adult. My husband and I will have sound retirement and long-term care plans, so we won't be a burden to her in our old age. "One and done" is not only our way of having it all, but giving it all.

And for what it's worth, it's comforting to know we're not alone. The one-child household is the fastest growing family unit in the U.S. (as well as much of western Europe), and now outnumbers those with two children. On my own street, four of the nine families with kids have a single child (and only one has plans for more). So our daughter is unlikely to be the only "only" in her kindergarten class.

I'm also reassured that trying to optimize our happiness may mean we're acting sensibly, not selfishly. To quote from a Time article on only children:

"There must be some balance between the joy our kids give us and the sacrifices we make to care for them. Social scientists have surmised since the 1970s that singletons offer the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add: all the wonder and giggles and shampoo mohawks but with leftover energy for sex, conversation, reading and so on."

It goes on to cite a Danish survey in which "women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one." And I think one thing everyone agrees on is that happy parents make for happy children.

But research, statistics, and blog comments aside, we're simply going with what feels right. My husband and I waited a long time to take the plunge into parenthood. First, we wanted to finish graduate school...then we wanted to establish careers...then we wanted to travel the world. Even with advanced degrees, good jobs, and full passports under our belts, we had hesitations.

We knew we didn't want to be childless, and yet we couldn't quite picture ourselves with children. Ultimately, we've found the sweet spot in between: for us, one child--one beautiful, funny, sweet, smiling, bye-bye-waving, raspberry-blowing, magnificent child--is not only enough, but so much more.

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