Wednesday, April 17, 2024

One and Done: Why Having Only One Child Can Be a GOOD Thing (Or At Least Not a Bad Thing)

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Sarah Lang, who has one child, has some thoughts on the societal pressure to have two.

Guess what? ‘Only children’ aren’t all like Veruca Salt from Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – or anything near it. In fact, having just one child can be a wise choice and a great thing. I know that first-hand.

Let’s back up just a bit: I wrote an article nine years ago about the societal pressure to have children in the first place. If you are in a position to have children (say you’re in a long-term relationship and are financially stable) but you don’t want children, people often try to change your mind.

In the early 1900s, psychologist Granville Stanley Hall said that “being an only child is a disease in itself”.

I wasn’t going to procreate but I changed my mind – not because of all that outside noise, but because I’ve always loved children. I wanted a baby who would reach out its arms to me, as opposed to holding friends’ babies who were trying to squirm their way back to their mums.

There’s a similar societal pressure to have more than one child. My son, now seven, was about 18 months old when people began asking if I was going to have a second child. Some asked ‘when’, not ‘if’. The husband of a family friend said ‘but of course you need to give Theo brothers and sisters’. I said ‘no I don’t’. He kept trying to convince me.

THANKS VERY MUCH BUT ALSO DON’T INVALIDATE ME OR MY DECISIONS. That’s not what I said, but I kinda wish I had.  

Rather, I calmly explained to various people – from my hairdresser to older relatives – that I couldn’t have another child because I needed that money for shoes. Just joking (well, 90% joking). I calmly explained that I’d decided against having a second child because my mental health suffered prenatally and postnatally.

It bothered me that, after hearing this, some people still tried to convince me. It was along the lines of ‘You don’t want Theo to be an only child, he’ll be lonely, over-indulged and won’t learn to share’. I’d say ‘No, that depends on how you parent. And he’s our pet. No one feels pressure to have two pets.’

Join The Only Child Club

Anecdotally, being in the ‘one and done’ club is more common than it used to be. There are no stats available in New Zealand, but 20 percent of American families have only one child (this includes, of course, single-parent households).

Of course, there can be all sorts of reasons for only having one child: financial constraints, health reasons, fertility problems, potentially negative career impacts, not having a partner during your childbearing years, not feeling a maternal urge, These and any other reasons are equally valid. You shouldn’t have to explain yourself to anyone.

Alice* never experienced a strong maternal urge. “My husband wanted to have a child at our age [before hitting 35] if we were going to do it, though he was also open to not doing it. I was curious about the experience of being a mother, and having one satisfied that curiosity.” Yes, in a good way.

With children, ‘opportunity cost’ comes into play. We only have so much time in our 4000-week (if we make it to 80 years old) lives. Having one child can give you the experience of parenthood, without all that additional labour (we’re not just talking about the giving-birth labour part although, yes, most women aren’t that excited to do that twice or more, and yes we want the epidural please).

What Does Science Say?

Let’s bust some myths. It’s a myth that only children are lonely and spoiled. In the early 1900s, psychologist Granville Stanley Hall said that “being an only child is a disease in itself”. And the term ‘only-child syndrome’ became a thing.

A Huffington Post article by Lindsay Holmes, called ‘Here’s Proof Only Children Aren’t Actually Spoiled Brats’, sums it up well: “Many [only children] are labelled as ‘spoiled’ or ‘attention-seeking,’ mostly due to centuries-old biases like Hall’s that are based in personal opinion rather than solid research. And poor portrayals in pop culture don’t help either.” Veruca Salt has a lot to answer for.

In fact, as Holmes adds, “only children are more exposed to adult conversation and parental attention, making it likely [they’ve] learned advanced language skills and a breadth of knowledge at a younger age than others.” Research suggests that only children may perform better academically and have higher IQs than children with siblings(s).

And nope, having one child doesn’t mean they’ll be spoiled. It’s all about how you parent. “The studies all show that only children are not spoiled,” says social psychologist Susan Newman, author of the book The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. “They’re no more lonely than other children, and they actually make as many friends as children with siblings.” I often see my son create imaginative games and do ‘world-building,’ in a way he doesn’t do when his cousins are here.

As for the ‘they need a playmate’ thing? Well, plenty of siblings don’t even get on. In ‘Understanding Society’, a study tracking the lives of 100,000 people in 40,000 British households, researchers found that sibling bullying may contribute to unhappiness in children, and ‘only children’ were happier than those with siblings.

What about the mother’s happiness? In 2005, sociology professor Hans-Peter Kohler produced research showing that people with children are happier than non-parents – but that second, third (or more) children don’t increase parents’ happiness. That second claim is backed up by other recent studies, including one by economist Andrew Oswald, who compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without. He found that the more children you have, the unhappier you are likely to be.

My parents were very time-poor, what with fulltime jobs, four kids, and a ‘lifestyle block’ (small farm) that required a lot of work from them and us. Having four kids was normal in 1980s Whanganui. I liked, and still like, having siblings. My younger brother was, in a way, my first little boy. My mum is the best-ever mother, but I could have done with bonding time with my father.

My bond with my son is incredibly strong because of the one-on-one time I’ve had with him, while also continuing my career. I’ve already asked him to sign a contract that he’ll look after me when I’m old. (Joking, also not joking.) I literally have my eggs (well, egg) in one basket. But seriously, I’d never want him to see me as a burden or fulfil any sort of expectations because ‘he’s it’, so to speak.

Plus Theo has three cousins in Wellington, and Emily is the same age. Before they turned five, I used to have them both on Tuesdays, and Emily often spends time here. In building a strong relationship with my niece and nephew, it’s almost as if I have an ‘almost daughter’ and ‘almost son’.

Sometimes I think about the little boy or girl that I might have summoned to the world, but I also know I’ve made the best decision for me and my family. No explanation required.

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