Am I selfish person if I choose not to have a second child?
I’ve been reading One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler. It’s one of the best nonfiction books that I’ve read so far this year: exhaustively researched, gripping in its personal details, warm and honest, subtle, and persuasive. I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone interested in understanding their own choices about family size and in learning more about the impact of siblings (or lack of) on our own lives and our children’s. I’ve had several readers comment about how much they love this book or want to talk about its conclusions. But I’ve been struggling to get through it. It’s taken me weeks to read single chapters.
It’s too personal for me.
It’s impossible not to have regrets in parenting. I regret not taking away my son’s pacifier when he was much younger. (Now he’s two and loves his binky more than anything — possibly even me — on the planet.) I regret the hours spent worrying that my son wasn’t walking, or talking, or crawling. I regret my choice of carseat.
Those are all little regrets. Tiny blips in the blur of everyday parenting. They don’t overwhelm me or cause me to stop in my tracks on a particular day when I think about them.
But the decision to have another child, to provide my son with a sibling, feels impossibly huge to me. I don’t want to have huge regrets about this one.
To me, the main theme of Sandler’s book is that no decision about family size fits all families. She skillfully rejects the stereotypes about only children using convincing research and layer upon layer of cultural analysis. It’s impossible to read her book and not realize that the former “truths” that we’ve held about only children — as lonely, selfish, and neurotic — just don’t hold up to reality.
And I buy it. I really, really do. I don’t think that my son will be lonely or weird or an outcast if he’s an only child. The deciding factor in whether he’s a productive and happy member of society, able to form meaningful connections and realize his dreams, will not be the presence — or absence — of siblings. As a teacher, I got to know (and adore) lots of delightful, smart, and well-adjusted kids who were only children.
After two years of sleepless nights, colic, and the chaos of infancy and early toddlerhood, I feel like I’m finally starting to feel like myself again. A new “mother” self, but still myself. As an introvert, I finally get the time and space that I need to carve out professional and personal pursuits. I love seeing my son turn into a little person and spending my days with him. I don’t feel like our family is incomplete without more children. I feel whole and satisfied with one child and don’t really want more, at least not at this time. But I’ll be 39 this summer and my time for having a decision to make at all may slip away.
I also can’t help but feel that I’ve had personal experience that might trump all of Sandler’s articulate case for only children. My dad was 53 when he passed away from cancer. I was turning 30. My brother, sister, and I all lived in the Northeast, but my parents were in Florida, after two happy years of a sort of early retirement.
When I first learned that my dad was sick, five months before he died, it was my sister who told me. We cried together on the phone and knew that our world had changed forever.
When I waited a few weeks before going to Florida to finish up the school year when he first got sick, I knew my brother was already there, mowing lawns and sitting with my dad on the porch.
When the doctors told us that there was no time left, all three of us flew back down to Florida, holding a sad and confused vigil for weeks. And on the afternoon that my dad died — a day whose sounds, sights and smells (the chocolate chip cookies that were inexplicably baked, the warm Florida October sun on the deck, the kind eyes of the hospice nurse) are seared into my memory, it is the touch of my brother’s hands on my head and shoulders, trying to comfort me as I cried, that I remember most vividly.
When a few days later at my father’s funeral, I simply couldn’t stand up in front of all those people and say anything — there were no words, for me, a writer — I felt at peace because I knew that my brother and sister would say all the words that needed to be said.
When my brother and I flew back up north, returning to our lives, we knew that my little sister had moved into my parents’ house when he got sick and would stay behind with our mother for as many weeks and months that it would take for her to find her way.
In short, I can’t imagine my life — everything that has happened between when my brother was born when I was three until these current years of negotiating early parenthood — without my siblings.
So, for me, even though I’ve been trained in research methodology and believe in the power of data-driven decision-making, this choice is ultimately one of the heart. For me, it feels almost as profound as life and death, love and loss. I’m afraid of regrets, either way. I feel comforted by Sandler’s book, and the fact that only children are just as happy and healthy as anybody else, but it is only part of the story.
I agree strongly with Sandler when she says, “It’s hard enough to live your life on your own terms in a society that constantly tells women what to do with their bodies and what should occupy their minds; it’s at least doubly so within the psychological, financial, and temporal constraints of motherhood.” But I also know that this story — my story — is only part of the equation; the life cycle of a family is long, holding many unforeseen challenges and triumphs. I don’t want to deny my son the chance to experience those heartaches and joys without the company of siblings.
So there it is. A book — even a wonderful, well-crafted one — can’t help me make a hard choice.
How did you make your choices about whether to have more children?