Having An Only Child: Is It Selfish?
By Susan Newman, Ph.D.
Within a few months of my son's birth, I was put on the questioning block, "When are you having another?" I heard that almost as frequently as, "What a cute guy he is." My husband and I had some questions of our own: Would our son be lonely, spoiled, bossy as people tried to tell us. What would it be like for him to grow up without siblings?
The "have-another" campaign intensified as our son got older. Some comments were harsh: "How can you do THAT to your child!" "He needs a sibling." If you are considering or have a singleton, you undoubtedly will hear a variation on the theme, "You are being selfish." Were we?
Related: 10 things every woman should do before getting pregnant
Friends, neighbors, parents, and in-laws -- even perfect strangers -- have no qualms about inserting their opinions into your reproductive life. It's enough to make you wonder if you are being selfish or potentially damaging your child. For parents of one, the attacks may not stop until you are too old to have or adopt another child.
The admonishments are surprising given that the single-child family is the fastest growing family unit -- not just in the US, but worldwide in most developed countries. In England, for example, 46 percent of families have one child; in Spain and Portugal, 30 percent. According to the US Census, one-child families represent 22 percent (and climbing) of families -- and 30 percent in major metropolitan areas. The Traditional Family as we knew it -- "a boy for you, a girl for me," dad at work, mom home -- has changed dramatically. In fact, new Pew Research Center findings confirm that women are holding off on having babies; declines in birth rates were particularly sharp between 2007 (before the recession) and 2009 (the latest data available). Provisional numbers for 2010 reveal the decline continues.
Realism vs. Selfishness
Women are marrying and starting their families later than in previous generations and often face infertility when attempting to conceive a first or more children. For the first time in history, there are more women than men in the labor force. Over 70 percent of mothers with young children work -- some because they want to, most because they must to help support the family. Holding down a job and raising children at the same time is stressful and difficult, carrying risks in pay increases and in job security.
A job can be the thing that dissolves uncertainty about having more children. The impact of a second maternity leave, for example, can be extensive, particularly in the current economic climate; someone is always waiting to take your spot. I spoke with a woman who took what she says is the shortest maternity leave on record -- two weeks. When her boss was out on maternity leave a few years earlier, she stepped into her boss' job. As she explained, "I know this can happen, and I'm not about to let it happen to me."
Compounding job security uncertainty is "The Motherhood Penalty." Children help men advance, but mothers pay a price. The biggest gap is between mothers and childless women. Mothers' starting salaries are seven percent lower than women without children; and over the course of a career, the penalty is conservatively five percent per child!
When you combine employment concerns with the high cost of raising children, the trend toward one-child is likely to continue. Although no one likes to put a price tag on children, raising them is expensive. According to the Department of Agriculture, families with an average income between roughly $57,000 and $98,000 will spend a little over $286,000 to rear one child from birth through age seventeen -- college not included. About $46,000 is for food! Those of us who choose one child for whatever individual reasons -- age, infertility, finances, health, lifestyle preference — are being realistic, not selfish.
Only-Child Myths Masquerading as Fact
The naysayers will try to tell you that your singleton won't know how to share or stand up for herself; she will be spoiled without a sibling. The people who think that you are not a family unless you have two children are usually the same ones who cling to the antiquated stereotypes about only children. How many children you have is a personal choice that has nothing to do with the only-child myths that masquerade as fact.
Hundreds of studies conducted over the last three decades have disproven the stigmas attached to only children. For instance, research done at The Ohio State University and ironically titled, "Good for Nothing: Number of Siblings and Friendship Nominations among Adolescents," showed that only children were just as popular as their peers with siblings. Furthermore, the authors noted, “These results contribute to the view that there is little risk to growing up without siblings -- or alternatively, that siblings really may be 'good for nothing.'" Onlies are more connected to other children than ever before by technology, and that connection gives them a social life that extends beyond school hours and the after-school activities they share with friends.
The parents of onlies have not cornered the spoiling children market. In this culture of yes-parenting, with or without siblings, so many children are spoiled because parents can't say no. Look around at children you know with siblings. They are as likely to be spoiled as those without, but society has been programmed to believe only children are more spoiled.
Every child is exposed to an endless array of experiences that will shape his temperament and his functioning as a grownup. Having or lacking a sibling is just one piece of the thousands of pieces that contribute to and shape a child's development... and her joy or misery during her formative years. It is parenting more than having siblings that influences how an only child -- or any child for that matter -- fares in the world.
The New Traditional Family
Given the many pressures on parents today, more and more feel that they can be better parents to one. As the parent of one, you can give your child the full benefit of your time, attention, and resources. Most people do a reality check before adding another child to their family. The era of getting married and having the requisite two children is long gone. Family has new definitions that include single parents, gay and lesbian parents, and, of course, one child.
This mother of one sums up the feelings of many who believe a singleton is right for them. To have one child she feels is "seen as selfish, because children are the ultimate sacrifice. Those of us who attempt to make the best of all aspects of our worlds are often seen as greedy because we want it all. I WANT and love my child more than anything, but I also WANT a career and I really WANT a happy marriage. Adding another child to our lives would directly affect two of the three things that have the greatest impact on my happiness quotient."
Turns out she is onto something. There's no question that people with children are happier -- happier than those without children. But, how many? Increasing evidence shows that mothers of one are happier than parents with more than one child. Hans-Peter Kohler, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, discovered that second and third children don't increase happiness. His study of 35,000 adult identical twins in Denmark showed that "additional children beyond the first child have no effect for fathers [in relation to happiness]" and that more children make mothers less happy. Kohler and other researchers agree -- the more children you add to the family, the more stress you add to the adult relationship.
Having one child may not be what you intended when you started your family, but it is increasingly a popular, happy choice. "Here's how I approach it," explains Melanie, one of the hundreds of people I interviewed when doing research on only children. "I only look forward. You can't go back and think, 'Did I make a mistake?' I never felt that way. I wondered if I would question myself, but she's eighteen, and I haven't yet."
My son is in his 20s and we feel we made the correct choice for him and for us. As the New Traditional Family with one child takes hold, the good news is the judgmental have a new target -- the childless. The heat is turned down on parents of only children because of singles and couples with no interest in having children. They are childless by choice. The barbs and judgments directed at them will sound familiar to anyone with a singleton, especially the first: selfish, neurotic, childish, materialistic, uptight, even deviant.
Where do you draw the line between being selfish and having a life that allows you to be a content, happy person or parent?