I don’t remember feeling lonely as a child. Growing up, it was just me and my parents—and I had a blast. My parents would plan “mystery trips” on weekends without telling me where we were going, and we’d end up at an apple orchard or a beach or a museum. We were a lean team, and it was a lot of fun. If I had siblings, I’m not sure we would’ve been quite as spontaneous.
I never thought much about being an “only” until my friends started having kids—even before I had my daughter, Dahlia. As my friends weighed whether or not to have a second child, they would ask me about growing up only. And when I responded positively, they seemed taken aback. That got me thinking: why are the stereotypes about only children (and their mothers) still so pervasive in our culture?
As a journalist and writer, I vowed to never become a “mommy writer.” I’ve covered women during the Iraq War and written a book on the evangelical youth movement. But as I started delving into my research, I realized that the discussion about our fertility rights is just like a war—and it’s a new frontier in American culture.
If you only have one child, you’re inevitably asked, “Another one coming soon?” Despite the overwhelming evidence that only children are no different than those with siblings—not to mention it’s better environmentally and fiscally—I’ve found that a lot of people only want to have a second child for the sake of their first child. There’s a notion that you’re not a good mother if you don’t give your child a sibling. Why can we debate ad nauseam about tiny minuscule things like diapers, schools, and organic T-shirts, but not about the number of kids we have?
To me, U.S. family policy is a failure. We are one of the only countries on earth that does not have structural family-support system. This failure is due to our ideological individualism, our lack of a labor movement addressing parents’ rights as workers’ rights, and the fact that we’ve never had a population crisis. It’s completely different in Europe and Asia. In Italy, you can’t even Google “family time”—the term doesn’t exist. Instead they have an integrated way of living, with parents and their children mingling with family and friends as a community—and adults are actually allowed to focus on themselves.
But in America, we never feel like we are mothering enough. In our culture, relaxation is definitely not a top priority. In fact, studies show that mothers actually spend more time caring for a child today than they did in 1965. If mothers today were to channel Mad Men’s Betty Draper (who constantly yells at her daughter, “Sally, go watch TV!”), heads would roll. We’re so enmeshed in our little family bubbles that we have no time for anything else—even our own happiness. And if we don’t have another child, we’re made to feel as if we are inflicting something negative upon our one child.
So with so much societal pressure and lack of time, how can we expect to change the conversation about family support in the U.S.? Well, there’s no easy solution to that. I don’t really see change happening any time soon, because it’s hard to engage people who aren’t yet mothers to organize and affect policy.
Part of what we choose is how much motherhood we want. Personally, I want all the delicious, engaged life with my one child who I’m crazy about, but I also want the time and energy to have a life beyond that. This only child is lucky to have a great group of friends and their kids (my one friend calls her daughter a “friend catcher”), and we’ve formed our own little family.
Believe me, I don’t have “it all” figured out. If you want to have two or three kids and think you’ll be happy doing it, by all means, go for it. If I woke up tomorrow and found out I was somehow pregnant, I’m honestly not sure what I’d do. I know statistically mothers have the most abortions, but I’d have to follow my heart. What I do know is that I love being a mom, and I love my daughter. And I know that if I’m a happy person, then my happiness will reflect onto my child.