The author with her mother, feminist and author Ellen Willis, and father, professor and labor activist Stanley Aronowitz in 1986
When I was around six years old, I begged my parents for a younger sister. When she failed to materialize, I dreamed up Shelly, who showed up in family portraits I drew in art class with a frilly dress and a Pebbles ponytail. When friends came over, I told them she was with the babysitter. At school, I bragged about my bottle-feeding skills. After my teacher made a concerned phone call about my lies, my mother—a journalist and feminist activist who had me at 42—sat me on her lap, and we had a surprisingly candid conversation about why she wasn’t going to have another baby. In her late 40s, she could have copped out and told me that biology wouldn’t let her. Instead, she brushed a curl from my face and said: “We’re happy with just you.”
I thought about this moment halfway through Lauren Sandler’s new book, One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, when the author turns to the question of what happiness means for parents. Does it mean fulfilling one’s biological or God-given purpose to reproduce? Or does it mean having the freedom to live the life you want to live? Sandler defends the range of options—from having no kids to having five—but One and Only seeks to redeem one particularly maligned demographic: only children and their parents, who are often viewed as selfish for depriving their kid of a sibling and society of its lifeblood. Underlying the discussion is a fundamental question—Why should we reproduce?—the essence of which comes down to “no less than the meaning of life itself.”
Were my writerly parents selfish for keeping our household to three? Maybe, Sandler says, but that’s okay.
These questions have never been more relevant. In the past 20 years, the percentage of American women who only bear one child has more than doubled, from 10 percent in the early 1990s (back when my small family felt like an anomaly) to more than 23 percent today. With two thirds of Americans feeling that they can’t afford to have another baby post-recession, some demographers expect the number of families with only one child to surpass the Great Depression record of 30 percent. This has sparked panic among conservatives such as Jonathan Last, Phillip Longman, and the younger Ross Douthat, who warn of America’s “vanishing labor supply” and impending social collapse—often with outsized, racially-tinged concern for educated white women on birth control. Sandler brings the discussion back to personal satisfaction, and rejects pronatalist alarmism by framing small families as financially and environmentally sound and pointing to our stubbornly high unemployment rate.
The first half of One and Only assures singleton parents that they aren’t shortchanging their child. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, only children are not little emperors who think the world revolves around them, or pitiable weirdos alone in the sandbox. A mountain of research shows the opposite: Not only is there no evidence that only children are maladjusted, they are actually more cooperative and generous than children with siblings. There are other benefits to having an only child that stem from lack of “resource dilution”: Because they are showered with more attention and their parents have more money, only children often have better vocabularies, higher rates of self esteem and early achievement, and go on to lead more successful professional lives. I often imagine an alternate universe where I grew up with a sibling: Could my parents have afforded private college for both of us? Would they have had time to assist with twice as much math homework? Or read an endless number of bedtime books?
Of course, there can be benefits to bigger families. Parents interviewed in Sandler’s book expressed that multiple children “take care of each other”—both when they’re small and when their parents are gone. A relationship with a sibling, and your child’s relationship with their aunt or uncle, can be special and fruitful. I got to see different models side by side. I grew up knowing but not living with Michael and Kim, two much older half-siblings born to my dad’s first wife in the 1950s. I witnessed the playful back-and-forth between them, and am still jealous of their shorthand and their shared memories. But as a kid, Michael was annoyed by his younger sister, who in turn felt shunned by him. They still bicker all the time. Sandler presents the sibling relationship as a game of roulette, just as likely to end up in indifference or estrangement as it is lifelong friendship. Besides, as Sandler points out, onlies tend to regard friends as surrogate siblings, with whom they are often just as close, especially in urban areas where the population is denser and it’s easier to get around. Without Shelly, I ended up forming bonds with playmates a few city blocks away. Writes Sandler: “In Brooklyn, I can spontaneously take Dahlia down the block to play dress-up with her friend (while I drink wine in the kitchen with the friend’s mother).”
There’s a lot wrapped up in that glass of wine: For Sandler, it’s just as important as Dahlia’s playdate. In a society that stacks the deck against working mothers, single-child parents are often more satisfied and less-stressed out than those with more. Sandler proclaims that sex, friends, and time to curl up with a good book are worth fighting for—and these things are more easily preserved by having just one child.
The prospect of losing these things certainly made my mother nervous. “Children are a 24-hour-a day responsibility,” she wrote five years before I was born, “yet parents have legitimate needs for personal freedom, privacy, and spontaneity in their lives.” Childrearing is too big a job, she added, without “an unnatural degree of self-sacrifice.” But as with many parents, desire overcame dogma, especially when my dad explained that he was willing to split childcare duties fifty-fifty. My father solidified our family’s fate as a threesome when he made it clear that, after me, he was done reproducing. But in a sense, my mother had made the choice to have an only child years earlier, waiting until her 40s to take the plunge after decades of prioritizing not only her career, but her freedom to go on months-long reporting trips or run to a diner for blintzes at 3 a.m. After I was born, she still struggled to balance everything, but was relieved to discover that motherhood didn’t obliterate her previous identity. She was lucky to have an equal partner and a flexible schedule, and yes, having an only child probably helped. The fewer kids we have, Sandler reminds us, the more manageable these priorities often become.
I’m 28, and my friends have started to diverge into two groups: the ones getting married and thinking about kids, and the ones avoiding those traps at all costs. I feel stuck in between. I’m coupled up, and often have idle late-night chats with my partner about parenthood. We both agree we want them—one day, far, far away—but we squabble about the number. He always votes for two, and I, ever my mother’s daughter, stay firm at maybe one. My argument usually comes down to money, both the amount a child costs—an average of $226,920 to raise to age eighteen, according to the USDA—and the amount I stand to lose as a working mom. Just that price tag alone can be a compelling deterrent for a generation facing an economy of stagnant wages and crunched time. Sandler herself admits that if she hadn’t stumbled into a larger home during the boom, she may not have had her daughter, Dahlia.
Yet the choice to have another child seldom hinges on economics alone. Sandler lambasts social scientists like Bryan Caplan who argue that multiple kids are a bang for your buck, akin to buying a second sweater for half off at the GAP. She also side-eyes the notion that anyone would stop at one to save our planet’s resources. “Children are a desire, not a calculation,” she writes. “It’s not a rational decision.” My arguments with my partner usually end up with him asking, “If we were millionaires, would you have more than one child then?” which prompts me to dig in my heels and say something dramatic like: “No. I don’t want my life taken over by kids.”
Because even if they’re not totally rational, these decisions do have ramifications—not just in terms of controlling our own fertility, but what our lives look like once we start families. Sandler takes aim at the type of all-consuming parenthood that results from America’s quarantined nuclear families. As soon as we have children, we become our own little unit, “cocooning” our families off from the rest of the world. In a nation unsupported by universal daycare, adequate parental leave, or single-payer health care, your kids are “your problem.” Alice Rossie and other researchers find that Americans segregate our kids from larger society, not receiving much assistance from the community, more than pretty much everywhere else in the world.
Of course, these issues are far more of a sticking point for secular families than what Sarah Palin combatively calls the Real America, where fertility rates are compensating for secular families who decide to have one or no children. Religious families have on average five more kids than secular ones. But, Sandler quips, “none of us secularists breed to change the world.” While non-religious parents may want to hang onto their autonomous pre-kid life, church-going families, who often consider childbearing a divine mandate, tend to be happier the bigger they get.
Maybe it’s because childrearing is a far less isolating experience for them than it is for the typical secular family. Churches provide parents with babysitting, used clothes, and “freezers full of casseroles labeled with other women’s handwriting.” Hispanic and immigrant communities, another demographic steadily reproducing, tend to have multigenerational households that reduce the need for nannies and nursing homes.
I found myself growing envious reading about those casseroles and free babysitters. Unfortunately, these perks usually come with accepting a whole host of troubling gender paradigms, and most garden-variety young progressives are simply delaying the daunting prospect of parenthood, rather than actively rallying for family policy or experimenting with communal models. It’s startling how quickly a conversation about raising our kids in one big brownstone is cast as a fantasy. At one point, Sandler describes her own cohousing arrangement—her family shares a house with a couple good friends—then wistfully adds that while her living situation “feels like a radical departure,” it’s “nothing compared to true communal responsibility for children.” And even an idyllic commune would doubtless have the kinds of tradeoffs Americans so desperately try to transcend.
One of the strengths of Sandler’s book is that it addresses this narrative messiness. She points out that “even if Shulamith Firestone were drafting our family policy, we’d still pay a price to parent.” One and Only is peppered with lyrical anecdotes of her daily life (a tangle of limbs in a “family hug,” a bedtime standoff) that seem to remind us of every family’s own intense, wonderful, maddening dynamic. She admits that all the data in the world supporting only children didn’t prevent ambivalent tears after her husband suggested a vasectomy. I’ve spent the past few years spouting reasons, logical and otherwise, for why I’ll likely follow in my parents’ footsteps. But, paradoxically, Sandler’s defense of only childhood reminded me to prepare for my best-laid plans to explode—or at least not to freak out when my own child pencils in an imaginary sibling in her family portrait.