3 Myths About Parents of Only Children
A couple of years ago, in order to shorten my husband’s lengthy commute to work, we left San Francisco’s foggy outer avenues for a sunny town twenty miles from the city. As we settled into life in our new town, one of the biggest surprises—aside from the ease of parking and the abundance of trees—was the difference in family size. In the city, we knew plenty of one-child families, but where we now live, one-child families are rare. Three-child families, even four-child families, are common. A frequently asked question on the playground is, “What grade are your kids in?” When I say I only have one, there’s usually a bit of an awkward pause, as if I’ve just admitted that I work in telemarketing or buy my pajamas at Costco.
I live in Northern California, which means that people rarely ask direct questions, but I can sort of tell that they’re wondering what the deal is. Why would you have only one child, their silence seems to say. That’s so…weird.
Myth #1: You didn’t mean to get pregnant.
When you have one child, other parents often think the child is the result of an “oops” moment. While I’m sure this is true in some cases, it certainly wasn’t in ours. I’ve always been something of a birth control fanatic, so for us to have an accident would have required some sort of manufacturer’s defect. My husband and I, who admittedly plan almost nothing, definitely planned for the birth of our child. We conceived not long after I turned 34, so that our son would be born before I reached 35–the age that doctors point to as the witching hour of fertility. Also, if you give birth after the age of 35, you have to get an amnio, and I really didn’t want one of those giant needles to the stomach.
When we had our son, we’d been together for a decade. We often joke that we waited until the last possible moment to have a child. It’s more accurate to say that we very much wanted a child, and, to be safe, we started “trying” before I hit the age when, biologically, it becomes more difficult.
The “accident” myth is based on the false assumption that anyone who would like to have a child would like to have another, possibly another; once you have a changing table and a baby swing, the logic seems to go, what’s the difference? Thus the common question, “Do you want kids?” as opposed to, “Do you want a kid?”
Myth #2: We don’t actually like children.
I’m not saying all kids are little darlings, but really and truly, I’ve always loved kids. Even the ones on the airplane who are crying the whole flight–especially those. When I see a crying baby, I never run the other way; I just want to hold it. Show me a commercial featuring a talking baby, and I will so buy whatever you’re selling. How do you think I ended up with an e-trade account?
Before we had our son, we had young nieces, whom we happily took on outings to the zoo and elsewhere, patiently obliging their meltdowns over things like ketchup and buttons. I grew up with a sister who was one year older and another who was eight years younger, and our mother worked full-time, so my older sister and I spent a lot of formative years playing mommy. I also spent countless hours from the age of 13 to 18 babysitting other people’s children. Taking care of babies and young children came very naturally to me as a teenager, and I always knew I would become a mom.
Now that our son is old enough to take a keen interest in other human beings, we have an open door policy at our house: he can have any of his friends over whenever he wants. I enjoy having his friends over, but even if I didn’t, I would consider it a necessary by-product of having an only child. Kids need to play. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the occasional sword fight, but kids do it better. Sure, my son and I build forts and race Hot Wheels and play endless games of Clue and even more endless games of Risk, but I have only a marginal talent for the sort of noisy, breathless pandemonium that comes so naturally to kids. But here’s the deal: just because I like kids doesn’t mean I want to raise more than one. As much as I enjoy that pandemonium, I also like the fact that the friends eventually go home, where they continue the pandemonium in the company of other, more stalwart individuals, individuals who probably own industrial-strength ear plugs and secretly drink way more than I do. There’s a reason mama always had a martini in those TV shows from the sixties.
The bottom line is, I like kids in general, but I like my own kid a lot. I like being with him. I enjoy our long talks, our outings, his curiosity, his humor. I like the fact that, at end of each day, I can listen to my husband and son having a long, meandering conversation about everything from 007 to stick bugs, because we’ve only got the one, and there’s no hurry.
Myth #3: We always put career ahead of family.
Before we had our son, I had been teaching writing at university for most of my adult life. When we had him, I realized that I couldn’t meet my publisher’s deadlines, teach, and be the kind of parent I wanted to be. So I gave up teaching. I say “gave up” because it was something that I truly enjoyed. But something had to go, and teaching was the obvious choice.
For a number of years, I spent one summer each month at a writer’s colony; these colony summers allowed me to complete the bulk of the writing that eventually became my first three books. When I had my son, I knew I wouldn’t go to a colony again for a very long time; I simply couldn’t be away from him for that long. I didn’t want to to be away from him. Even now, when he is old enough that my husband, with a little help from a sitter and family, could handle a couple of weeks without me, I don’t have the desire to miss out on my kid’s life. The invisible tether isn’t only the province of parents with multiple children; those of us with one child feel it too. The tether is always pulling us back, into the orbit of our child. Maybe we even feel it more strongly than others, because we know we only have one shot at this. If we miss something, we can’t hit repeat.
I realize, of course, that not all moms have the luxury of fitting their work life so neatly around their home life; I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make a living as a writer, which means that if my son needs a sick day from school, I don’t have to scramble to find a babysitter.That said, I write significantly slower and a great deal less than I did before I became a mom. Honestly, that may just be because I’m lazier and sleepier now than I used to be, but I’m totally going to keep using the mom thing as an excuse.
As for my husband, he used to travel a lot for work. Since becoming a father, he voluntarily limits his business travel as much as possible. On week nights, he is almost always home in time for dinner and to help our son with his homework. Because, let’s face it, I don’t understand the new math, and I have no idea what to do with an isosceles triangle. On weekends, my husband coaches Little League and takes my son on all sorts of adventures, primarily to Amoeba Records on Haight Street.
While both of us feel a strong commitment to our work, we also recognized from the beginning that choosing to have a child meant that, for 18 years or so, we wouldn’t work the same way we worked before. That’s not a mom thing or a dad thing—it’s a parent thing.
I’m not trying to persuade anyone to have only one child. I think you should have as many children as you want and can truly love and take care of. But I look forward to a time in the near future when the American single-child family is not largely an urban phenomenon, a time when couples do not feel pressure to add another child based on outdated assumptions about what it means to be a family of three.
Michelle Richmond’s new novel Golden State, has just been published by Bantam. Her new story collection, Hum, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, will also be released this spring. She is the author of four previous books, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog. She writes about raising an only child at The Joy of One. If you would like to receive updates from Michelle, sign up here.