Here is a guaranteed conversation starter: Tell someone you’re an only child, born of an only child, who has decided to have an only child. Being an only child is somewhat unusual to begin with. Two generations is rare. But three in a row? It is the genealogical equivalent of a unicorn.
I know this because I am a unicorn. My mother is an only child. My father was raised as an only child. (Technically, he had two siblings, but they were older, lived in a different state, and were so estranged that I never met either of them; now both are dead.) As a result, I have no aunts or uncles. I have no cousins that I know of. I have no siblings.
After people have wrapped their heads around this, the next words out of their mouths are usually, “Why did you decide to just have one?” I don’t mind this question, but I’ve realized it carries with it two contradictory assumptions. The first is that there must be a reason. As a society, we have bought into the circular notion that since most people have siblings, it must be better to have siblings, leaving people like me to explain — and sometimes aggressively defend — the choice. A friend of mine once had a stranger approach her as she was shopping for zucchini in Trader Joe’s and tell her that if she didn’t have a second child, she would be ruining her daughter’s life.
On the flip side, our bias toward and familiarity with having siblings is so strong that some people assume only children can’t possibly be the result of rational choice. There must have been a fertility challenge or health problem or age issue or a disagreement or a divorce or a lack of cash.
Even if I had a functioning pancreas, a previous uncomplicated pregnancy, and years of fertility ahead of me, I would still choose to be one and done.
In reality, there are lots of possible reasons, some chosen, some not. For me, the decision to stop at one child has been less difficult than the decision about whether to have children at all — I was so terrified about what becoming a mother would do to me both emotionally and physically that I agonized over it for years.
Whereas becoming a mother required a giant leap of faith, the fact that I’m an only child made the prospect of having just one child less scary than it might otherwise be. But that’s not to say that it was uncomplicated. There’s an inevitable sadness that comes when you realize that, when you choose one door, you are permanently closing others.
In my case, it would be easy for me to claim that my decision was based on something out of my control. I have a chronic and incurable disease — type 1 diabetes — the management of which often feels like a full-time job. My pregnancy with my daughter was emotionally and physically difficult and ended with a dramatic, unexplained placental abruption necessitating an emergency C-section five-and-a-half weeks before her due date. I am also closing in on 40. The prospect of another pregnancy is unappealing, frightening, and increasingly unlikely.
But even though this would be enough to justify a decision to call it quits (if not make the decision for me outright), they’re not the reason I’m not having another. Even if I had a functioning pancreas, a previous uncomplicated pregnancy, and years of fertility ahead of me, I would still choose to be one and done. This essay is my attempt to explain why.