In defense of "onlies": A growing share of American moms are having only one child — I'm one of them

I choose to parent an only child for better quality of life, more time, and less stress

Published November 26, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Small girl writing with felt tip pen while relaxing on the carpet at home (Getty Images/skynesher)
Small girl writing with felt tip pen while relaxing on the carpet at home (Getty Images/skynesher)

In just about every modern TV show, from the Kardashians' numerous reality epics to "Modern Family," the model American family is depicted as having two (or more) children. Indeed, a 2018 Gallup poll found that the average number of children that American adults believe is ideal is 2.7. Somehow, despite the fact that 9.8 million moms last year were suffering from burnout amid a global pandemic, most women still envision their prescribed two kids, a spouse and a house on their future goal checklist. 

Curiously, what the average person says is "ideal" isn't always what they really want, what's best for them, or what they actually do. Demographic data bears this out: in 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 62% of American moms (ages 40 to 44) had given birth to one or two children. And a growing share of women are having "just one." Indeed, almost a quarter (22%; the percentage goes up with education level) of American moms ages 40-44 have only one child, according to Pew Research Center's most recent survey. That percentage has doubled since 1976.

What if choosing to have one child could reconcile mounting evidence that children may bring meaning to life, but also bring misery? Perhaps having an "only" could be the new feminist (and empowering) way to achieve a more balanced life.

One is a sweet spot. twin study of 35,000 showed moms of only children are happier than women without kids, and happier those with two or more. A recent study of 20,000 parents over 16 years shows the birth of a second child increases parental stress due to time pressure, and mothers are hit the hardest. And some studies report moms of "onlies" are actually happier

Two years ago, The New York Times published Emily Oster's piece "Only Children Are Not Doomed," in which Oster notes that for a growing share of moms who only have one child, the kids turn out just fine. Indeed, some research suggests only children have many traits of first-borns. They are creative, independent and do well in school. So why do so many still perpetuate negative stereotypes about only children — especially when parenting experts and psychologists have fully debunked the myths?

Oster, a data-driven parenting guru and mom of two, agrees that one is not the loneliest number. "Overall, when it comes to what economists call success, having siblings simply does not seem to matter," she continues.

Perhaps choosing to have an "only" is the life-hack that allows for both the joy of parenting and the ability for some women to stay sane.

As I was about to become a mother, I read everything I could to understand what motherhood would be like. Much of what I read was negative: stories from other moms about how having a baby would wreck my life, kill my marriage and career, and blast my identity. I was told my highs in life would go from European vacations to chugging $6 Splenda bean water inside Target, and calling it a "break."

I didn't know if I would like being a mom. I never had a crazy urge to have a child; yet I had a feeling the joy and fulfillment of being a parent was unmissable.

When my kid was born, the first year was tough — but not as bad as the internet had warned me it would be. Somehow I emerged unscathed. I was still me! With one kid, I am still able to have drinks, travel to Chicago for the weekend, do my workout videos and breathe.  

Being a parent to one is a shift in my expectations for life. I grew up thinking I would have two children, because that's what people do. With delayed parenthood, rising costs of living, the high stress of parenting, and — let's face it — the fact that it's only been in the last century women have become able to truly think about their own happiness and fulfillment, it made sense for me to take a beat to consider the options.

Today, the thought of me getting two kids out the door into two car seats and two sets of activities, clothes, tantrums, heartbreaks, play dates, health issues, accessories and beyond is an overwhelming proposition. I can't imagine de-centralizing my attention from my son and somehow multitasking topless with another infant.

This is not to denigrate those who choose to have multiple children; merely, to say, I have realized that it is not for me. And that this is OK.

I have to remind myself of that, because sometimes it feels like the world is quietly conspiring to pressure me into having more. Indeed, as a mom of a two-year-old, at least once a month I am grilled by fellow moms with questions like "when are you guys trying for another?" coupled with a not-so-sly glance downward.  

Last time, a frazzled, pumping eight-times-a-day-and-working-full-time friend pointed to another pal's kiddos half-fighting, half-hugging on the ground during an outdoor play session, and said "Look how cute siblings are. You can't miss out on that."   

Actually, I can. Beyond being triggering to my fertility-challenged coevals, it is absurd to assume that one's life — or one's child's life — is incomplete without a sibling. Of course I want myself and my child to have a good life. But opting for an "only" doesn't force us to miss out on anything.  

With the insanity of living through COVID for almost two years, on top of the daily expectations of intense American-style parenting, moms everywhere are feeling burnt out.

Here's a P.S.A. here for all my fellow mommas and moms-to-be out there: It's OK to just have one child. (Or none at all, for that matter.)  And it doesn't have to be because of fertility, a deficit, or career goal. Wanting to enjoy all that life has to offer (with less stress) is a valid reason to go for one.  

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Yes, there are some families who thrive on chaos. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and I certainly don't want to prescribe singletons for everyone. Many people thrive with the multi-child lifestyle. But I want future moms to know — and let me shout from the rooftops — ONE IS AN OPTION. And it is not always a compromise.

Often, the one-and-done parents are depicted as "settling," perhaps the victim of fertility problems or brutal miscarriages. Rarely do I see only-by-choice parents in popular media. Yes, child and pregnancy loss is torturous, full stop. But I can't help but read between the lines that sharing only these narratives sends the message that one kid is sad, and a family is incomplete without a sibling. The message from this kind of narrative is that only children should be avoided at all costs, to the extent that so many will go to hell and back to avoid it.   

Let's change the narrative.  

I enjoy being a mom. My son is the best! Watching him say new things each day and playfully learn about the world I often take for granted is truly magical. Having "just" him makes it easier to treasure the moments.

In Canada and Europe, the numbers of onlies are even higher than in the U.S. Recent studies say 39% of Canadian parents have only one child; within the European Union, nearly half of all households with children (47%) consist of only one child. And even in the U.S., in major metropolitan areas like Manhattan, studies suggest 30 percent of moms only have one kid.

Of course, those of us with siblings (self included) love them, and say our lives wouldn't be the same without them. But I don't miss a second sibling I never had. Children without siblings will  have oodles of friends, cousins, relatives and teachers to build memories with instead.   

Whatever you decide as a parent, please stop making moms of single kids feel bad. Stop the reproduction inquisitions during wine nights and happy hours. Kids without siblings are fine and thriving.

If having one kid gives me the joy of momming without double the stress, I'll take it. Potential moms need to know: There's joy in one.  

By Allison Jack

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Commentary Demographics Mental Health Motherhood Only Children Parenting