If I told you could have $245,340 for doing nothing would you take it? Hell yeah. What if I told you there's a catch? To get the money you have to not have that second child? That's a bit more tricky right? Now you're thinking oh dear, do I want an only child?
OK, how about I throw in some other stuff. If you take the money you can also have a huge amount of free time you would otherwise lose? Time you can spend with your first child, yourself, your partner, your parents and friends, or time you can plow into your career or your passions, your hobbies, travel for example, or writing, gardening, feeding the homeless or planting trees? Would you take it now? It’s sounding better all the time.
The fact is this is the exact deal all parents of one child in the US are offered. $245,340 is what it costs to raise a child (middle class) to the age of seventeen. In other places, we can assume, it is more or less the same given that the primary costs are housing, childcare, education and food and these expensive no matter what city you live in.
So what about the time? Well, as all parents know raising children takes time, lots and lots of time. But did you know that having the second child does more than double the work load? Two children instead of one is triple the work according to psychologist Susan Newman, author of the book "Parenting an Only Child." Newman says that "..having two children triples the work load because parents have to spend time with both children and with each child individually. It grows exponentially like that with each added child."
So who takes the deal?
Incredibly, most parents turn the money and all that free time down. In the US in 2014 the number of families with one child is 34%. But when you look at what people consider the ideal number of children a huge disconnect between aspirations and reality emerges. According to the Pew research centre 48% of people in the US consider two children to be the ideal family size, and another 38% feel it is 3 or 4. A startlingly low 3% nominate one child as their ideal. That means there are a lot of parents having one child who would like to have more.
Many people just don't like the idea of one child but it's not because of personal experience, relatively few were an only child themselves. Back in the 1970s or 80s when this generation of parents was growing up, only children were as few as one in ten. The fact is for most people stopping at one child is scary, unnatural even weird. A single child just doesn't fit with the idea of a happy 'family' they've grown up with. They can't imagine life without siblings and worry that their only child will be disadvantaged, even sad and that their family will be too small, incomplete or just too quiet.
In reality there are many reasons parents stop at one, many of which are beyond their control: Infertility, the cost of living, marital breakdown even death. These parents are living with the idea their family is somehow wecond rate, and they are responsible for raising a lonely, dysfunctional, child. That's a lot of disappointment and a lot of guilt.
So many parents are taking the deal, but rather than enjoying their extra cash and quality time with their child, they are beating themselves up over their 'failure' even before it's happened.
All this reminds me of another set of parents. There was a time when parents of LGBT children beat themselves up. Mothers of gay teens worried they'd been over-protective, fathers felt somehow less manly. Parents of transgender kids felt they'd done something wrong. All worried their children were somehow less than perfect, damaged, even 'wrong'. But now we know there's nothing wrong with being LGBT and it's not parenting that makes lesbians lesbian or trans trans. LGBT is just another sort of normal.
Only children like all children, come in every size and shape and colour. They are jocks, nerds, gay, straight, shy, cocky, introverted, extraverted, diligent, lazy, selfish, generous, pious, sceptical, sociable, loners, happy and sad. There is no research to indicate that siblings affect your personality either beneficially or otherwise. There is no research to back up the notion that only children are lonelier, or weirder or selfish or more mature or more dysfunctional than anyone else. They are normal.
There is however plenty of research suggesting that the sibling relationship can be troubled and troubling for parents. Sure being an only can mean more time alone but having siblings doesn't guarantee you quality companionship. Sibling rivalry, bullying, abuse and parental favouritism make the sibling relationship potentially faught, even destructive and linked to psychological damage such as anxiety and depression long into adult hood.
Siblings can be great company or the worst. And if it's the latter you're stuck with them, you can't get away. Some only kids wish for siblings and some kids wish their siblings would disappear and never come back, no really, I did. Caring for aging parents isn't necessarily easier with siblings, it's just more complicated. If you add a potential inheritance into the mix, look out.
And the fact is there's no longer such a thing as the 'normal' family. Some families have one parent, some two, some more. Some families have one child and some have five. Some kids have two sets of parents even families, and spent time with both. No matter what the numbers, parenting comes down to one thing, openess, honesty and unconditional love.
After I had my son my husand and I took the deal, we chose the money and the extra time. For us there was no guilt, no conflict and we've patted ourselves on the back every day since. All that money and time really came in handy, maybe even kept us sane. My marriage is great because of it. My homelife is wonderful. I’m even taking time off to write this blog and see my son comfortably through a transition to a new city and a new school. Most importantly, I've loved being able to give my son what I missed out on growing up with two siblings, the full love and attention of my parents. Parenting my son has been a healing experience for me. I got to be the parent I never had.
But I'm unusual.
The fearful power of the one child myth is so persistent, so pervasive and so persuasive it actually convinces parents to act in an economically irrational way and contrary to their own best interest. The 'only child' myth demands parents self sacrifice and deny the deal of a lifetime.
All this parental guilt and sacrifice plays into the whole 'parent as martyr' narrative so well. As parents we love to moan and complain about how hard our job is, how stressful parenting is. We love the stories about caring for newborns and not having time to wash your hair or get out of your pyjamas, and how your life was in ruins. We love the images of parents tripping on roller skates, dropping their groceries on the front step, struggling with a baby in one hand and a toddler in the other. And as parents don’t we feel that we’re somehow making the sacrifice for our country or some unidentified need for the human race to expand and survive. We're creating the next generation of little workers who will keep our pensions paid, and change our adult diapers when the time comes. Or we're recreating the 'big happy family' singing songs around the pianola, or playing 'eye spy' in the big old gas guzzling car or sitting around the dinner table eating meat and three veg while the black and white TV flickers in the background.
In the defence of parents, we are put under tremendous pressure to refuse the $245,000 offer. The guilt trip starts when your first child is a toddler. It's about then that you are bombarded with questions from family, friends and even total strangers. “When’s the next one due?” “Surely you don’t want her to be an only child?”
I wonder what percentage of parents are having second or even third children to please their parents. Parents just love to be grandparents, don't they? And why not? They've got free time and if they're not playing golf or flower arranging just love to spent the odd day here and there hanging out with a new baby, it's a lot of fun. You can go home afterwards and sleep.
The fact is all parenting is about sacrifice, but have you ever thought about who is making that sacrifice when hyou choose to have a second or third child?
Remember the deal you were offered? The $245,000 and the extra time? When it comes down to it, it’s not just you being offered that deal, the deal is also being offered to your first born child. When you choose to reject the deal and have a second or third child, the money was taken off the table for your first child too. In effect, you were making the decision to reject it on their behalf. And for a child, that deal is very meaningful, it's $245,000 worth of housing, clothing, food and vacations. Even more importantly that money buys a lot of education, it's a better quality of school and extra curricular opportunities like music lessons, ballet, even math tutors. In this day and age a good education is the difference between earning good money and earning very little. By rejecting that money you are portentially jeopardising the future of your first child.
But that's not all. The extra time that was offered in the deal is also a sacrifice that will be made by your first child. In many ways the first child loses you at that point, taking care of a baby is a full time job and the first born can only look on and wonder what happened to those parents that used to be there for him? Where is the one on one time that was so precious? The nightly bedtime story that finished when you all three fell asleep?
You’re not the only one making sacrifices. Your first born is making them too, possibly in ways that define her happiness, her character and her future.
Choosing whether or not to take the deal is surprisingly difficult for most people. It can mean dashing life long expectations and fantasies about your future family dating back to your childhood. It can mean pushing back against societal pressure to conform to an imagined 'norm'. It can mean defying myths and stereotypes about only children and siblings. It can mean looking at what’s before you and deciding it's right, that's enough.
I was lucky. I never wanted a second child. My image of siblings was forever blemished by my own experiences. And my husband who is friends with his three siblings felt instinctively that more children would steal our freedom, crowd our home, ruin our quality of life and detract from the quality of parenting we could offer our precious first. So, our answer when asked was simple “We stopped at perfect.” And when we said it, we believed it. Our family of three was perfect then and is still perfect fourteen years later.
I consider stopping at one child to be one of the best decision of my life. My son is happy, thriving and I have to say pretty perfect. We’ve met each challenge of having an only child head on and solved it. And in the meantime we’ve travelled, enjoyed our peaceful, harmonious home life and enjoyed spending that deal money on giving him the best, whether it’s a good education, a trip round the world, or a pair of really nice leather gloves. The extra time with him we've really enjoyed, our uncluttered weekends, reading to him every night, hanging out with him on holidays, attending all his sports matches or picking him up from school. As a family of three we are able to do everything together, we're a single happy unit.
Down the track, I don’t expect my son to take care of me when I’m old. I wouldn't inflict that on him. Anyway we've invested some of that $245,000 to take care of us when the time comes And if I'm very unlucky and he dies first, I know no ‘spare’ will insulate me from the pain, and I’ll deal with it if it happens.
I hope he's happy, he tells me he is and we're very close so I believe him. He's never asked for a sibling. He's seen mine and those of his friends. He says 'They suck.'
I know plenty of people who refused the deal. I can see for myself how it worked out. And I still say “We stopped at perfect.”