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By Bethany Grey
The 2020 Census revealed what modern women of child-bearing age already know: we’re having less children. As the mother of an only child, I’m included.
For economists, the findings are a problem to solve, but for me, they’re cathartically gratifying. While the American government ponders how to care for an army of aging blue-haired baby-boomers, the decennary statistics have soothed my greatest fear. Turns out my daughter, my one and only, may not be a lonely anomaly after all.
The infamous inquiry - When will you give her a sibling? - started before my perineum could heal. The question is a punch in the gut, unknowingly poking a dragon-sized insecurity that we’re doing our child a disservice, robbing her of a sibling experience. Perhaps the worry is irrational. Does anyone really care what grows, or doesn’t grow, in my womb? Maybe not. But when my honest response – never - is met with a look of astonishment, as if I’d slipped and confessed to child abuse, their judgement becomes palpable.
“She’ll be spoiled with attention.”
“Who will she turn to as an adult?”
“She’ll never know that special bond.”
These are true statements, and ones I’ve returned to ad nauseam. My own siblings are infinitely supportive. Our interests vary, but when there’s a cross to bear they willingly share the load. Of course, this isn’t a given. Sibling rivalries can be of Biblical proportions, as told with Cain and Abel. Still, the guilt of ‘what if’ stays with me. What if growing up as an only drives her into therapy? (But honestly, I’m sure something we do will). Only yesterday I joined the “One and Only” support group, a monthly meet-up for parents of only children. I guess I didn’t want to feel…alone.
So, despite these nagging concerns, why did my husband and I settle on a family of three? Because for us, the known benefits aren’t worth gambling away. Our harmonious trio rears a manageable, happy household. It just feels right.
We’re not alone. The numbers are in and the birthrate is declining. Just this week, Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times reported there are now more Americans 80 and older than 2 and younger (1). Whether by choice or circumstance, the average child per household dropped to 1.73, a value lower than the replacement rate (2). Family sizes have shrunk. Pew Research recently reported that women who reached the end of their child-bearing years with one child doubled in the last generation, rising from 11% in 1976 to 22% in 2015 (3).
The reasons are multifold, and sadly, not always by choice. Recent years have brought awareness to infertility struggles. The bravery of women like Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen shed light on pregnancy loss, while Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman detailed their family’s difficulty conceiving (4). Women are more engaged in the workforce and therefore delaying motherhood, betting on a dwindling collection of eggs. And the little mentioned, yet surely contributive, culture that values female thinness, an ideal often achieved with inadequate nutrition and excessive exercise, can result in sporadic, or even missed, menses.
Relationship drawbacks may also factor in. Before a second child is considered a partnership could end in divorce, or god forbid death, or perhaps never had a future to begin with. As of 2016 there are 11 million American single parent households (5).
Then there is the monumental financial strain, which is an article in itself. Childcare costs that exceed a paycheck, never-ending extracurriculars, and the looming expense of college, enough for a down payment on a home. Not to mention the medical bills that accumulate for post-partum maternal care. My fortuitously quick labor left my pelvic floor in shambles. To have hope of sneezing without peeing, it was suggested I attend physical therapy, which with good insurance from a well-known company cost forty-dollars per 60-minute visit in addition to the sick leave required from work. More complicated births require frequent follow-up with an OBGYN, or if diagnosed with debilitating post-partum depression, treatment with a mental health professional.
A parent is never obligated to defend their choice, but if needed there is no shortage of only-child justifications. Yet, none so far seemed to fit my own. Our marriage was solid (relatively speaking, after surviving a newborn), we weren’t living paycheck to paycheck, my physical recovery was long but eventually I did heal, and we consider our daughter to be the most perfect being to ever walk the earth. So, why wouldn’t we want another?
It was Tavernise’s follow-up report with The Daily podcast, A Shrinking Society in Japan, that brought clarity. Though she focused on the growing number of Japanese women opting for no children, for those same reasons – the option to pursue a career, freedom from domestic chores, moments of peace - I was perfectly content with one (5, 6). Other women share this sentiment. Ours is the generation encouraged to be fiscally responsible and strive for higher education, and were subjected to countless seasons of MTV’s, Teen Mom. As a friend once said, “If you can’t feed ‘em, don’t breed ‘em.” We’ve headed the warning, and in the process stumbled upon what all parents strive to achieve: balance.
Furthermore, the stigma surrounding only-children is dissipating. Thanks to trailblazing advocates like Lauren Sandler, best-selling author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, misconceptions that they’re bossy, selfish, and awkward have been squashed. Even literature agrees. Roald Dahl’s account of the intolerable, overindulged Veruca Salt in his middle grade classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, may come to mind first, but lest we forget that Charlie Bucket, the benevolent protagonist, is also an only child. A life destined to manage the world’s greatest chocolate factory is not a bad gig.
And yet, the ending of Tavernise’s original report continues to irk me, “The consequences of low fertility are still unfolding” (1).
A dwindling younger population is certainly a threat to a prosperous economy, but is fertility really to blame? To my knowledge, global warming remains a grave concern, and just last month a camera caught two toddlers terrifyingly dropped over a border wall in New Mexico. Though I fully support policies that ease the mental and financial burden of parenthood, I also question if smaller families, like mine, should be disrupted to meet society’s needs when disputes over immigration are far from solved. Humans already born are ready and willing to improve their life circumstances within our country, if we let them. Maybe the problem isn’t a declining fertility rate, but society’s unwillingness to accept the changing face of America.
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