The Only Child: Debunking the Myths

Only children are supposed to be spoiled, selfish and lonely. In fact they're just fine — and on the rise, as more parents choose against having multiple children

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Andrea Stern for TIME

Madelyn Vickmark, 21 months, with her dad Bryce at home in Boston. Her mother Rochelle Rosen runs an educational-consulting firm

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But I bring it up because of how deeply I feel all that love for my kid. I am not someone who spent my first three decades imagining a glowing pregnancy followed by maternal bliss. In fact, I used to suspect that mothers who talked about their children with such unbridled wonder didn't have much else going on in their lives. Then I had my daughter — and now I gush like the rest of them. When I was interviewing the parents of only children, several paraphrased the words of one mother I spoke with: "If I knew I could have him all over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But being a mother, and loving being a mother, means being his mother — at least that's how I experience it." I can relate, which is why it amazes me when people seem to think that parents who choose to have one kid don't love their child as much as parents who have more — that somehow they are doing their kid harm.

Parents who intend to have only one say they can manage the drudgery with an eye on the light at the end of the tunnel. Beth Nixon, a Pennsylvania artist and mother of a 1-year-old, says she finds reassurance every day in the fact that "it's not going to be an endless chain of need which is going to be fulfilled for years and years." When her daughter Ida wakes up every hour and a half, screaming with the pain of teething, Nixon feels like it's no big deal. "I can be fully present for this and do my best at trying to appreciate it, because it's like, this is the only time I am going to do this."

Rochelle Rosen works full time running her own educational-consulting firm in Massachusetts while a nanny stays with her young daughter. "People judge me for working full time and for saying I don't want another kid, like these things mean I don't love my daughter. They tell me I'd be happier if I didn't work as much, if I had another kid," she says. "If I have another child, in five years or 10 years will I be happy that I did it? Maybe. But I try to imagine the first couple of years and try to imagine the impact on my daughter. I am so torn in different directions already."

A 2007 survey found that at a rate of 3 to 1, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the "mutual happiness and fulfillment" of adults rather than the "bearing and raising of children." There must be some balance between the joy our kids give us and the sacrifices we make to care for them. Social scientists have surmised since the 1970s that singletons offer the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add: all the wonder and giggles and shampoo mohawks but with leftover energy for sex, conversation, reading and so on. The research of Hans-Peter Kohler, a population sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, gives weight to that idea. In his analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler told me, "At face value, you should say that you'll stop at one child to maximize your subjective well being."

"Most people are saying, I can't divide myself anymore," says social psychologist Susan Newman. Before technology made the office a 24-hour presence, we actually spent less time actively parenting, she explains. "We no longer send a child out to play for three hours and have those three hours to ourselves," she says. "Now you take them to the next practice, the next class. We've been consumed by our children. But we're moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that's simply easier with one."

The New Traditional Family
While singleton households may become "the new traditional family," as Newman puts it, in Leslie and Jarrod Moore's church community in Amarillo, Texas, tradition means something quite different. The couple decided to become parents when Leslie was 25, but pregnancy didn't come easily. It was years before Leslie finally conceived, and by the time Bryar — now 9 — arrived healthy, the Moores decided their hard-won baby boy was "the one God meant for us to have and the only one we want." Jarrod, who has his own home-design company, is one of six and says he knows how hard it is to share resources with siblings. Bryar plays four sports, and "it's already expensive," says Leslie. "Forget college, insurance and a car. Imagine if we were running around to twice as many sporting events, buying twice as many uniforms and tennis shoes," she says. "People around here think we're crazy. But to tell you the truth, if by some weird twist I got pregnant accidentally, we would be devastated."

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