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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It may be tough to trace the overall impact of single-child families in the U.S., if, as some experts predict, they trend upward alongside an increase in larger families — not of the 9 by Design ilk but three- and four-child families. While demographers expect to see a slip in population because of the recession, the champion breeders among us will likely offset the continuing ascent of onlies. Preston, the University of Pennsylvania demographer, projects that in the U.S. both the number of larger families and the number of only children will keep growing. But our national picture will probably look a little different: the recent Pew study on American motherhood shows a major uptick in the share of births to Hispanic women, who now give birth to 1 in 4 babies, while white motherhood has declined by 12 percentage points since 1990. (The share of births to Asian mothers has also increased, though not nearly as dramatically, while African-American families have stayed stable.)

Even with those population segments in mind, Andrew Oswald, a professor at the University of Warwick who studies the relationship between economics and happiness, predicts many families will continue to shrink, assuming the nation doesn't slide far deeper into economic crisis. Ironically, it seems that if economic pressures can bring about lower fertility, so can economic prosperity. "I love my own daughters to bits. But skiing and sports cars without baby seats can be fun too," he says. "That's why only children are the secular trend of a rich society we've been moving toward for the past 100 years."

That trend is what is known as the second demographic transition, a concept Ron Lesthaeghe at the University of Michigan advanced 25 years ago. It refers to the fertility shift that occurred when the industrial world moved from high birth and death rates to low ones. Now postponement of parenthood — or refusal of it — in favor of greater focus on education and career, longer periods of searching for the ideal mate and a more flexible and pleasure-seeking life has given us the second demographic transition. Because of these "rich society" tendencies, Oswald guesses that 50-odd years from now, the U.S. will be worrying about declining population, just like Europe and Japan are today.

What shape might that worry take? Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has furrowed his brow a great deal over what he calls "the depopulation bomb" in Russia and China, but he says even if it were to go off in the U.S., we wouldn't face the same kinds of collective problems. "It's not like we don't have the social capital, the rule of law, the sorts of institutional infrastructure that we in the West take for granted," he told me. He says he's not even that worried about Europe. "That's a whole lot less consequential than in China, where there is no national public pension system, where people have relied on relatives for economic backup since time immemorial." He's not just talking about siblings: in China, as generations of only children follow each other, the cousin disappears from the family tree.

On the other hand, no one in the U.S. is taking Social Security for granted these days. If they needed it, I wouldn't be able to financially support my parents in their decline without their long-term-care plan — especially with another year or two of day care still to go. If it were easier to be a parent in this country and if the current economic situation weren't so dire, I might feel more inclined to have a second child myself.

As I enter what my obstetrician calls advanced maternal age, it's a choice my husband and I need to make soon. In doing so, we talk about the idea that to be good parents, we have to be happy people. How we determine our happiness and our daughter's will be based on the love we feel for her and the realities — both joyful and trying — of what a larger family would mean. What we won't consider is whether being an only child will screw her up; we'll do that fine in other ways.

If we end up having no other children, we'll have to be mindful to raise her to be part of something bigger than just us three. But must we share DNA to do that? Stepparents and stepsiblings have become firmly normative in American culture. Single, unmarried and gay parents have headed in that direction too. As Susan Newman tells me, "What really changes, the fewer siblings we have, is how we define family." I've been part of this redefinition all my life. Like most only children, I've cast cousins and friends as ersatz siblings since I was a child, knowing it's not the same as having a brother or a sister but not necessarily missing what I don't have. For now, my kid is happy enough to dance down supermarket aisles by herself or with her friends and cousins. And with her, sometimes, I do too.

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