Have One Child or Many, Just Don’t Plan on Getting What You Expect

Questions around whether, why, and how we have children are more fraught than ever, as medicine and technologies—from contraception to pre-embryonic genetic screening—allow us unprecedented control over reproduction. Writer Lauren Sandler has recently been touting the benefits of having only one child (such as in a New York Times op ed and in a post on The Atlantic’s “Sexes” blog) as she promotes her new book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One. Much of what Sandler writes troubles me, but not because she believes having one child is generally better than having a bunch of kids. I’m troubled by Sandler’s arguments not because I think she’s wrong about only children, but because her arguments exemplify what is wrong with how all of us tend to talk about children, and how and why we decide to have them.

In the Times op ed, Sandler wrote, “Most people say they have their first child for themselves and the second to benefit their first.” Most people? I have heard this phrase offered as a generalized explanation for families with multiple children, but I have never heard a parent claim that his or her second child was primarily intended as a flesh-and-blood gift to the oldest child. Perhaps providing their children with playmates during childhood and lifelong friends in adulthood is one impetus for parents’ decisions to have more than one child. But childbearing decisions can never be reduced to a single factor, particularly a utilitarian one like this.

Childbearing decisions are not logical exercises in which we calculate pros and cons, costs and benefits, or long-term advantages and disadvantages for us and our offspring. Such rational reckoning is a poor fit for one of the most recklessly irrational acts of humankind; having kids is particularly irrational for citizens of modern industrialized nations, who have easy access to contraception, plenty of hard facts about the costs of raising children (economic and otherwise), and no need for children to provide farm labor or long-term elder care. But reproductive decisions arise largely from the heart, not the head. It is absurd to imagine that the fruits of analysis could possibly trump the power of love and longing.

But in a culture that holds individualism and choice in high regard, in which reproductive technologies are increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous, we are hearing more and more voices like Sandler’s—voices that present procreative decisions as logical exercises in enabling the best outcomes. We are awash in studies and articles and op eds about whether adults with or without children are happier, how much money parents can expect to shell out to raise a child to adulthood, how the spacing of children and birth order determine what sort of people children will become, and what family conditions produce the most intelligent, well-adjusted, healthiest children. Technologies such as gamete donation and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD, which is in vitro fertilization with the added step of testing fertilized eggs for a particular trait, such as a genetic disorder, gender, susceptibility to adult-onset diseases, and some physical characteristics) enable parents to ask questions that would have been pointless even a generation ago: Do we want to “balance” our all-boy family with a girl? Do we have the financial and emotional resources to handle a child with special needs? Do we want to select a gamete donor more likely to produce an athlete or a brainiac—or a potential Rhodes scholar who is both?

Sandler exemplifies this outcome-oriented approach to childbearing, arguing that only children have “higher intelligence and achievement” and more self-esteem than children in larger families. The reason for their impressive stats is that “parents who have just one child are able to devote more resources—time, money and attention—to them than parents who have to divide resources among more children.” She supports this contention not merely with statistics, but also with a cringe-worthy vignette, in which she proudly relates that her only child could identify the color “magenta” when she was just two years old.

The underlying assumption of Sandler’s argument—and presumably of many who will buy her book—is that prospective parents should be concerned primarily with outcomes when making childbearing decisions. Her arguments assume that our essential motivation as parents is to produce children who will be as smart and productive and healthy as they possibly can be.

On the surface, this seems like an innocuous and perfectly natural motivation. Certainly, good parents hope our children will be happy, well-adjusted, and healthy. We sacrifice tremendous time and energy to provide our children with resources, from parental attention to healthy food and good schools, that will nurture their bodies, minds, and spirits.

But while we hope for our children to know good outcomes, do we nurture our kids (or have them in the first place) primarily to achieve those outcomes? I don’t read to my children primarily because I know that studies show that regular reading leads to all sorts of positive outcomes. I read to them because we all like how it feels to sit quietly in bed together, sharing a story. We didn’t have a third child after calculating the costs (in money, time, space, energy) and determining that we would get sufficient return on our investment. Our third baby, and the two daughters who preceded him, were born out of an immeasurable and potent brew of desire, hope, calling, and love. While I thought and worried about money and space and energy, I ultimately let go of my overcalculated anxieties to have a third baby for reasons far more vital if less measurable.

No doubt, some parents are more calculated in their childbearing decisions than we were, choosing to have or not have babies or space their children’s births according to a research-based calculus that gives kids the best chance to grow into productive, healthy adults. But many parents would probably, if pressed, point to that immeasurable, vital brew, rather than outcome-based deliberation, as their main motivation for having kids. And I believe that, fundamentally, this less logical but more powerful way of making reproductive decisions is the better way.

Today’s parents have much research (some of it contradictory) at our disposal. We also have access to technologies offering opportunities to time our childbearing and finesse our children’s traits to achieve optimal results. Young couples can undergo IVF to create and freeze embryos, saving them to implant in a decade or so, when they are richer and more settled.  Parents can use PGD to ensure the birth of a boy or girl, or select for or against various other traits—all in the name of better outcomes, for children, their parents, and even society. Arguments for using PGD to select out genetic disorders, for example, are frequently framed as avoiding the birth of children who will become “burdens” on their communities.

One problem with making reproductive decisions geared toward particular outcomes is that no research or technology can guarantee those outcomes. Research may show that only children are more likely to have higher intelligence and self-esteem, but there is no guarantee that a particular only child will be brilliant and confident. A mother of boys who fantasizes about having a daughter to dress in cute frocks and get mani-pedis with at the mall could use PGD to ensure birth of a girl, and end up with a daughter who prefers sweat pants and baseball.

I don’t know anyone who has chosen to have more than one child to “fulfill breeding requirements,” as Sandler puts it. I know many parents, myself included, who struggle mightily to have enough of everything (time, money, attention) for our children—and who fail at that endeavor daily—but who are nonetheless profoundly grateful for the children whose needs create that struggle. I know many children who are not the most brilliant or well-adjusted or confident or healthy children in their cohort (my own included), but who are gifts—to their parents, their peers, and the world.

Last week, in an op ed about choosing a career, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “…a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself. When we evaluate our friends, we don’t just measure the consequences of their lives. We measure who they intrinsically are.”

What children intrinsically are is themselves—unique, surprising, challenging, and frequently far too much for even the most competent, prepared parents. Whether you choose to have one child or many (and I don’t think anyone has any business telling other parents which choice is better), the children you end up with, and your willingness to embrace them no matter how they differ from the children you expected, will be the most important outcomes of your childbearing decisions.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Jeannie

    Thanks for this; I really appreciate your thoughts. I had read a piece about Sandler’s article last week but not the original one. Considering how many wonderful, well-adjusted onlies I know, I do appreciate her attempt to counter the idea that onlies are pitiful, friendless, etc. (though actually I think that was debunked some time ago). But I definitely reject the idea that numbers of children, sex of children, etc., should be to achieve any particular end or outcome — mainly (as you say) because they CAN’T guarantee that outcome. In our case, it looks very likely that we will care for our son in our old age, not the reverse. My daughter and son benefit greatly from having each other; in some ways her life would be easier if she’d remained an only child b/c our son’s disabilities are quite challenging — but who can possibly say her life (or mine, or my husband’s, or anyone’s) would be better if we’d just had one? Life is gift. I remind myself of that daily, sometimes between clenched teeth. :-) I love your final comment: “The children you end up with, and your willingness to embrace them no matter how they differ from the children you expected, will be the most important outcomes of your childbearing decisions.”

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks for your reflections on this, Jeannie. These questions bring up harder and deeper questions. You may end up caring for your son in your old age, as you say. If you had known this ahead of time, would you have made a different decision about having your son? I imagine the answer is no (though perhaps not…I don’t want to presume!). For some parents, it might be “yes.” Our ability to choose our way out of more difficult parenting situations (like having a child who will need care his whole life) allows us to control the outcome of our reproductive decisions to some extent, but might also prevent us from experiences that, in the long run, would be enriching and beautiful in their own unexpected ways. How do we continue to make room for the unexpected–good and bad, lovely and terrible–in our childbearing decisions given the technology available to us?

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    My experience has essentially been like yours, Ellen: I’ve never heard a real life parent talk such nonsense. The only people I’ve ever heard talk like Sandler are either in movies and TV shows or are pundits like her.

    And on having a second child, did you see this cartoon over at Jon Acuff’s? http://www.jonacuff.com/stuffchristianslike/2013/06/have-you-ever-prayed-this/
    Funny stuff!

  • Tuija

    Thanks for this perspective.
    I’m the mother of an only child, not because we made a conscious decision to have just one child but because, as you say, no research or reproductive tehnology can guarantee that we get the results we hope for.

    I totally agree with your last paragraph. You put it so beautifully, I want to read it again and again.
    I guess I just want to add that some of us also need to learn to embrace having a different number of children than what we expected (or ‘decided’). I’ve learnt to embrace having just one child and I am very very thankful for the family I have – but I don’t think ‘d have the nerve to try to market this to others as the best of all possible scenarios. :)

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      This is a lovely response and thank you for adding an additional perspective.

  • RachelMarieStone

    I’m an only child, and I ‘only’ have two for now, but I love your point about not planning to get ‘what you expect.’ As it happens, I’m listening to Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ right now and have been so impressed with it and amazed by the stories of families that are truly happy even though their child(ren) turned out so differently than they could have expected.