Mommie Dearest: On Having An Only Child

When I first read a review of Lauren Sandler’s new book, One and Only: The Freedom Of Having An Only Child And The Joy Of Being One , I was hopeful. As the mother of an only child (and with no plans at all to have any more children), I’ve had my fair share of judgement from others. I’ve been told I’m selfish, that I’ll live to regret this decision, that my child will grow up lonely, that he’ll end up resenting me and his father for not giving him any siblings, that he’ll feel burdened when it comes time to care for us in old age. The list goes on and on. I’ve heard variations on these remarks from family, people I know well, and complete strangers.

Trust me, this wasn’t a decision we came to lightly and it’s one that is constantly on my mind. In fact – shameless self promotional plug – my essay in my upcoming anthology about the myth of the “good mother” deals specifically with this topic and is titled “Yes. I Am That Selfish.” So to read about a book that thoughtfully takes on the notion of having one child — and debunks many of the myths commonly associated with it — felt a bit liberating.

After reading the New York Times review of Sandler’s book, I went on a hunt to read more from her. I figured Sandler would be all over the place since she’s promoting her book. I was eager to read more pieces that validated our decision to remain a family of three. So many people spend pointless — and countless — hours vilifying parental choices (adding fuel to the mommy wars I loathe oh-so-much), that I thought it would be great to read essays that went in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, one of the first pieces that I found deflated all my hopes instantly. In an effort to push her point, Sandler wrote a piece for The Atlantic that is just as divisive as those who rail against single-child households: “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and Mother: Have Just One Kid.” It purports that having only one child will boost your chances of success when it comes to being a writer, bolstered by stories of of various popular writers who only had one child. To be fair, Sandler makes some fair points: it’s easier to be more mobile and accessible with only one child to have to figure out plans for. I can imagine that it’s much more challenging for parents of more than one to figure out a time management system that works for all of them. But it’s certainly not impossible.

It’s always a problem when someone suggests a one-size-fits-all formula for successfully combining work and family. For all the anec-data Sandler presents of successful mothers-of-one, there are plenty of other stories one could share about women who have made it as writers with more than one child at home  (as the comments of The Atlantic piece easily demonstrate). Ease of success, whether as a parent or professional, is less about how many children you have and instead boils down to privilege, finances, and access to support. But that argument doesn’t make a headline that generates as many page clicks as one that pits mothers against each other.

Absolutes, especially when it comes to parenting, only work to further widen the gap between mothers. I understand the need and the desire to defend our own choices,  especially when they’re so viciously scrutinized. But to do so at the expense of others only contributes to the already toxic culture of motherhood. There are ways to discuss your viewpoint, whether it be having an only child or being a working mother, etc. In fact, Sandler does it perfectly well in a recent New York Times op-ed.

We can be proud of our parenting decisions without disparaging other’s choices … if only because there are plenty of other people out there disparaging motherhood for us.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto.

[Image of little girl via Shutterstock]