A fable written by Lokman, an Ethiopian sage of ancient times, shares the following story:
A hare, upon meeting a lioness one day, said reproachfully: "I have always a great number of children while you have only one or two now and then."
The lioness replied, "That is true, but my one child is a lion."
Maybe you've been there. You mention that you're entertaining thoughts of having just one child, and suddenly you're barraged with comments like, "But you seem like such good parents," and "But he needs a brother or sister!"
The question for parents considering having an only child is how to make an informed decision despite all the advice from well-intentioned friends and family. "The answer," says social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, PhD, "is simple: Focus on the facts."
Single-Child Families Are on the Rise
"The one-child household is the fastest growing family unit," explains Dr. Newman. The United States has more single-child families than those with two children. Surprising? Not when you consider general cultural trends that have affected the shape of families in the last 20 years. First, couples are marrying later and are therefore older when they start families. Often, it's a matter of not having the reproductive time to have multiple children. The wait means women are having first babies at ages when previous generations were on their second, third, or fourth.
Sometimes the decision to have an only child comes down to stamina. Heidi MacPherson, mother of an only child, explains, "It was important to us that we were able to give Maggie enough of our energy. Being older, we just knew we couldn't have given that to a second child."
There's no question that the number of options for how women spend their time has changed dramatically in recent generations. In her book, Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only, Dr. Newman says percentages of women filling professions such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers has more than doubled since 1983. "The influx of women into the workforce has greatly altered childbearing patterns. Whether or not women hold jobs outside the home, they have a new purpose beyond making babies," says Dr. Newman.
With factors such as higher education and career in the mix, some of those women who might have decided on a second child 20 years ago have decided to stick with just one. Adding to the reasons to stop after one child is the fact that many women are coming to terms with the difficulty of trying to do it all, explains Dr. Newman. "They see the reality of the emotional and physical toll that the stress, exhaustion, and constant pressure has on their lives."
Another reason for the rise in single-child families is divorce. Often, marriages break up around the seven-year mark—after a first child is born, but before a second comes into the picture. Not surprisingly, the percentage of only-child families with single parents has risen in relation to divorce rates.