Does Wanting Only One Child Make Me a Bad Mother?

The writer always assumed she'd want more than one kid … until she didn’t. The feelings that arose about family, fear, marriage, and career were more complicated than she could’ve imagined.

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I had just given birth when the nurse lifted my daughter out of the plastic bin. She was born with a mass of dark hair atop her perfectly round, C-section head and a definitive cleft chin just like my husband’s.

“Don’t worry,” the nurse said to me kindly, “the next one will look just like you.”

My husband and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. “Yeah, right,” we thought. But there was still good humor underneath our exchange, the subtext being that this would in fact be something we would do again some day. Just not right now.

In the following months, having another child wasn’t something I had the stomach to think about. I remember meeting up with a group of young mothers when my daughter was still in the waking-every-few-hours stage, and while we had different views on free-range parenting and attachment, we all agreed—the thought of getting pregnant then, at that moment, filled us with dread.

“Oh, no,” said my friend, and we shivered even though it was July. Then we shared information about birth control.

But the assumption is that your view on this will change. “It gets better,” as people tell young mothers. Actually, mothers of infants now say it to me when they complain about being sleepless and they know I have an older toddler. “Well, I know it gets better,” spoken with some hesitation.

My daughter was a very, very wanted child, and that is an understatement. I scrupulously measured my cycles and eagerly anticipated the peak period of conception. I approached the endeavor with scientific accuracy, and there was no real surprise when I got pregnant, only happiness.

This was, of course, only meant to be the beginning of something, of what people often call “building a family.” My husband and I always thought that we would have two children although it was not what you might call a deal-breaker. Three children seemed too smugly upper-middle class, the sign of people who can afford a bigger apartment in an urban area than we realistically could. Plus, I had started childbearing a bit too late for three. One seemed selfish, somehow, as if I were admitting that I would only be a dilettante of a parent, sampling the stages of childhood like unique dishes in a restaurant that you wouldn’t revisit. “Ah, yes, it’s pleasant to have a taste of the swaddling stage!”

Most people I knew had more than one child; lots of people were on their third. My daughter became a toddler. My enthusiasm for having a second child didn’t increase. In fact, if anything, I grew more adverse to the idea.

I tried feeling it out with some people I knew. How bad was it, I wondered, to only have one? I was dipping my toe into something that felt forbidden almost.

“Well,” one relative told me, “you can’t force your daughter to take care of you by herself when you are old.”

Other mothers told me that children “learn to play together,” but I was persuaded that this, like “it gets better,” was somewhat of a myth. I’ve also been told, in a horrified voice, “You can’t let her be an only child!” as if I were condemning her to a miserable and lonely life, full of adult friends and imaginary opponents for games of Go Fish.

On the other hand, I thought, there were some imminently rational reasons for having only one child. It was easier to live in an expensive city, for example, where bigger apartments were expensive and hard to find, and preschool (and perhaps more) costs were certainly an issue. Traveling with one child is easier and cheaper. I could also ask relatives to baby-sit her with somewhat less guilt, knowing that she was just one child.

There were also selfish reasons. I told someone at a party, “I like my pants,” meaning that I did not like the physical discomfort of being pregnant. I was eager to return to my work. I’d been the primary caretaker of my daughter through her infancy and with her imminent start of preschool and the knowledge that she would, over time, become older and less physically dependent on me, I could foresee that I might be able to get marginally more work done. I might be able to tackle the mountain of projects that sat before me. I’d finally sold a novella and was starting another novel. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through another setback that comes when you have a baby.

Finally, there was, I thought, the greatest, most obvious reason of all. My daughter was, in my eyes, delightful—bright and sweet and inquisitive. I had been amazingly lucky. How could I top such a masterpiece?

My husband and I delayed a bit. We moved, and it wasn’t a good time financially. Finally, we decided it was time, or, at least, the time would find me. I was 38 and not convinced I’d be able to have children much longer. My doctors approved me. They said there was no reason I couldn’t get pregnant.

Yet, I didn’t.

Each month, I faced the consequences with a mixture of relief and disappointment in equal measure. If I was going to get pregnant, I wanted to do it right away before I lost my nerve. But maybe I wasn’t going to.

That time, I was incredibly depressed. I went off of my anti-depressants for the good of the non-existent fetus, and I felt terrible. I felt more terrible with the fluctuations of hormones and the lack of conviction I faced about having another child

The truth was that I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

I loved my daughter, but as she grew older, I was increasingly anxious for her to enter school. She began to walk and talk and I could foresee a time when my life as a parent wouldn’t be confined to changing diapers and persuading a toddler that, yes, you really did need to wear clothes to go outside.

Our marriage suffered. My husband and I weren’t as happy. I was taking on more and more work, and I wanted to be able to travel on assignment. I wanted to finish another book. I wanted to do all of these things in my belated career, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do them in a pregnant stupor.

I felt selfish. I watched on Facebook as my friends had their thirds, even fourths. They took happy family photos as big joyous groups, they mourned their children’s growth, they talked about having more babies, as if they could fill their years, a decade at least, with chunky thighs and nursing and sleepless nights.

But beyond the selfishness, I worried that one child meant that I was going to be over-reliant on her. I needed her, maybe a little too much. I wanted her to have the best things, to live a life full of books and reading and the joys of private lessons. She is precocious and delightful. She is maddening. But she is also everything I have.

Was I tempting fate? What if something happened to her? I wondered if having a second child wouldn’t dilute my existential anxiety a little. I would, in a sense, have a backup, a safety net child, just in case.

When I went out, I would see large families with multiple children. They were loud and unruly, but the parents seemed comfortable. They would always have someone around. Maybe someone would get angry, one would cause a rift, but another would be there.

For me, there would only be my daughter. I knew that things wouldn’t always be the same with her. She’d get older. She’d become a teenager. I would no longer be the center of the world for her. Would I be able to endure it? A second child, I thought, was a way of hedging my bets. Having one child felt almost selfish, as if I were a dilettante of child-rearing.

Plus, what did it mean for our family? Was one child too sad? Would we be those parents with the precocious, but lonely, child? Would we drag her to adult events where she would be conversant in small talk but uninterested in children her own age? Would she come to me in a few years and ask why she doesn’t have a brother or a sister? What would I tell her? “I’m sorry, sweetheart, Mommy didn’t feel like it?”  What if none of my work was ever enough to compensate for not having a larger family?

If only I had started earlier, the decision would be easier. Even if I had gotten pregnant at 30, I would have felt as though I had at least 6 years to consider the prospect of a second. But I didn’t think I had the choice.

Plus there was the concern of what the second child would be like. I knew that the older I got, the more likely I might be to have a child with a genetic problem, something that would require more care, or might require a difficult decision. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the situation. I wasn’t sure I could be trusted to handle that kind of sacrifice. And maybe it was all unnecessary.

My husband, eminently reasonable, said that if I didn’t want a second, then we shouldn’t have one.

“But, will I be enough?” I cried. I meant many things. Would he love me enough to compensate for the lack of a big family? Would our daughter be enough to contain all of our love? Would we regret that we hadn’t become a bigger, unrulier unit? Was I putting too much pressure on my family, pressure that would become a problem later?

But most of all, did my husband want to be married to me or to an ideal family? Was I married to the family I was, or to the family I had once imagined might exist?

The truth about children is that they reveal large gaps of insecurity and fear. You realize how much your life is intertwined with someone else’s and how much of your happiness depends on others. As a single adult, it’s easy to be lured into thinking that you act alone. Children make you realize what a fantasy that is. Now that I was aware of the risk, I wasn’t sure I could endure it all again, nor did I feel happy with the alternative.

My dilemma was an existential anxiety that I couldn’t bear to face, much less write about. Was I pinning my hopes too much on one tiny person? Could she endure the brunt of my love, could I endure the pain of her rejection? And what if—what if!—the unthinkable happened? How could I go on?

It seems horrible to admit to yourself that you are deathly afraid of loss, so afraid that you would bring another life into this world just to insulate yourself from it. I doubt that people with multiple children feel as though they are spreading their love around; I’ve no doubt that if you ask them, their love simply grows and grows. And of course, in admitting these terrible thoughts to myself, I had to acknowledge that I would be doing something I didn’t really want to do out of fear.

But then I see my daughter, and she is fine with the way things are. She doesn’t worry about the future; she only sees her world and us. My daughter is happiest when she walks between us, holding “both hands,” as she says. Walking with her, my husband on one side and me on the other, I feel that it might be okay. We are perhaps unruly enough. Maybe it was my daughter’s lot in life to be the person she was, however the family around her changes. I have to accept that this is what it means to love, to fear loss, and there isn’t any way to emotionally pad myself from the truth.


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