At a party recently, I ended up in a circle of mothers who were exclaiming their gratitude for being done with childbearing. They all had two children and their husbands had vasectomies. Ironically, we were at a baby shower. The mother-to-be was having her third child and I wondered if she overheard us. Each mother was satisfied with her accomplishment, not just that their child survived the infant years to reach the independent pre-school days, but that they too survived. One mom rolled her eyes as her infant son yanked at her shirt and refused to let go. I understood completely how they felt.
After having my daughter, Flora, I quickly learned that motherhood was not the fun spontaneous lifestyle I imagined it would be – like one of those fabric softener commercials with mother and daughter running through fields of wild flowers laughing. My daughter, I was told, was an easy baby and yet, I still struggled with the isolation that many new moms encountered. No time to rest, no time to myself, no time at all. Everything was scheduled and life as I knew it, gone, instantly. I forgot how to breathe, how to slow down, how to take care of myself. The transition was difficult for me, to say the least. Yet, when I pronounced at the party, “I'm done, too,” a wave of gasps hushed the chatter.
“You're only having one?!” my friend asked with amazement. I nodded confidently though inside, I didn't feel so sure. This was not my first encounter of this kind. Often when I inform people that I plan to stop at one child, not because I am infertile, or poor, or single, but because this seems like the right fit for me, I am met with denial, disbelief and defensiveness.
I had already considered and discussed the idea of having only one child with my husband before I even gave birth. My pregnancy was tough with a few complications, though not life-threatening. Yet, amongst those glowing moments after birth, my husband and I smiling with the glee of new parents, entranced by the fresh little being we created, our midwife made the suggestion that ‘the next one’ would be easier. Thinking nothing of it, we let her know that I most likely would not be giving birth again. She replied, “Well, if you do.” That was my first clue.
My daughter is a redhead and attracts a lot of attention around town. People love to stop and wave and smile at her, though she often shies away or stares at them with her pensive demeanor. One out of ten times, the moment comes when this complete stranger will ask me when I plan to make her a sibling. I used to blush, innocently, as if they were asking me about my sex life, which, technically, they were. Now, I squirm trying not to express my annoyance with their meddling. I hate to think what it must feel like for a woman who is struggling with fertility issues to have someone ask them that same question.
My husband is an only child. He never noticed he was any different from anyone with siblings. He had plenty of friends, friends he still has to this day, that he grew up with and shares a strong bond with. My smart and talented friend, Ivy, was also an only child. She has the same birthday as my daughter, so I thought this similarity might imbue her with some special insight. I asked her if she minded being an only child since she once mentioned to me that the mystery of siblings intrigued her. She said she never really missed it, and if she ever did, “I would go to my friends’ houses who had siblings and see them fight over everything from toys to space to attention and I would always return home grateful for my privacy.”
I realized then that I had the best of both worlds growing up. While I have an older brother and sister, they were from my mom’s first marriage and ten years older than me. More like babysitters than playmates, they moved out by the time I was eight. Like my husband, I was a very outgoing child and wherever we went, I made friends. I always had a close group of friends at school, too. At home, I had all the privacy I wanted and all the attention one could get from a single mom with a full-time job, and I also had a brother and sister who, particularly now that we are older, I can share that unique sibling bond with.
I waver. I look for images of small families, cute little units of three, all around me – in the media, in my town, when we travel. I want affirmations that I am not alone. Why did these people only have one? My next-door neighbor has only one child. Her reason: she had him when she was too old to consider having another one. My friend Julie has only one child. Her reason: she is divorced now, but if the opportunity arose, she would have another one.
I met one mom whose only child was two years old, walking and talking, while I still held my daughter on my hip, passing on another glass of wine and getting ready to leave the barbecue before she got cranky. This mother spoke of mothering an infant as if she were grieving for her dead dog – the loss, the suffering, the sleepless nights, just wanting to feel normal again. I was enraptured by her candor as she told me, “Some moms just aren't baby moms, “and, “It will pass.”
Yet, when I asked her if she was planning on having another, she said, “Yes.” I was surprised, of course, knowing what a difficult time she had with her first one and asked how she could do it. She justified, “It’s such a short period of time to be miserable for a lifetime of joy.”
At the baby shower, children were running around outside through the open field beneath the panoramic mountain scenery. They jumped on the trampoline and I realized how much I love the sound of children laughing, especially my own. Yet, I did not hear my daughter this time. I left her at home with her father. I wanted a break, a chance to socialize without chasing her around and making sure she was not getting into things she should not. If she was there, I would not have been so immersed in the conversation.
My friend was still in shock. We live rurally, very rurally. On the fringe of society, in a community that does not necessarily welcome our kind; over-educated transplants who have chosen poverty because we want to live simply. It makes sense here to have more children, to help on the farm, to always have a friend handy, and I question if my choice to have only one means that I do not belong here. I wondered if that is what these other mothers were asking themselves.
“But you seem like the type to have a lot of kids.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, genuinely inquisitive. What ‘type’ is that: more maternal, more family-oriented, less self-centered?
“I don't know, but I never would have thought you would stop at one.”
Another mother joked, “Come on, you have to meet the status quo of at least two children.”
I was uncomfortable. I hoped they did not notice. I felt as if I was quitting a job I was contracted for or failing my society by not fulfilling a statistic. I was a curious case in their minds, to be pondered.
I have noticed that when I tell some parents of multiple children of my desire to have only one child, they get defensive and want to know why. I tell them my reasons and watch as they scroll through their heads considering their own reasons for disagreeing. It is as if they want to change my mind. One woman justified, “Well, once they reach four years old, then it’s easy because they are so independent, before that, it’s tough.” Her husband interjected, “Yeah, only now they fight all the time.” His wife glared at him.
The fact that people get defensive makes me wonder if deep down inside, they regret, on some level, having more than one child. Of course, once that child is born no one would admit it to themselves, but perhaps they felt almost obligated to have two. I once felt that way. It has been a long hard road for me to decide to have only one. First, I had to deal with the idea of something ever happening to my daughter, the idea that I might die alone. I had to learn to be okay with the idea of dying alone. No amount of children could guarantee me elder care. Then, I had to consider the idea that she might be alone.
When an old friend, who happened to be pregnant with her second child, asked me when I was going to have another baby, I answered, “We’re really content with having just one right now.” It is a fairly practiced answer. It concisely expresses that we are planning on having only one child, but it also leaves a little room for interpretation. Her answer: “Oh, no, you have to have a playmate for Flora!”
I can’t deny that sometimes I wonder if she, and everyone else who feels this way, may be right. I wonder if I am depriving my daughter of an eternal friend, someone she can always play games with when we travel, an ally on the playground when kids begin to gang up, or, when she’s older, someone to vent about her parents with. I do, in certain moments, consider that I should have another child for this reason.
I asked my friend Melinda who has a brother near her age if they were close. “Not at all,” she replied, “We didn’t get along at all as kids.” I thought of her poor mother breaking up fights in the backseat of the car, swinging her arm around trying not to swerve off the road. I know people whose sole reason for having another child is to duplicate the close bond that they had growing up with their siblings. I also have a friend who swears she will only have one child so as not to duplicate the jealousy and stress for attention that she struggled with growing up. Again, there are no guarantees.
If you are a mother of one, the best way to get out of a sticky conversation about being a mother of one is with humor. My response to the women at the baby shower: “I’m so done with having kids, I left mine at home.” The attention dispersed to chuckles. For the moment, I was off the hook.
Now that Flora is older, parenting more closely resembles that TV commercial I always dreamed about. We can dance and laugh and sing together and run around outside in the forest, along the stream. My reasons for only having one child have become less about how hard parenting is and more about practicalities. Another child means a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger stroller, and so on, where we would rather keep it simple. More children would also make travel difficult, and this is something our family loves to do.
Yet, none of those reasons are enough to choose to have only one child. More importantly, my secret reason for not having another child, the reason I would never confide at a party, is that I cannot imagine it, no matter how hard I try. I adore my daughter. She is a glowing light in a dimming world and I do not wish to diffuse her fire with another child. Perhaps this argument seems the strangest or even offensive. People probably perceive more children as more light, but in truth, the time and attention I can give to my daughter diminishes with each additional child, as does her bond with her parents, and, hence, her self-confidence, security, and education. I believe that those are sacrificed for what some see as the better socialization that comes with more siblings.
In my new understanding of parenthood, based on what I have already come to learn as a mother, my daughter and I are walking down the road by our house, two red heads side by side. She picks out a wildflower along the ditch and we look in our field guide for its common and Latin names. Then to memorize it, we sing a song about it in funny voices until the flower is our mantra. We skip down the road, mother and daughter together and sublimely paired.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem