One and Done: Changing the Conversation

Can Americans embrace the single-child family?

Posted Jul 16, 2010

When Lauren Sandler wrote Time Magazine's July 19th cover story, she introduced a different kind of conversation about only children into the culture. The response suggests that we may be finally ready to talk about the growing number of only children, and parents who choose to say "one and done," in honest terms, on a broader national stage. You can follow Lauren on her blog, If Only, a personal journey of being and having an only child. Here in her guest post, Lauren adds to the conversation:

I'm a journalist, and an only child with (for now) an only child. In considering my choice to have one-or another-I began investigating both sides of the singleton question: what it means for kids, and what it mean for parents; drawing from my own experience, and my parents', was not enough. And so I went to the literature. In interviews, I delved into the lived experience of kids and their parents. And I parsed what the increasing number of only children mean for the world: how our deeply personal, individual choices add up on a societal level.

The result of that investigation-or rather, a brief abstract of it-is this week's cover story in Time, "One and Done." Is it a watershed moment for only children? Every few years a mainstream publication trots out the old research-stacked on my desk in the bold colors of academic books published in the 70s and 80s-that has long demonstrated that only children are just fine, thank you. Recently we've learned that parents of only children may be happier as well, despite our social stigma as selfish. (And what's wrong with selfishness, I wonder? My parents decided that to be good parents they needed to be happy parents, and to be happy parents they needed to be happy people. Is that selfish?)

But the fact that this story ran on the cover, and that it was always discussed in-house at Time as a story that belonged on the cover-never was it considered as an article which would be given short shrift in the back of the magazine-speaks to an awareness that it's time to shift the dialogue. In scores of radio interviews since the issue hit newsstands (including one I particularly enjoyed with Susan on The Takeaway, producers commented each time that they had been bombarded with calls and emails, that they wanted to continue the conversation on another show, that they had no idea this would be such a "Hot Topic," as the daytime show The View named it this week. It's clear the culture is hungry for a more honest, open conversation about only children.

And yet, the old rusty saws about singletons continue to cut deep, whether by maintaining how we are stereotyped, or by simply negating or ignoring the choice to stop at one kid. Television's two critical darlings from the past year reinforce the only child myths in vainglory. On Glee, where almost every principal character on the show is an only child, just Rachel-precocious, self-obsessed, chronically insensitive, lit with ambition that scorches everyone around her-is ever identified as such. Or consider Manny, the singleton tween son on Modern Family, who repels everyone except his doting mother with his aggressively adulticized tastes and tendencies, ending up friendless, sipping coffee in a pressed button-down shirt.

Journalism doesn't get a better handle on us, I'm afraid. Take this Wall Street Journal essay written by reporter Sara Schaefer Munoz who poses the question, as the headline asks, "Is My Only Child a Lonely Child?"  She doesn't go in search of research to answer her question. Instead, she writes about her own (completely relatable) anxiety, and poses the question to readers, most of whom fill the comment queue with vitriolic admonishment of the parents of only children-some who are parents of multiple kids, some are unhappy singletons themselves- which leaves happy only children and their parents scrambling to defend the choice as a minority view. It's hardly subtle. Just take a look at this fairly typical response to the essay: "I feel it is child abuse. Would you choose to have a child with a missing limb? Choosing to have an only is selfish and materialistic."

Even Jennifer Senior's recent buzzy cover story "I Love My Children: I Hate My Life." in New York Magazine struck me as reading studies with an eye toward negating-or, more truthfully, ignoring-the choice to have a single child. Senior, a writer and thinker I tend to adore, who I believe is a mother of a singleton, exhaustively combs through studies on parenting and happiness, giving almost no discussion to the fact that many of the researchers she spoke with say people are happiest with just one kid. It's just not a part of her story. Instead she swings the pendulum as far as possible from the Stepford-smiling vision of perpetually joyful parenting to the opposite extreme: that it's a whole lot of misery, albeit we should embrace it should we forever regret not having done so. Parenting shouldn't be distilled into a binary of joy or misery any more than we should discuss the merits of "children" versus "childlessness" without considering the place in between: having just one kid.