Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are late-in-life parents. Pregnancy wasn’t easy for either one of us, with lots of scary complications and a somewhat traumatic birth. Our daughter is here, though, and she is wonderful, cute, and surprisingly easy. Now I’m torn, though, on the question of having another child. My husband says he’s perfectly happy with just our daughter. And I really am not looking forward to another pregnancy. Adoption probably isn’t an option for us. So for all of these reasons, I think we may be one and done.
On the other hand, I always pictured myself having a larger family. What if something tragic happens to our only child? Would we just live the rest of our lives childless? And I keep thinking that having a sibling would enrich our daughter’s life, teach her important lessons about sharing and taking care of others, and someday, when my husband and I pass on, she’ll have someone to share that grief with—she won’t be alone. How does anyone decide whether to have more children?
—One and Done?
I could fill a column—two or three columns—with versions of this question, which readers often ask us. Often the letter writers are also older parents (as I was, too). Often their only children have no, or few, cousins—or only cousins to whom there’s no expectation the child will be close, because the parents aren’t close to their siblings (or because the cousins are much older, or are awful). They have asked if there’s “any possibility” their lone child will be happy if they don’t have a sibling.
As the parent of an only child who was not an only child herself—and who was edging toward 40 when she had her daughter—I am sympathetic. I wondered and worried too, and so I get where everyone is coming from, although I came at the question of do-we-stop-or-do-we-not differently from any of the letter writers. I was always sure I wanted just one child. I ended a long-term relationship with someone I loved very much because we could not agree about this (indeed, we were very far apart on this matter: I wanted the one; he wanted six). And later, when I had my daughter, I was over the moon. My husband and I were absolutely sure we wouldn’t have another child.
And then my daughter turned 2, and I was filled with longing, suddenly, to hold a baby in my arms again. I knew enough not to trust that longing, to wait and see if it stuck. And since both my husband and my 2-year-old were appalled when I brought it up, I decided to give it a year and see how I felt then. It didn’t stick, in fact (are there hormones that kick in, at least briefly, when one’s baby becomes a toddler?). But as she turned 3 … and then 4 … I started thinking about some of the things you and others are wondering about. Was I depriving my beloved daughter of something that would enrich her life? I had not enjoyed being a big sister growing up. When my brother was born, my nearly 4-year-old self was furious. And we did not become close—we were not even friends—until after I moved out and was on my own. But I so enjoyed having him in my life now! How could I consign my child to a life without that pleasure? I also worried that I was laying a terrible (future) burden on her, when her father and I aged and inevitably became ill and she was left in middle age to deal with all that responsibility and decision-making and grief on her own. Was it selfish of me not to provide her with a “team member” she could count on? What if I were able to give her a sister—the sort of superfriend I mentioned in last week’s column.
I looked around at friends whose sisters were their best friends, and I both envied them and wished this for my daughter. It didn’t help that my own (non-blood-related) best friend had abandoned me when my daughter was a baby, that I was pretty lonely and wished desperately for the sort of relationship some of my friends had with their sisters. I spoke about this at length with friends, some of whom had very private, complex thoughts about their own decisions to move forward with having more children for the sibling reason. The kernel of truth that I came away with is that you should never have another child unless it is what you want. Don’t do it for your child—for her childhood or for her future—but ask yourself if you are happy as a mother of one, and if you believe you will continue to be. Sit with this for a while, and make sure you feel certain of the answer.
The fact is, you never know what’s going to happen. Siblings may like each other, or they may not. They may make one another’s lives easier, or they may make them harder. As for the question of whether another child will help if tragedy befalls your family? No one and nothing could ever replace the hole in a life that a lost child once filled, and you cannot live in such fear of a tragedy. The reason to have another child is that you want to. That you believe it will fulfill a longing deep within you. Don’t make assumptions about your children’s future lives. If they don’t have siblings—or cousins—they will create their own families, either with partners and their own future children or with groups of friends. You are not consigning them to a life of loneliness. And there is definitely more than a “possibility” of happiness for them.
P.S. My long-ago ex-boyfriend did have the six kids he wanted. They are all great, and they are great friends to one another. And my daughter has always had close friends who are very much like sisters to her—and her boyfriend has brothers and cousins he’s close to, and she very much enjoys being in the midst of that large extended family when she visits his parents. There are plenty of ways to construct a life that’s meaningful. We each have to find the right one for us.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
This is not a parenting question so much as it’s a being an adult in children’s lives question. I am lucky to have a very active community theater scene where I live. I’m in my late 20s, and it’s become a wonderful hobby in my adult life. Many of the productions I am involved in have kids who are in middle/high school. I struggle with how to handle my interactions with them. I am closer to them in age than a lot of the other adults involved, and I sometimes notice they want to form friendships with me. However, I like to think of myself as more of a mentor figure than a friend. I was involved in community theater when I was their age, and I know from experience how valuable it is to have those intergenerational relationships. Do you have any guidance about how I can strike that balance?
—Your Friendly Local Community Theater Adult Mentor Figure
For this question, which I was very glad to get—because I too believe strongly in the importance of mentors (and just plain extra adults) in children’s lives—I turned to an expert on the particular question you raise: my daughter, Grace, who is likewise in her late 20s, and whose work has her interacting with middle school and high school kids every day in a variety of settings and contexts. Here’s what she says:
You can be their friend! But you’re their adult friend, not their kid friend, which means it has to be a one-sided relationship, and one that has very appropriate boundaries. If they want to come to you for advice about family, school, that’s fine, as long as you feel comfortable answering. But never go to them for advice, and only share things with them about your life that serve them. My own experience has been that at times these relationships can become close, and these kids may come to you for advice about more intimate parts of their lives, like their romantic relationships. Tread lightly, making sure that if, for example, they’re having a dating problem, you can talk them through it, but only use vague examples that illustrate your point. Don’t ever talk about your own current love or sex life. That’s a boundary that should never be crossed.
If they text you, text them back! Same boundaries: It’s about them, not about you. If you’re their friend for their sake, you’re good. If you find yourself going to them for your sake, you’ve crossed a line.
And you can hang out with them! But make sure you’re taking them out. Suggest a place to meet for lunch. Pay (obviously). And something else that feels obvious, but since it’s come up for me: If they ask you if you want to GO OUT (which, you should know, implies drinking), the answer is 100 percent no. But you can suggest that occasional lunch or coffee instead. Again: boundaries.
I would add to all of this (Michelle again here) that there are benefits for adults, too, in these intergenerational relationships that accrue automatically—that is, that have nothing to do with, as Grace says, serving oneself. Because of the work I do, I am in conversation with older teenagers pretty much every day, and there’s a lot I understand about the world that I wouldn’t if I were sealed off from that generation. As we grow older, it becomes increasingly important to have younger people in our lives (and I would suggest that having older people in our lives is enormously beneficial, too—so you might keep an eye out for some of the much older actors in your theater group as potential friends as well). I take ballet classes with people in their early 20s through their mid-70s: When we go out (and it’s for drinks because we are all adults!), our conversations are lively and interesting and often surprising. All of us are better for it.
A final note on you and your teen friends: I asked my daughter about social media (because I made my own rules about it long ago, when my daughter was in high school and I was first on Facebook, and I wondered how and if things had changed). She told me she tells the kids in her life that they can follow her on Instagram when they turn 18; she accepts their friend requests on Facebook only because she doesn’t put anything on there herself anymore (and of course [Michelle again] teenagers aren’t really on Facebook anymore either: Virtually everyone under 30 has fled to make way for the old people who have taken it over). She added that her guidelines are specific to her, that it depends on content: If you use Instagram to talk about work—and your theater company—it might be fine for them to follow you, but if you use it to post pictures of a significant other or anything that implies drinking, then keeping kids off your social media indefinitely might be a good idea. The bottom line is, as Grace points out many times, keeping in mind who this relationship is meant to serve—and that the answer to that question always has to be them, not you.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a very bright, sensitive, and inquisitive 5-year-old daughter. Sadly, my dad was just diagnosed with a terminal illness. We aren’t sure exactly how many weeks or months he will be with us, but the prognosis is grim. I know she will take this hard as she is very sensitive to change: She cried when I bought a new car last year because she missed the old car and didn’t get to say goodbye. She seems to understand death theoretically (she knows my mom died before she was born and she’s asked me a lot of thoughtful questions about it), but she hasn’t experienced the death of someone close to her yet, and while she knows that Poppa is in the hospital, she doesn’t know why. What is an age-appropriate way to break this news to her? And how involved should she be in visiting my dad? I know he would love to see her, but I’m worried that his physical decline will be tough for her to deal with as well.
—Bearer of Bad News
All of this is going to be tough for her—because she’s so young, because change is hard, because she is the kind of child who needs to say goodbye even to inanimate objects (so was Grace), because she loves her grandfather, and because the death of a loved one is hard for everyone of any temperament at any age. But I don’t think you should shield her from it.
A book I’ve recommended before that helped me talk to Grace about death when she was much younger than your daughter—after her father’s maternal grandparents both died between her second and third birthdays—is Tomie dePaola’s picture book Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. I’ve also recommended a (chapter) book that was a favorite of mine in my childhood and my daughter’s in hers, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy. There is a scene early in that book that deals with a death in an exquisitely sensitive, age-appropriate way.
But even more important than reading together and letting her ask questions about death that you answer honestly and gently if she asks them is giving her a chance to see her grandfather, for his sake, and for hers, too. It will upset her, no doubt. But you will be on hand to answer the questions she has about how he looks and what is happening to him and around him. And it will be better for her in the long run than being told quite suddenly that he is gone. Children are more resilient than we imagine, if only we give them the chance to be, along with the loving support they need as they process the difficult and painful things that are an inevitable part of life.
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