Care and Feeding

Will I Regret Having Only One Child?

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Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are in our early 30s, and we have been married for almost five years. We have one child, a daughter, who is 14 months old. We had no trouble conceiving, but I had a challenging pregnancy and a traumatic labor resulting in an emergency Cesarean and an awful recovery. Our daughter has also had some health issues that she thankfully has grown out of or will grow out of over the next few years, but this first year has been incredibly difficult. I am only just now feeling like I’m getting back to myself. I am not really thrilled about the idea of getting back in that saddle, to be honest.

Right now I’m leaning toward having our daughter being an only child, but I’m not sure if it’s what I really want, or if it is just coming from a place of anxiety associated with my daughter’s birth. I loved having my siblings, and I do want to give my daughter someone with whom she can have a relationship like my siblings and I had. Also, we belong to a church that is known for its members having large families (when we were kids, it wasn’t uncommon to see families with up to 12 children, although that is significantly rarer now). I come from a family of four kids, and my husband has one sibling. He was adopted, though, and his biological parents have seven children between them, excluding my husband. In our church, there is a lot of pressure to “be fruitful and multiply,” and we are already “behind.” Most people have their first child within a year or two of getting married, and a lot get married younger than we did.

The thing is, my husband says he is Done (yes, with a capital “d”) having children. He is perfectly content to have our one, beautiful daughter, although he has said he wouldn’t mind having a son if we were to have a second child. Meanwhile, everyone—from both sets of parents to my husband’s biological family—has been asking us when we are going to have another baby. We have heard things like, “You make such beautiful babies, you HAVE to have at least one more,” or, “I just can’t picture you having only one child.” I mostly just say that we are not even at the point of thinking about it yet, but that time is coming to a close. If we were to have another child, I wouldn’t want the age gap to be more than about three years, so we would start trying in the next year or so. I also know that giving birth the next time is likely to be easier than the first time was. Still, I’m just not sure what I want to do. How do you know if/when you should have another child? How can you assess your readiness? And are there psychological ramifications to being an only child? I don’t want my daughter to feel lonely or be spoiled because she doesn’t have siblings!

—One or Two?

Dear OoT,

You’re asking a lot of different questions, so I’ll try to take them one at a time. I’ll start from the bottom. Sure, there are psychological ramifications to being an only child because there are psychological ramifications to everything. They don’t have to be “bad” ones, though. Only children don’t have to be lonely or spoiled (no more than eldest children have to be bossy and entitled, or youngest children coddled and infantilized long past their infancy, and so on). And the fact is, some people who have siblings find their lives enhanced by that experience, and some people spend their whole childhoods (and some spend their adulthoods too) wishing they’d been only children. So don’t have more children just to make sure the child you have now isn’t an only. Have another child if you want to.

Which brings me to the pressure you’re under, both from your church and from people who love you. I know it’s not easy to buck this kind of pressure, and it’s challenging to find ways to respond to people who insist you must have at least one other child. Try a noncommittal, “Oh, we are just so happy the way things are right now,” and if (when) your well-meaning tormenters tell you how much happier you’d be—or how much happier your child would be—if you just followed their instructions, you can shrug and say, “Maybe so.” And then change the subject (the best strategy here is to ask them about themselves and their children; getting people to talk about their own lives is a pretty surefire diversionary tactic).

Although you say you’re not sure what you want to do, for much of your letter you do seem pretty sure you don’t want to have another child (and your husband’s I-only-wouldn’t-mind-one-if-it’s-going-to-be-a-boy is hardly worth discussing, since obviously you can’t plan for this—unless what he’s suggesting is that you adopt a son, which is another subject entirely). As far as I can tell, the only items in your pro column appear to be 1) pleasing others and fulfilling their expectations (DO NOT DO THAT), and 2) giving your daughter siblings in order to improve her life (and as I say, there’s no guarantee that this would do that). So the answer to the question of how you know if/when you should have another child is: if/when you and your husband want to. Period. And if the window you’ve decided to give yourself (perhaps arbitrarily? Because you’re still young, and there’s no rule that says three years is the magic age gap) closes and you change your mind while you’re still in your childbearing years, start trying then. Eventually, of course, the window closes for good. But if you reach that point and you still find you don’t truly, unambivalently want to have a second child, you’ve answered your own question. And for what it’s worth, as a mother of an only child, I can tell you that since I made my own decision to stop at one (after some of my own agonized soul-searching), I have never once regretted it. And many other parents of onlys feel the same way.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Not long ago, my 4-year-old daughter and I spent a weekend with my best friend of more than 20 years. That weekend visit was followed by a phone call I had with my friend during which my daughter constantly interrupted us. My friend sent me a horrible message after the phone call, criticizing my parenting and my daughter for her “bad” behavior, both over the weekend and  during our phone call. I can see where she’s coming from about the phone call—I recognize that it was rude of me to allow my child to hijack my attention. But her criticism of our visit deeply offended me. She told me that my daughter was a brat and that I was her slave, and that I seemed determined to excuse her bad behavior.

My friend has no kids and never wants to have any. She has frequently complained to me about other people’s kids. But she also worked as child therapist for almost 10 years and there have been times in the past (not this time!) I have asked for her advice, and it has been helpful. In this message she sent, she also accused me of not making our friendship a priority. But I feel like I have tried hard to make her a priority! Since she moved away a year ago, we have texted daily, had monthly book club phone calls, and we’ve sporadically had a girls’ night phone call. I talk or text with her more than I do with any of my other friends. And before the pandemic, I tried to drive out to visit once every other month.

I know that my daughter and I aren’t perfect. I have been struggling with depression for which I recently started seeking treatment, much of which is related to how I feel about my performance as a parent, and I’ve been feeling much better about it lately—so to be criticized this way was particularly hurtful. I worked hard to come up with a reply to her message that would not destroy our friendship, even though I felt that she had already dealt it a pretty crushing blow. I didn’t know how I would ever feel comfortable visiting her with my daughter again—but I was also afraid that my reaction was an overreaction due to my depression.

I sent a careful reply trying to convey how hurt I was, and I asked her not to comment on my parenting. Her reply was less scathing and expressed concern about me, focusing on other issues like my depression. But she did not apologize. She said the anxiety I was feeling had nothing to do with her comments or advice, and she said that asking her not to comment on my parenting was like asking her not to be herself. I spent a long time trying to write a reply that would get us back on track, but I couldn’t.

I don’t how I can make her more of a priority in my life than I already have. Since she hurt me so deeply, and had no interest in apologizing or changing her behavior, I decided to break off the friendship and sent her a message to that effect. But ever since I sent that friendship-ending message, I have been plagued by doubts. Her reply was conciliatory, and I don’t think she’s a terrible person. I just don’t know how to move forward from this. I wish we could remain friends, but I don’t see how.

—Am I the One Who’s Bad at Boundaries?

Dear AItOWBaB,

I don’t know why best friend breakups don’t get more attention in our culture. I have found them more painful than romantic breakups, and the pain in their wake can be much longer-lasting. I have ultimately gotten over every breakup with a boyfriend, but I am still deeply sad about every close friendship with a woman that has ended. And it doesn’t seem much of a balm to recognize that these were friendships that had to end.

I think the problem is that romantic relationships fulfill many different needs (which include friendship), whereas a best friend really has just one job: to be a good friend. And when someone is unable to continue to do that, the whole enterprise falls apart. Sometimes the culprit is changing circumstances; sometimes something that had been beneath the surface—or even out in plain sight but not especially relevant before (like your friend’s intolerance for children before you had one of your own)—ends up suddenly supervisible and unignorable. And sometimes the very meaning of “being a good friend to me” changes.

For you and your longtime best friend, all of this seems to be in play—for both of you. She’s hurt and aggrieved that she’s no longer at the top of your priority list. I’m sure that’s hard on her. But she is being petulant and self-absorbed—which means that neither one of you is being the friend the other needs. Whether she’s right or wrong about your child’s behavior is sort of beside the point: a genuinely good friend doesn’t trash her friend’s parenting, doesn’t call the friend’s child a brat or the friend a slave, and doesn’t offer parenting advice unless asked for it. I really don’t see a way forward for the two of you, and I’m sorry about that. Perhaps if the friendship is rooted deeply enough, you will find your way back to each other later. But right now? What she’s doling out to you seems to be precisely the opposite of what you need. And what she needs from you is not something you can give her, either. For the record, I think her refusing to accommodate your very reasonable request to respect your boundaries around parenting is a clear sign that this friendship is a one-way street for her. Ending the friendship was a sane, self-protective thing to do.

One last thing: That all of this unfolded over a series of texts is unfortunate. I winced at the phrase “friendship-ending message”—this is really not a great way to part from someone who has been important to you. But what’s done is done. If I thought there was any hope for this friendship at this moment in your life, I’d suggest talking it all through on the phone (when someone else is attending to your daughter)—or writing a proper letter in which you take the time to tell her both how she’s hurt you and how much you love her and why. But my instinct is for you to let this go, because I don’t believe that things are going to get better anytime soon, and dragging things out is going to make you (and probably her too) more miserable. The sad fact is that friendships, however close they’ve been, sometimes end. And this is always a terrible surprise, because we never expect them to.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Oh man we are struggling. We have a delightful, challenging 2-year-old. Among her current toddlerisms are hating bath time, changing her outfit a dozen times a day, refusing the car seat or insisting it’s too tight, suddenly getting extremely possessive and snatchy with fragile or dangerous things. At least she’s not a runner? I’m reading the books and trying my best, but it is really getting the better of my husband. He lectures her and tries to use logic on her. I just overheard him during bedtime saying, “You know, you’re being very disrespectful of me—I’m your father.” “Why didn’t you cover your nose when you sneeze? We have told you so many times.” Over the weekend he informed me that he wanted me to work with her on her letters, like with a lesson plan and learning outcomes. She’s 2! How do I talk to him about his approach?

—This Is Two Much

Dear TITM,

Forget it—you’ll never get him to do things your way (no more than he’s going to get you to do things his way). It would be wonderful if a child’s parents always agreed on how to treat them (well, maybe it would be wonderful), but you’re not going to be able to always present a united front. I agree that your husband is being silly—but so what? The two of you are going to have to agree to disagree. Neither one of you is the boss of this child-rearing experience. Let him lecture and use logic on her all he wants (it’ll get him nowhere fast). And if he wants lesson plans and learning outcomes, tell him to go ahead and knock himself out.

Anyway, this stage of her behavior will pass. Remind yourself as often as necessary that this is a natural and useful developmental stage for her—she’s asserting her independence, establishing herself as a separate person from her parents. (Also remind yourself how lucky you are that you can roll with it better than your poor husband can.) And who knows? Maybe when she’s a little older, his tendency toward logic and lectures will be helpful to her. I don’t think it’s so awful for a kid to have two parents with different parenting styles—as long as neither “style” involves cruelty or neglect, and as long as the parents aren’t bitterly fighting over it.


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