Care and Feeding

How Do I Know if I’m Really Done Having Kids?

A woman puts her hand on her belly.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chris_Paris/iStock/Getty Images Plus.  

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are at a crossroads when it comes to having a second child. We have a delightful, funny, sweet 2-year-old, and my husband is pretty happy with the way things are and doesn’t particularly want to go back to Baby Land. And I don’t know that I want to go back there either! I had a rough time postpartum, physically and emotionally. However, my midwife tells me that the physical part is unlikely to repeat itself, and I feel more prepared for the emotional part. But we’re also worried about the cost of two children in daycare. And we have a good rhythm right now of taking turns looking after our son so that we both get down time—and who knows if we would have that luxury with two? I feel so close to being at peace with the decision to stop at one…but I always thought we would have two, and it’s hard to let go of that vision. Besides all of my complications after the birth of my son, I loved the tiny baby days and wish I could enjoy that again without the pain. All of the adults I know who were only children themselves have two or more kids—which makes me think they know something I don’t know about the experience of being an only! I worry about my son being lonely or not having anyone who understands his childhood.

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—One and Done?

Dear One,

It is my sincere belief that the only reason to have a second child is that you really and truly want to. Having a second child to make sure your first doesn’t end up lonely can backfire: There is no guarantee that siblings will get along, either in childhood or as adults. I’ve talked about this before in the column, but I want to add a few thoughts here, especially since you and your husband seem to be roughly on the same page, and because neither of you seems wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the prospect of baby number 2.

Talk this through together—talk through every aspect of it that you’ve mentioned in your letter, and every aspect that you haven’t yet thought about. You don’t mention how old you are, which leads me to believe that you’re not feeling panicky about running out of time. Don’t rush this decision. And please don’t be guided either by what others do (not even by what other only children do! There are lots of reasons people do or don’t have more than one child, just as there are lots of reasons people don’t have children at all) or by what you imagine you will be providing for the son you already have. As an elder child—my brother is three years and nine months to the day younger than I—I can attest to the fact that two children born into the same family may remember very different childhoods. My brother and I are forever marveling over how different our experiences of our parents were—how different virtually everything we remember about our early lives is. What we “understand” about each other’s childhood is more confusing than it is reassuring (though it is endlessly interesting—I’ll give you that). The most drastic cautionary note I can offer is one that I left out of my answer to the earlier version of this question: I have a friend who was entirely content with one child but believed it would be selfish not to have a second—because her own life had been so enhanced by her lifelong friendship with her sister—and whose life was turned upside down by her second child.

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You cannot predict the future; you cannot control the future. Listen closely to your own instincts, pay attention to your own deepest desires (and by “your” I mean yours and your husband’s), and make a decision together based on that, not on the imagined future experience of your 2-year-old. Only children can grow up to be fulfilled people whose lives are rich and complex and full of love, as can those with a sibling—or numerous siblings. And only children can grow up lonely and misunderstood, too, as can people with siblings. There are a lot of different paths toward a full and happy life.

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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been divorced for about four years, and my ex and I have a pretty good co-parenting relationship with regard to our 11- and 15-year-old kids. But I do not like doing things with my ex socially, and, increasingly, I don’t want to see him or have to talk to him when we exchange the kids. I am realizing I harbor a lot of resentment about the role he played in creating financial problems during our marriage that I am still living with today. But it’s more than that: he has also never been good at social cues, stays and talks too long, and is just generally kind of an annoying person. Anyway, we have always celebrated birthdays and holidays together for our kids’ sakes—never an all-day thing, but we’ll have dinner together and exchange gifts. I orchestrate most of the celebrations, just like I did when we were married. He doesn’t even put up a Christmas tree because “you kids have one at your mom’s house.” I know doing some things as a family is important to my kids, but I just don’t want to anymore. I find myself irritable throughout the whole gathering and so annoyed with him I can’t even make eye contact. Is it OK to just stop doing this and plan separate celebrations? And what if he’s not capable of giving our kids an enjoyable celebration without my help? Apart from our kids missing out on “family” memories if I stop having these get-togethers, I worry my ex won’t rise to the occasion and put together celebrations of his own.

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—Exed Out

Dear Exed,

I’m going to offer you two different answers to this question. The first is rooted in my fundamental belief that one’s kids’ happiness overall matters more than one’s own several-times-a-year unhappiness—which is why I strongly suggest that you keep (briefly!) meeting up on those special occasions for as long as these full-family get-togethers are still meaningful to your kids. (But I do want to add that it would make sense to have a thoughtful conversation with the kids about this ongoing tradition. Make sure it is important to them before you commit to gritting your teeth and continuing to put up with it for their sake. Make sure they’re not putting up with it for your sake, or out of habit, or for any other reason that has nothing to do with their genuine need for it. There is certainly a chance that the teenager, at least, has outgrown this. So ask, OK?)

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Now to my second answer:

If all of this is truly making you miserable all year long—if even the anticipation of having to deal with your ex on holidays is debilitating to you—and it seems to you that prioritizing your kids’ happiness is doing you so much harm that it’s unreasonable for you to continue this practice, talk to your children about that. They’re not babies. You don’t have to tell them you find their father annoying. (Although they probably know, especially if you can’t look at him when you’re all together.) But you can certainly say that you’d like to move on and get to the next step in your post-divorce life. You can be frank with them about the fact that on Christmas they will have a tree at your house and not at his—and, I’m guessing, at birthday celebrations at his place there won’t be a cake—but they don’t need two trees/two cakes. They just need both their parents, separately or together. If it’s time (past time?) for you to be completely and permanently separated from their dad—to the extent that such a separation is possible when the two of you are co-parenting—then tell them that.

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Only you know whether the sacrifice you have been making is worth continuing to make.

If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
•Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old came out as non-binary last summer. We’re a progressive household, and we’re supportive of their choices as they sort through their feelings about their gender identity and how it affects their place in the world and their relationships with friends and family. They have chosen a new name to use that is more gender neutral than their birth name, and we’re rolling with it. The only problem is that I haaaaaaaate the name. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, except that it’s almost identical to my husband’s name. Like, if my husband’s name were Mark (it’s not), my child’s new chosen name is Marx. I asked my child why they went with a variation of their father’s name when they first shared it, and they said that it hadn’t even occurred to them. Which makes me question how much they’ve thought the new name through. But that aside, here’s what I’m wondering: Since they have only been trying on the new name with friends and family for a week or so, would it be really, really awful of me to ask them to consider a different one? I’m already tired of having two people answer me every time I call out for one or the other.

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—Hating the Name, Not the Namer

Dear HtNNtN,

I’m so glad to hear you’re being supportive and patient and kind as your child works their way through understanding and making sense of their identity (yay, you!). But please don’t let that kindness, patience, and support come to a screeching halt when it comes to the new name. I mean, it’s just a name. But it’s the name your child has chosen, which is a big step for them. And yes, they may not have thought it through as completely as you’d like—or (alternative interpretation) they may have thought it through more completely than you think and are not copping to that—but it’s not your name, it’s theirs. And so the answer to your question is: yes, it would be awful if at this particular challenging moment in your child’s life you took issue with the name they’re trying out—which your child will inevitably see as a metaphor, even if you are sure it’s only about the particular name and nothing else. It doesn’t matter that you hate it—just like it doesn’t matter if you hate the clothes your kid chooses to wear, or the way they want to wear their hair, or the music they listen to (it’s part of parenting to live with hating this stuff some of the time, just as it’s part of adolescence to do things your parents will hate). It doesn’t matter if two people answer when you call out the new name, or that you’re “already tired of” this. Just roll with it. It won’t kill you.

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And who knows if your child will land permanently on this name or on another. (Or if your registering an objection to it will make them dig in their heels, as is also only age-appropriate.) Meanwhile, if it really is such a big problem that they both when you call out for one, just yell something else when you mean for your husband to answer. Sweetheart? Darling? Amore? Bucko?

Dear Care and Feeding,

We’re having a problem in the “opposite” direction (adult children worrying about parents). My wife and I are now fully vaccinated, as is my sister. I agreed for my wife (and our kids) to visit her elderly (also vaccinated) father in Italy this summer. What I did not agree to was for him to come back with them. I am concerned about an 80ish-year-old coming to visit while the pandemic still hasn’t quieted down. Even though all the adults are vaccinated (and our teen will be soon), I am concerned he might get COVID here in the U.S., and it would be a gigantic and complex issue—even if he isn’t hospitalized for it. And if he were to be hospitalized, the expense would be considerable. My wife is threatening to not allow my sister (and her son) to visit if I won’t allow her father to visit, but I think she’s being unreasonable because this is not just about COVID risk but about COVID risk to an elderly person. I know that infection rates for the vaccinated are ridiculously low so far, but I also want to see how the numbers evolve as more people are vaccinated.

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My wife’s stated fear is that I’m de facto saying he can never visit us again. I’ve told her that what I want is for him to live a long life wherever he is—in Italy or here. I’m focused on the small but reasonable concern of a great problem, and she’s focused on her emotions, and the thought of him being alone for several weeks in his hometown after she leaves (before another relative returns home). I’ve tried to be as understanding as I can be about her concerns, but I feel like his visiting now is just an unwarranted risk. Asking for your thoughts here how to approach and reconcile.

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—Near or Far but Not Yet

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Dear Near,

I don’t think this question is so much about adult children worrying about parents as it is about a marital conflict, and about you and your wife wanting to control something that is not either of yours to control—though if I’m to give the edge to either one of you, it’s to your wife, since it’s her parent, not yours, whose well-being is at stake here. Still, since her father is an adult whom you’ve not indicated is incapacitated in his decision-making ability, my ruling is that he is the one who gets to make this choice. If he wants to come back to the U.S. with his daughter after her visit, so be it. It is extremely unlikely that he will contract COVID and become hospitalized, and your wife is understandably anxious about wanting to spend as much time with him as she can, given his age. Your wish for the remainder of his life isn’t really material here—it’s his. If he is willing to take this (vanishing, highly unlikely) risk, who are you to forbid it? I hope I’m being cynical and not astute when I note that you seem awfully concerned about the cost of a possible hospitalization falling to you. (If he’s 80ish, any visit includes the slight possibility that he’ll need medical care while with you. And if that’s your main concern, well, then, your wife is right: you seem to be suggesting he can never visit. I hope I am wrong about this.)

—Michelle

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