Selflessness is a paramount value in our age of motherhood. We see this play out all the time online, where mothers literally erase themselves from their social media profiles. Last year, Katie Roiphe wrote a searing essay about mothers who use their children’s smiling faces in place of their own on Facebook. The online self-obliteration has only become worse since then, and its maternal practitioners more defensive. Blogger Blair Koenig collects the electronic misbehavior of what she calls “sanctimommies” on her fantastic and hilarious STFU Parents site. “Don’t understand how all these ‘moms’ go out every weekend!” a typical sanctimommy sniffs. “I LOVE being home with my son.”
Into this culture of mommy martyrdom comes Lauren Sandler’s new book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. Sandler is an only child and the mother of an only child, as well as a journalist and Time magazine contributor, and she sets out to parse and rebut common negative myths about her fellow singletons. Though ostensibly the book’s main purpose is to puncture these myths, there is a welcome strain of argument undergirding this well-researched and lively book: Looking out for your own happiness is not inconsistent with being a good mother. This is a vital part of the conversation that’s not being discussed in the chatter surrounding middle-class parenting. As Sandler puts it, “if a kid has no siblings, it’s assumed that there’s a hush-hush reason for it,” either the parents don’t like parenting, or they care more about money than babies, or they waited too long. That they had one kid because it would make them happier is never even mentioned.
Roughly the first half of Sandler’s book is devoted to explaining and dismantling our negative American picture of only children. (Full disclosure, I edited Sandler at Slate and will appear on a panel with her.) In the pre-industrial era, big families were necessary because of high infant mortality rates and because farmers needed workers to do the planting and plowing. We’re a long way from the back 40, but the bias against only children—that they are lonely, selfish and maladjusted, terms that Sandler sees so often that, in her mind, they start running together as lonelyselfishmaladjusted—persists, not just in the United States, but in Brazil, Korea, and basically any country where only children have been studied.
Sandler musters a great deal of data to refute the persistent lonelyselfishmaladjusted drumbeat. On the loneliness front, onlies score no higher on measurements of loneliness than children with siblings; when it comes to selfishness, onlies are more generous than kids with brothers and sisters—perhaps because they take social cues from their parents, instead of their grabby, immature sibs; in terms of maladjustment, only children have higher educational and occupational achievement.
This research overload becomes occasionally overwhelming. Every page or two introduces a new study, a new researcher, a new set of data to unpack. Sandler describes herself going cross-eyed looking at data sets about only children, and sometimes it feels that way for the reader as well. But most of the nuggets of information are leavened with charming personal anecdotes about Sandler, a self-proclaimed “intimacy junkie,” who attributes her hyper-closeness to her friends to her only-child status, and her daughter, Dahlia, a sprite who enjoys dancing to the Pixies.
Sandler also includes the experiences of other only children, both content and disaffected, which gives an overall impression that the growing up experience is deeply idiosyncratic. If you’re having a second child because you’re under the impression that children are happier with siblings, that’s not always going to be the case. Your children could hate each other or be life-long best friends. It’s always a crap-shoot. Even if you have more than one child so that the burden of caring for you in your old age is lighter, studies show that it’s usually a single child (most often the nearest-residing daughter) who ends up carting mom to the ER on New Year’s Eve. Furthermore, any child could feel he or she has nothing in common with the rest of the clan. “You can be an outsider in any family structure,” even with siblings, Sandler notes, “and many people are.”
Because the effects of family size on children are so unpredictable, I was more taken with the effect that having several children has on their parents. Sandler quotes happiness studies that show “Family happiness falls on a curvilinear graph, where none or one may rank high, but so do families with five or more children.” Those families with huge broods are more often than not religious, and find a great deal of support and solace from their faith community. For secular parents—especially secular women—having more than one child can throw a major wrench in personal satisfaction and ambition. Kudos to Sandler for discussing this honestly: “For rich women and poor women alike,” she writes, “the more children a woman has, the less likely she is to maintain her employment, and consequently, her independence.” She quotes the author Ann Crittenden, who has written about how the second baby is often the “final straw” in halting a woman’s career.
This is in large part because the demands of parenting and the demands of the workplace have increased over the past few decades at an equally frightening pace. Sandler points out that Americans spend more hours at work than the citizens of any other industrialized country. In fact, the persistent stigma against only children might have to do with the extreme difficulty of parenting more than one, given the ever-increasing pressures of work and home. “Someone needs to be a scapegoat for the disappointments of the plentiful nuclear family,” Sandler writes. “Parenting more than one kid is simply too hard to not be supported by some dogma that it's for the higher good, for the children.”
As the mother of a baby, I read Sandler’s book with an ever-tilting seesaw of emotion. Sometimes I’d read a section—say, about how many more hours a year a woman must spend on housework when she has a second kid—and start looking into IUDs. But then I’d read a researcher talk about the bonds among his three sons, and have a gauzy fantasy about two children making castles in a sandbox. For Sandler’s part, despite knowing the sacrifices she would have to make to have a second child, the decision is still “fraught with conflict. It’s an emotional struggle that, it turns out, no set of numbers and analysis can erase.”
For other women going through the same struggle, Sandler doesn’t purport to have the answer. She does, however, provide some support for the notion that you should be a little selfish when you’re trying to make this decision, since your only child will likely be just fine whether or not they end up with a sibling. Will the resolve to care about your own happiness stop the marauding sanctimommy in her tracks? Probably not, but at least you can be secure in the fact that you spent your time the way you wanted to, instead of martyring yourself at the altar of cloth diapers and endless school bake sales.