Changing the conversation (cross-posted with Psychology Today)

21 Jul

I wanted to cross-post something I wrote up for Susan Newman’s Singletons blog at Psychology Today.  Some it it might feel like old hat to readers, but my brief discussion of a recent Wall Street Journal story, and New York Magazine‘s controversial piece on the unhappy realities of parenting are, I think, worth a look. Plus, it’s an excuse to run the picture of my kid that accompanied the Psychology Today piece. Because, yes, in spite of my best intentions, I am that kind of mother.


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.

While Dahlia is dancing

9 Jul

In reflecting on reporting the Time piece today, I keep harking back to a snapshot from an afternoon which encapsulates much of the giddiness and longing and ambivalence that for me permeates the “one and done” question.

In her typical uniform (sans monkey pajamas).

Dahlia is dancing in a tutu from my second grade dance recital, its orange, green and pink ruffles now rediscovered and tugged over her fleece monkey pajamas, rustling around her wiggling butt.  At her insistence and my pleasure, I too am wearing a tutu—a can-can skirt from junior high dance class, pulled up over my jeans.  “Ballet music” (Tchaikovsky) is playing as she twirls and jumps between the pocket doors to our bedroom.  When I first saw this house, I imagined these doors would make a perfect proscenium for living room performances. We spin together, and wave our hands like the mice in the Nutcracker video that has become her most recent obsession.  “All fall down!” she yells and, joined by an oversized monkey doll and a stuffed bear, we tumble into a giddy pile together, her green eyes twinkling, her blonde mop tickling my nose.  I tell myself to remember this.  Then I look at the clock, realize the workday is in full swing, and scramble up to check my email.

There I see a note from a demographer. If I can call him now, he’s free for an interview for a story I’m looking into.  I bellow downstairs for myJustin to abandon his paperwork in favor of the next installment of Nutcracker mice, and scurry out to the office clutching my frilled skirt around me.  I dial up Philip Morgan at his office at Duke University, eager to hear his analysis of the recent study he conducted on our cultural notions of ideal family size. He has long studied the discrepancy between the number of children young women say they want, and the number they actually have. I’ve seen the extensive tables in his myriad papers on intended fertility—the number of people who say they want one kid is below one percent, even in Europe where the fertility rate across the continent is well below two.   Citing such figures, he tells me that nobody wants just one kid, not anywhere, not even in Europe where fertility rates have plummeted. Morgan is clinical and abrupt, circling back to the numbers whenever I attempt to talk about our cultural biases, our politics, what we see on TV.  I explain to him that I am an only child by design, and that the small child giggling in a tutu may well be one too.

Now he abandons the figures.  “Listen, no offense to your mother or to yourself,” he says, “but I had three sons and I’m glad they have brothers.”

I am silent.  He continues, “I can’t imagine having just one child.  What would that be like? I don’t know why anyone would want it.  Their relationships with each other have been the greatest joy of my life. You’re saying to your kid, ‘you’re never going to have a brother and a sister.  When your parents die you are alone except for the family you create.’”  He clears his throat and goes back to the numbers.

I stop taking notes, too furious to pretend he’s simply offering me information. How patronizing! And yet, I’m unsettled by his words. Certainly, he has raised points that I have long-considered. I’ve always known that there can be advantages to sibling relationships, but my own experience without them was so positive I never worried I would deprive Dahlia if Justin and I decided to stop at one. But to hear of the joy witnessing his kids together has brought him exposes me to something new: never before had I considered what I would be missing as a parent.

The information in the Time story is all true–believe me, never before have I written anything so agonizingly fact-checked–and I’m happy that my editor was as encouraging of nuance and complexity as she was.  And yet, even with its inclusions of moments of personal narrative and my point of view, I can’t help but feel that a piece of journalism like what it is–and what it should be for Time‘s purpose–lacks the emotional nut of this conversation.  There are studies, and then there’s lived experience.  And as Dahlia grows into full-on childhood, with her delicious toddlerhood slipping away, I can feel why parents want it again, and why they want that childhood to include more children.  I may prefer my own lean threesome in the end, but will it really be because I’m reassured by studies, or by my own personal desires?  I’d be kidding myself if I said the former and not the latter.

My Time article on the truth about only children

9 Jul

These weeks of radio silence have been inexcusable.  Thank you for your patience with me.  The emails have been mounting up with article links, personal stories, questions, and I promise to sift through all of them soon.  My absence can be explained (in part, there’s hopefully some other exciting news on the horizon, too), by the story I have just wrapped up for Time, which is now available in abridged form online, and in its full expression on newsstands the world over.

I’m truly thrilled to have been given the opportunity to bring a conversation I care so deeply about to Time’s broad and influential stage.  It started this way:  I was having lunch with an editor–the amazing Radhika Jones–and we were batting around some story ideas.  She asked me what else had been on my mind lately, and I started talking about only children: about the lingering myths of our unfitness, about the stigma still associated with stopping at one kid, about how I felt we scrutinize every parenting choice but whether to become a parent again, about how I saw my own parents’ choice as a liberating one, and which I was considering, albeit with some ambivalence.  She mentioned our conversation at an editorial meeting the next day, and just like that a cover story was born.

I mention the genesis of the article, and its reception at Time, because I think it speaks to how ready we are as a culture to finally have this conversation. There’s been a ton of news in the past several weeks, from BP to Lebron, from World Cup to the financial bill in Washington, and Time still felt driven to feature this relatively news-less (what journalists call “evergreen”) human interest story on its cover.  It suggests to me that there a shift afoot in terms of how we think about the choices we make, how open we might become in questioning, and how that can change the way we approach happiness, overscheduling, the environment, you name it.  If this article can help people to make the decisions they want in their own lives–whether it be to have four kids or one, or none–based on a more honest discourse, sound research, and trusting their own needs, then that means we continue to evolve as a civilization.   And any way I can contribute to that evolution makes me very proud indeed, and grateful for my readers.

Wipe out

15 Jun

Many of you have written to suggest I consider an essay the New York Times ran last week.  (I’m so grateful for your emails and comments, both on posts and in my personal inbox; thank you and please keep ‘em coming.)  The essay, Should This Be the Last Generation?, was written by Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton.  Singer posits a thought experiment, suggesting that we should consider if the best ethical choice for the planet–and thus for humankind–is to halt our reproduction, forcing human beings to die out, thus ending both human suffering and the violence we inflict upon the planet.  The occasion for this thought experiment is the publication of South African philosopher David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. (Funny enough, Pat Benatar’s memoir Between a Heart and a Rock Place hit bookstores today.)

“To bring into existence someone who will suffer is to harm that person,” Benatar argues a la Singer, “yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely.”  Singer applies this thinking to the issue of climate change in an unusually human-centric equation, pointing out that the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. Thus, “If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about.”  Interesting that the week we’re all dumfounded and helpless staring at circulating photos of oil-soaked dead birds, the guilt is about our unborn children.  But I get his point.  And I admit, I feel emotionally wrecked by it.  As I wrote to reader Kurt Morris, it makes me want to smoke a pack of cigarettes (and I don’t smoke) and take to my bed for a week.

Yet, when I pull back from the gutting aggressions of what we humans do to the earth and to each other, I take issue with the fact that we tend to only debate such bioethics in terms of thought experiments like Singer’s, or Benatar’s, or even in Alan Weisman’s majestic best-seller, The World Without Us. This conversation exists in the culture as an occasional philosophical endgame, and one which is always inherently absurd: we are not going to willfully end the human race.  We will not choose our own apocalypse.  That is certain.  And so the point Singer makes is simply a profoundly charged straw dog. It’s easy to shrug off his points as the stuff of mere science fiction–albeit a narrative that leaves us with not a single possible protagonist.

Why can’t we have this conversation in pragmatic terms?  Instead of discussing wiping out the human race, why can’t we consider what it would mean to have fewer kids?  It’s a topic that Weisman has told me is “the third rail of environmentalism,” historically loaded with the eradication the most primal of human rights: to decide to have a child. From Hitler’s early speeches on eliminating the “useless eaters,” to India’s massive forced sterilization campaigns, to even Margaret Sanger’s own advocacy of eugenics (yes, a bitter irony, this from the founder of Planned Parenthood), the subject has never freed itself from the hyper-draconian.

Which I for one, consider to be a travesty.  Common wisdom continues to preach that bigger families are better for us–as long as they’re not Octomom big; then we condemn the too-big–and so parents who might have just one kid are scared into having more, for the sake of their child.  If we can’t figure how how to mainline the valid points for Singer’s essay into a conversation that supports parents of only children–or parents who are ambivalent about having a second, or third–we’ve missed the point.  It’s not science fiction we’re talking about; there is no experiment here.  We don’t need to choose apocalypse or eternal suffering.  We just need to talk honestly about what it means to want to have more kids, what it means not to, and how to support people who make different choices.  It would give us a far more ethical landscape than the one we inhabit now, and, as Singer would tell you, the one our kids are sure to inherit if we don’t start a different discussion.

But at least they play together

11 Jun

Photograph by Teresa Ollila

Recently, I kicked Dahlia and Justin out of the house for the weekend so I could buckle down and work without being drawn away from my desk by the promise of whatever discovery my kid was making in the living room.  Justin was a willing participant, excited for an overnight in Massachusetts with our friends Jake and Janine and their kids.

The next morning, I answered the phone from our empty bed, where I’d been luxuriating in silence for two hours, indulging a rare spell in my inner life.  It was Justin.

“How’s Jake doing?” I asked, after a full Dahlia update.

“He’s good.  I mean, the kids are great.”  I heard the “but” in his tone.  “He says he doesn’t get a second to himself, though.”

“What did he say about it?”

“Well, he wakes up at six.  He gets the kids dressed and fed.  He leaves for work by eight.  His days at work are crazy, but then again, he says it’s the only time he can find that’s his.  Then he gets home at six.  He gives the kids dinner, gives them each a bath, and puts them both to bed.  By that time he’s too beat for anything.  Saturdays he has the kids all day, so that’s out.  He just seems run really ragged.  He says all he wants is to go to a café for an hour and read the paper, but he can’t imagine that happening in the next few years.  Plus, he and Janine argue about who has it tougher—her with them for the parts of the day that they don’t have childcare, or him, bookending the days.”

“But don’t they play with each other?”  I asked.  Justin had sent me a photo from the afternoon before of Dahlia and the two kids, stripped entirely naked, running through their yard, and another one of the three kids eating dinner together at a tiny table.  They looked like family photos—the three kids, engaged in some cooperative reverie, oblivious to whatever adult presence that was keeping them from killing themselves and each other.  Photos of Dahlia don’t resonate family pictures in the same way—they’re just pictures of our kid, gorgeous and alone.

“They do.  It’s amazing to watch.  They really take care of each other.  They’re real allies—you could really tell at the park that he was watching you for her.  She sticks right by him.  He was amazing with Dahlia, too.  She wandered off on her own to play independently, and he was always calling out to her, going to fetch her, wanting to keep her safe and close by.”

I was quiet. I didn’t want to turn our moment to catch up into discourse on do-we-or-don’t we, but I could visualize what he was describing, what she’s missing.  I could feel it in the pictures he sent.  But I tried to steer the conversation away from the question we spend so much time trying to answer these days.  “So, doesn’t Jake get time to himself when they’re playing?” I asked.

“I suppose he does.  But it’s not like he can just do his own thing.  He’s always supervising.  It’s not like it’s free time.”  He knew what I was digging at, despite my attempt to veer away from self-reflexiveness. “Honestly, most of the time I dedicate to Dahlia, I’m playing with her.  And I guess I’d rather play with Dahlia than watch her playing with another kid.”

I love playing with Dahlia.  I find pure pleasure in helping her solve a puzzle, joining her in a dance marathon she’s instigated, playing customer when where she pretends to toast, butter, and sell me bagels in a game she calls “Bagels and Money” (she’s a part-Jewish kid in Brooklyn, what can I say). But I don’t need to do it all the time.  I don’t have the endless energy, creativity, and patience for it that Justin does.  I’m guiltily aware of this fact every day.  And I must admit the ability to take a more passive, even voyeuristic role, in her play appeals to me.  Despite how exhausted Jake sounds, his kids’ cooperative play still seems to shift the balance.

And so I fixate on this notion, considering how my adult life could be restored if I didn’t need to be a toddler’s constant playmate, imagining all the hours I could spend reading a novel, replying to my endless unanswered voicemails, having actual adult conversations with Justin before 8 pm, after which we are too exhausted for banter or discourse.  Balancing what she needs with what I need feels like a constant aerobic activity, both in the micro version of managing every day and the macro one of deliberating how a sibling would be both complicating and liberating.

What we can–and can’t–afford

10 Jun

Just think what it will cost to tack his ears back.

Every couple of years, Mark Lino, a number-cruncher at the Department of Agriculture, adds up what it costs to raise a kid through high school.  And every year those numbers increase.  When I called him up recently to see if the recession had scaled back spending on children since his 2008 tabulations, he told me that the only area in which the numbers rolled back were in the cost of transportation.  Families may be travelling less, but what they’re spending on their kids has gone up, despite the fact that unemployment has spiked since he added up figures from two years ago.  Lino just released his his report : it now costs for middle income earners an average of $286,050 to get a kid to his or her eighteenth birthday.  In the higher income brackets, that number swells up to $475,680.

Meanwhile, this week, at a hearing on Capitol Hill on the State of the American Child, economist and child welfare experts testified that the situation is “abysmal” for our kids.  The U.S. currently has the highest poverty rate for children among the world’s industrialized nations: one in five lives below the poverty line (which many people agree is already drawn too high).  One in seven American children has an unemployed parent.  And Senator Chris Dodd projected that because of unemployment an additional five million children could be driven into poverty before the recession ends.  One in four children currently uses food stamps, he said, and half of all kids will use them at some point during their childhood.

And yet, common thinking persists that we need to have more kids for the welfare of our children, that they will be disadvantaged without siblings, despite any research substantiating that notion.  I certainly do not mean to suggest that rich people should have all the children they want, while the increasing number of poor people should curb their fertility.  I just think it’s time that we reassess why we’re having more kids.  If it’s for the good of the children we already have, and not simply because we want more of them, it’s time to apply a new calculus to our thinking.

Moving back into your teenage bedroom–with a kid of your own

9 Jun

It’s a nightmare for even those of us with healthy relationships with our parents: moving back into a childhood bedroom, with a child of one’s own.  Not to mention a partner.  Would you leave your “Dark Side of the Moon” poster blu-tacked to the wall? Would you hide your birth control pills or keep them in the bathroom you share with your father?

The prolific Susan Newman, author of Parenting an Only Child and the Singletons blog at Psychology Today, published a new book this week, on how the recession is forcing adults back into their parents’ homes.  It’s called Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily.  As she pointed out to me over coffee recently, multi-generational cohabitation is another element in a changing culture which, for many of us, is reducing family size.  Moving one kid into a three-generation house feels like enough of a crunch.  Just imagine bringing another child into such quarters.

Plus, Newman told me, “when you’re a young guy or a woman who loved her job and you don’t have that job anymore, you don’t feel like making babies.  Your mind isn’t into expanding your family, but finding a paycheck.  Like, how can I bring another baby into the world when I can’t support the one I have?” Not to mention, who wants to get it on when their parents are on the other side of a thin slab of drywall? Newman says that only children have traditionally been “an elite group,” but it’s becoming quite the opposite.  When you combine the already rising numbers of single child-families together with the new flux of parents who feel they can’t afford a second kid, you’ve got what she says is emerging as “the new traditional family.”

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