Me in 1985, dreaming up my imaginary little sister
I wasn’t exactly devastated that I grew up an only child, but I didn’t love it. In fact, it kinda sucked. I begged my parents for a sibling weekly until I was about 8. Instead of an imaginary friend, I had an imaginary younger sister, much to the confusion of my kindergarten teacher. There are only so many times your parents will play catch with you, and only so far your creativity can take you before you whine, “I’m bo-ored!”
Later I realized the value of my parents’ attention and resources, and of course having my own room (believe me, no New York City kid takes this for granted!). But I worry about the future and who will take care of my father. (My mother passed away in 2006.) I will always wonder what it’s like to know someone who has the same parents I do. And my progeny will have no aunts or uncles or cousins on my side of the family.
If I had my choice, I would have a sibling. Yet, when I eventually have my own child, I’m pretty damn sure that kid will be my only one.
I won’t be alone in this decision. Only-child families have been on the rise for years, and the new Census data just reinforces these numbers. Americans are getting older, and women are having children later. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of women nationwide who only have one child has more than doubled, from 10 percent to more than 23 percent. In the United States there are 15 million only children, a number that has grown since the recession. None of us feels like we can even afford kids.
My reason for having one child will be different from my mother’s. My mom was an early radical feminist who promised herself she wouldn’t have a child unless a man shared 50 percent of the work with her. In essays she wrote in the 1970s, she doubted whether she would have kids at all. By the time she decided to have a child with my dad, who said he would split the parenting fair and square, she was 42. She didn’t have much of a choice: I ended up being her last chance.
Nowadays, both men and women of Generation Y prioritize being a good parent even more than we prioritize getting married. We care about spending time with our kids and sharing the responsibility with our partners. Things are far from perfect, but women are no longer culturally expected to bear the entire burden of childrearing.
Still, the system makes it way easier to have only one kid. The United States has no universal child care, no paid maternity leave, and not much paternity leave (paid or unpaid), so the pressure is on to be financially stable before your first child arrives. And as everyone knows, it’s getting harder and harder to do that. A recent Guttmacher poll shows 64 percent of American women say they couldn't afford to have a baby now, with the economy the way it is. Forty-four percent say they plan to reduce or delay childbearing for the same reason.
For me, this doesn’t only boil down to money. It’s also about making sure I’m able to do everything I want to do. I want a fulfilling career, a well-stamped passport, and alone time with my partner. This means I’m going to have to wait quite a while before having a baby. And that means I’ll have less time for popping out kids.
I’m not suggesting that we adopt a policy akin to China’s draconian “one-child” restriction. Or that people should stop having more than one baby, or that there aren’t tons of only children who are happy to be singletons. And who knows? Maybe this whole plan of mine will go to shit in a few years. But it’s truly frustrating to base my decisions on a system that, by default, leaves parents high and dry. It’s no wonder many people are paring down their families or opting not to have kids at all.
Being an only child may have been lonely, but it allowed my parents a lot more freedom both to hang out with me and live their own lives. And until our system allows us to choose the size of our families without resigning ourselves to an uphill battle, I’ll probably follow in my parents’ footsteps. Although the minute an imaginary sibling shows up, I’ll be sure to schedule an extra session of catch with my kindergartner.