We Always Thought We’d Have More Than One Child

We all want the perfect family. But how big should that perfect family be?

family only child

One … and done? / Illustration by Kaitlin Brito

My phone rings a little after 5 p.m., just as I’m sliding enchiladas into the oven. I know without looking that it will be my sister, Ali, calling as she drives home from work, a one-hour trip that shoots north from Massachusetts to a small town just over the New Hampshire border. My sister always calls me on her way home, and when she doesn’t, I know it’s because her third-grade students have sapped her energy and hoarsened her voice to a scratchy growl. Those days, she listens to a murder podcast. It soothes her.

I lick enchilada sauce off my finger and tap at the phone, answering the way we always do: “Meow.”

“Meow,” she says back. We spin through our topics like a well-worn record: what I’m doing (figuring out how long one is supposed to cook enchiladas), how her day was (annoying; one of her students is a kleptomaniac), what my six-year-old son is up to (“Quinn! Say hi to Aunt Ali!” I call to him; he’s busy coloring and ignores both of us), how long it’s been since she’s seen him (“Three months!” she anguishes), how much we miss each other (a lot).

“When’s your spring break again?” I ask. My sister always comes home with her husband for a week each April. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year. They usually stay with my (our) parents, who live a few minutes from us, but this year, my parents are redoing their guest bathroom, and much of the house, including Ali’s old bedroom, is taped off with swaths of thick plastic to corral construction dust. So this year, they’re staying with us.

“The week of April 17th,” my sister says. I pull out our family calendar and think of my friend Rebecca, who requires a shared Google calendar to organize the hectic lives of her family of five. Ours is less complicated, a standard spiral-bound paper calendar that hangs on the inside of our pantry cabinet, just big enough to hold the comings and goings of our family of three. I run down the days, stacked on top of each other like Tetris blocks.

Three weeks.

I have three weeks to tackle the thing I’ve been avoiding for nearly six years, this big looming thing — it looms now, literally, over my head: the empty room upstairs. I don’t call it a guest room, because in my mind, calling it a guest room means it will never be anything else. If we call it a guest room, it will never be a nursery.

My husband, Justin, and I always meant to have a second child, in the way people mean to do lots of things, like write a novel or travel the world or fix all the broken stuff around the house. I’ll get around to it, you (we) think. I’ve got plenty of time. So you put it off, and before you know it, you’re too uninspired to write a novel, too tired to travel the world, too old to bother with broken things.

Before you know it, your kid is six and you are 40, and your sister is coming to stay with you, and you finally have to tackle the empty bedroom upstairs.

The bedroom wasn’t always empty. It was once Quinn’s nursery, before everything happened. We used to have a crib in there, and Justin and I agreed that once Quinn slept in it through the night, we’d talk about having a second child, because of course we wanted more kids. Didn’t we? But after Quinn slept through the night, it seemed prudent to wait until he was potty-trained. After that, we decided we’d wait until he was a little more self-sufficient, just to make things easier. By the time Quinn was three, we’d nestled into a comfortable groove, so we figured we might as well sink in and enjoy it. Why rock the boat? And then, as 2020 sputtered to an end, our house burned down, and we lost everything, including the energy to think about another baby.

If I’m being honest, the fire made for a convenient excuse to avoid the pressure of having a second kid. It’s a pressure many parents of only children feel — from our own parents, who desperately want another grandchild; from a culture that crams big clans in our faces (the Gosselins, the Duggars, the Kardashians); from social media feeds packed with supermoms basking in the chaos of pickups and drop-offs and dinnertimes (#momlife!); from small talk that spins, inevitably, to kids. (“Do you have any more?” moms ask as we watch our kids play together. “No, just him!” I answer, feeling the familiar pang of guilt. And I ask, too, hoping they’ll say no as well, but they rarely do.)

It’s a pressure also brought on by the stigma attached to only children, one that still lingers even as it’s been disproven by psychologists: Only children are self-­centered, spoiled, socially awkward, selfish, lonely, maladjusted. My husband, who is none of these things, is an only child, and his sibling-less upbringing always seemed weird to me.

“What did you … do?” I’d ask him, floored that a kid could spend his childhood in a house with just two adults and a mean little dachshund. How boring. How sad. (He’s ambivalent about it: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”) And yet here we are, back in our house with an empty bedroom, feeling neither bored nor sad, enjoying another groove, waiting, yet again, until Quinn finishes kindergarten to contemplate chaos again.

Back in the kitchen, I return the half-empty bag of tortillas to the pantry. The oven timer beeps, and my sister has sensed my hesitation about the extra room: “We can just bring an air mattress!”

Of course not, I tell her. That’s crazy. “I’ll have the room all finished by the time you get here!”

I skim the calendar again, doodling little yellow stars on the days she’ll be home and running through what I have to do before then: a few work calls, a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party, soccer practice, karate. Oh, and write this story, another thing I’ve been putting off. I check the deadline, April 10th, its square on the calendar filled with big red asterisks: STORY DUE. Below it, in fine gray print, is one of the holidays the helpful calendar people include, along with April Fool’s Day, Easter, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Eid al-Fitr, Earth Day, Administrative Professionals Day.

April 10th. National Siblings Day.

Emily Feret is also standing in her kitchen with a half-empty bag of tortillas. She’s just pulled it from a purse that hangs on a rack, squished between mountains of coats, scarves and bookbags. She’d confiscated the bag of tortillas from her two-year-old son, hidden it in her purse, and promptly forgot about it.

“It’s been days!” she says to her 1.2 million TikTok followers, brandishing the tortillas and tossing her head back in laughter.

Emily, 31, has gained Internet fame for her “life without the filter” videos, in which she embraces her messy days and nights as a stay-at-home mom of two. Or, as she puts it, “I like to normalize being normal.”

“You guys love these!” she says at the beginning of these videos, because we do love them. “Let me walk around my house to make you feel better about yours.” Then she gives us a tour of her Illinois home, pointing out things like a long-forgotten slice of cheese stuck to the kitchen table, a jar of peanut butter rolling around the living room floor, a Christmas welcome mat still by her front door in mid-March, a load of laundry she’s washed twice already because she keeps forgetting it in the washing machine, a refrigerator door papered with expired Kohl’s cash, a fitted sheet that keeps unfurling from the mattress of her chronically unmade bed, two yelling kids in the background, a dog on the dining room table.

But her walk around her house doesn’t make me feel better about mine, which is exactly the opposite, all vacuum lines and ironed pillowcases and living room furniture that absolutely cannot come into contact with peanut butter. Instead, I feel guilty for how my house would look had I done a TikTok tour, too: serene, calm, neat. Quiet. Emily’s house feels full and joyfully chaotic. She only has two kids, but her house reminds me of the house I always thought I wanted, full of kids and noise. You know: Bless this mess. It’s easy to see homes like Emily’s and mistake your quiet for emptiness.

Of course, we’re not empty. We are lucky, so lucky, that we were able to have one healthy child, that we didn’t struggle with fertility, that we ostensibly have a choice whether to have another one. We are privileged to own a home, one that’s in a good school district and close to family who can help with childcare. People have had so much more with so much less. So why not, then, give our son a sibling? It feels selfish not to.

In One and Only, a book about being and having an only child, Lauren Sandler writes, “As parents who choose to stop at one, we have to get used to the nagging feeling that we are choosing for our own children something they can never undo. We’re deciding not to know two kids splashing in the bubble bath, playing in the pile of raked leaves, whispering under the cover of darkness, teasing each other at the dinner table, holding hands at our funerals.”

My sister and I fill in the gaps in each other’s childhood memories. She reminds me of the names of our pet gerbils; I remind her of the time Mom accidentally poisoned our parakeets with the self-cleaning oven. Who fills in these gaps when you’re an only child? I wonder how many more memories Justin would have if he had a sibling. I wonder how many memories will be lost to Quinn.

A few years ago, Gina Tomaine wrote a piece for this magazine about millennials not having kids at all. She, too, acknowledged her ideal situation: “educated, solidly ­middle-class, married, employed — yet suddenly unsure if I wanted even one kid.” She noted the reasons for her reluctance: the financial burden, the responsibility of bringing a child into a world doomed by climate change, the squandering of freedom and unfettered potential for travel and career.

But she was only 32. When I was 32, I was on the fence, too, for all of these reasons. My husband and I seesawed on having kids for eight years, one of us always in the air, ready to leap, and the other content on the ground. But now we’ve taken the leap, happily. We’ve landed, softly and safely, on the other side. So what’s one more jump?

In a piece for the Atlantic (“Why Are People Weird About Only Children?”), writer Chiara Dello Joio, an only child herself, observed that our lingering prejudice against only children isn’t at all surprising if you think about it: “That bias is woven right into our lexicon. The moniker ‘only child’ — rather than, say, ‘solo’ or ‘individual’ child — suggests a sense of deprivation. It’s one consonant away from ‘lonely child.’”

But there are plenty of studies and stats that challenge these biases. (I know, because I’ve scoured the Internet for them — anything to dull my guilt and reassure myself that Quinn will be fine, totally fine, without a sibling.) A meta-study by Toni Falbo, an educational psychology professor, and research methodologist Denise Polit found that only children, along with firstborns and those with only one sibling, have higher IQs. Other research has found that only children tend to have higher educational and occupational achievements and closer relationships with their parents. Look at superheroes! Superman, Spider-Man, Batman — only children, all of them.

In 2016, a team of Chinese researchers ran brain scans and behavioral and intelligence tests on more than 250 college-age students, and their findings showed that only children displayed higher levels of flexibility. (They also displayed higher levels of disagreeableness, but who among us can’t be disagreeable?) It’s not a coincidence that most research on only children comes out of China. After 36 years of a one-child policy initiated to curb the country’s untenable population growth, well, they’ve got a lot of subjects to study.

Soon, it seems, we will, too. A 2022 Statista report found that in the U.S., the average number of children under 18 in a family decreased from 2.33 in 1960 to 1.94 in 2022. A Pew Research analysis found that in 2016, 62 percent of U.S. mothers ages 40 to 44 had one or two children, a sharp downturn from 1976, when 65 percent of mothers in that age range had three or more.

We’re getting married later and waiting longer to have kids, but our clocks don’t care about that. They still tick, loudly, reminding us that this choice we think we have might not be a choice for long. It might not be a choice at all.

We’re running out of time. I’m running out of time.

My gynecologist tells me I’m really not, though.

“Plenty of women have healthy babies in their 40s!” he said at my checkup seven months ago. He was reassuring, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reassured. It had been a year or so since my miscarriage, which hadn’t been nearly as surprising as the pregnancy itself. (I lost a pregnancy before Quinn, too, so I knew what to expect.) It was 2021, and Justin and I still hadn’t made a decision on another baby — this time, we said we were waiting for our house to be rebuilt after the fire — but we were cautiously happy at the unplanned child-to-be. Thank God, we said, and not necessarily because I was pregnant, but because the decision had finally been made, even if we didn’t really make it.

But soon, the pregnancy devolved the same way it had with Quinn. I became so sick, so depressed, so overwhelmed, so anxious. The miscarriage was crushing, as they usually are, but it was also a tiny relief.

Maybe a decision had been made for us, again.

If I wanted to be proactive about it, my ob-gyn said, I could see a fertility specialist, test my egg supply and quality. It would take time, money and energy, but we would at least know what we were working with. We had plenty of options! But still we coasted, making a decision by not making a decision.

A gynecologist told Lauren, a 38-year-old mom of one in South Philly (her name’s been changed), that she had options, too. She could wait it out and continue dealing with her fibroid tumors, which had grown after she gave birth to her daughter in 2015, or she could get a hysterectomy. It took Lauren months of intense therapy, of “turning it over in my heart,” of drilling down into the most painful possibilities — If I do this and my only child dies, I can’t have another biological baby — to decide. She and her husband weighed all the things that Justin and I have weighed, from the financial burden of another child to the wide age gap that would be between the siblings.

“The other major thing was that this all felt just manageable enough for me. There was a constant evaluation of my own capacity,” Lauren says. “So much of motherhood and womanhood is about pouring yourself out, but it’s okay to consider ourselves in this situation, too.” She’d always been so focused, as many of us are, on climbing ladders and keeping up and aiming for better and bigger. It’s no wonder we feel pressure to do the same with our families.

But as much as it’s about pouring out, it’s also about filling up. By the time we moved back into our house, a whole two years after the fire, Quinn was a little kid, with no need for a crib, a changing table, a Pack ’n Play, a high chair, a baby jumper. We were starting over, and life didn’t look like a baby anymore. So we filled the house with other things, like a big-boy bed, a little desk, a playroom that can only be accessed by a secret door in his bedroom, an air hockey table in the basement. We used to have a storage room down there filled with Quinn’s old baby things that we were saving, you know, just in case. But those things are all gone now, and it’s not a storage area anymore. Now, it’s where we keep our Peloton.

Having another baby now would mean filling up our life again — with sleepless nights, with hours of breastfeeding, with afternoons at baby music classes, with stroller walks — just as we’re starting to finally enjoy having some extra space. I have space, literally, to work out and regain the strength I lost during my pregnancy. I have space to meditate and take care of my mental health, which was impossible to do during my pregnancy, as I battled being off depression and anxiety medications for a long, scary, impossibly dark nine months. I have space to write — stories, like this one, and maybe, at some point, a book. Justin and Quinn and I have space to enjoy each other at our best, happiest selves. We’re all so inclined to fill every nook and cranny of our lives. It feels lazy not to do so. But, I wonder, what if we didn’t fill them? After all, extra space doesn’t mean empty.

In the end, Lauren had the surgery. I tell her how sorry I am that she had to make that definitive choice and grapple with a complete loss of possibility. She did mourn it, she tells me, and she still always notices the empty chair at restaurant tables, which usually have room for at least four. But she’s happy. They’re all happy.

“The day after the surgery, all I felt was relief,” she says. “It was relief from the burden of ‘Maybe we will.’ It was a definitive decision of, nope, we’re done here. This is our family. And there was freedom in this.”

I decided to tackle the extra bedroom one night when Justin was out and Quinn was in bed. I’d measure for a rug, get that ordered, at least. I realized I’d left the tape measure in Quinn’s room — we’d needed it for a special project the two of us were working on. We have a lot of special projects together. I tiptoed into his room, which was aglow with night-lights that slowly change colors, red to orange to blue to green to purple, and Quinn woke up.

“Mommy? What are you doing? Can I help you?” he said, his cheeks flushed from snuggling his Iron Man pillow. I said yes, and together, we sat in the extra room, his old nursery, and measured for a rug — and then for a queen bed. Quinn used to ask about having a sibling, but he’s stopped. Now, he says he just wants a fish.

We ordered the rug together (“I think Ali will like this one,” he said) and then went back to his room, where I curled up next to him, kissed his still baby-round cheek, smelled his hair. He found my hand, like he always does, and laced his fingers in mine. I thought of a few things before I fell asleep there. I thought of the pregnancy test in our medicine cabinet, left over from the miscarriage, probably expired. I thought about whether the rug we’d ordered would match the walls. I thought about making the enchiladas for Ali one night. I thought about how I’d end this story. And then Quinn twitched in his sleep like he did when he was a baby; his color-changing night-lights faded from blue to green; I heard Justin pull into the driveway, and I thought, “This is enough.”


Published as “Party of Three” in the June 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.