Why One Child Is Enough for Me—and Might Be for You

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 11 2013 7:15 AM

Why One Child Is Enough for Me—and Might Be for You

A smaller family means all of the joy, less of the crap.

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The morning following that dinner in New Jersey, the Census Bureau released a report on who provides care for our children. Suzanne Bianchi, who clocked in 16 years as a census demographer, discovered, stunningly, that mothers actually spend more time caring for a child today than they did in 1965, back when 60 percent of them stayed home full-time. In her book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, Bianchi wrote that married mothers devote about 13 hours a week to child care, up from about 10 1/2 hours nearly a half century ago. Additionally, she wrote, women still do twice as much housework as men.

I know how unmanageable it all is with just one child. And I know how, when I mention this, people with two (or more) shoot disdainful looks in my direction, as if I’m bitching about my permanent vacation. “It’s like hearing a skinny person complain about looking fat, and I don’t want to hear it,” one mother of two once snapped at me. There’s no doubt about it: They have it harder. Much harder. Yet I’ve heard plenty of people tell me they think it’s easier with siblings. “They take care of each other,” they say on good days. I yearn for that missing element in my own home, not just for the pleasure of seeing Dahlia play with a little brother or sister, but for the moments of freedom it would allow me. But just as often, on bad days I hear, like I did from a friend last week, “Forget what I said about how they take care of each other. They’re at war, my house is a mess, and I’m losing my mind.”

Sandler, an only child, with her daughter, an only child.
Sandler, an only child, with her daughter, an only child

Photo courtesy of Justin Lane

While it’s tough to measure the exact hours of sibling conflict a parent must referee, there exists some data to measure how much tougher each additional kid can be. At the University of Michigan, Frank Stafford runs the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which is essentially a time diary that measures quantifiable aspects of our multitudinous lives. One category he follows is housework. He finds this category so clear and reliable that he uses it as the example when teaching people how to read his complex tables. What he has learned is that this “labor in its most naked state” increases dramatically with each child introduced into a household. Each child adds no less than 120 hours of housework a year. No wonder those mothers of siblings can’t stomach my complaints.

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But the issue today isn’t as simple as washing sippy cups and dirty socks, or even the sheer number of hours we spend away from our friends and our thoughts. As the demands of the workplace have expanded to swallow up our lives, clashing with our consuming love affair with our children, parenting has simultaneously morphed into something grotesquely extended beyond traditional ideas of care. It’s hard to imagine how anyone can find time to make a living. Or read a newspaper. Or have a conversation with one’s partner about anything but what errands need to be done, who is covering pickup or making dinner.

“Why am I in traffic on Rockville Pike going to a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party for my whole Saturday? Because if everyone else’s kid is doing it, your kid has to do it too,” says Carol Graham, who researches happiness and family at the Brookings Institution and who was raised in Peru by a Swiss mother. Both her research and personal experience suggest that emphasis on children is one of the major differences between families in America and those in other countries. “It’s become a complete rat race. A million activities, practices every night.”

We may not have the time or energy to organize and participate in movements for social change, or even read the newspaper, but we can bake organic cupcakes and supervise algebra homework and spend our lives driving from soccer to ballet and watch Nick Jr. in our media rooms. All that overparenting seems selfless for a reason: Parents are literally losing themselves. Our communities and democracy are losing them too. Imagine if all that devotion wasn’t just directed inward to the family, but outward into the world? It’s hard to, isn’t it? The world can sound and look remarkably hazy from inside a domestic cocoon.

What my mother needed to be a happy person is not what all mothers need. She needed to feel she was making a significant contribution through her work, and not just her family, working for more than the necessary paycheck. She needed to live somewhere where she could walk a few blocks to buy a really good cookie when she got the craving after dinner. She needed to travel, to make her marriage as significant as her motherhood, to be able to go supermarketing and pick up the dry cleaning without being outnumbered by her kids, plural, who were performing the theater of rivalry in the produce section. I remember errands without another kid to help me make my case that carob was not the same as chocolate. I had no yard to play in. Was I a happy kid? Sure. Was she a happy mother? I think so.

This article is excerpted from One and Only by Lauren Sandler. Copyright © 2013 by Lauren Sandler. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Lauren Sandler writes for Slate, Time, the New York Times, and other publications, and is the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.