Dahlia is home sick from school. She’s dancing in a tutu from my second grade recital, its orange, green, and pink ruffles now rediscovered and tugged over her monkey pajamas. At her insistence (and my pleasure), I too am wearing a tutu—a can-can skirt I saved from junior high, pulled up over my jeans. She twirls and jumps between the pocket doors to our bedroom. I tell myself to remember this. Then I look at the clock, remember 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. I bellow downstairs for Justin to abandon the paperwork he’s doing in favor of the next installment of Nutcracker mice and scurry out to my office clutching my frilled skirt around me. I dial up Philip Morgan at the Carolina Population Center, eager to hear his analysis of the recent study he conducted on our cultural notions of ideal family size. He parses a bevy of numbers that all add up to his summary that nobody wants just one kid, not anywhere, not even in Europe, where fertility rates have plummeted.
I explain to him that I am an only child by design and that the small child prancing in a tutu in my house may well be one too. “Listen, no offense to your mother or to yourself,” he says, “but I had three sons and I’m glad they have brothers. One of the most enjoyable things I did as a parent was to watch my kids interact with one another, hanging out, seeing them as adults interacting.” I am silent. He continues, “I can’t imagine having just one child. What would that be like? Their relationships with each other have been the greatest joy of my life.”
I get it. I do. All I have to do is see our friends’ kids—plural—playing together, caring for each other, sharing a secret language. All I have to do is watch Dahlia’s joy and tenderness when she gets to hold their baby brothers and sisters. Justin sees it too, and he knows what she’s missing. But he reminds me often how the sacrifices we’d need to make to raise another child would impact Dahlia’s happiness—not to mention our own.
A 2007 Pew survey found that at a rate of nearly three to one, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the “mutual happiness and fulfillment” of adults rather than the “bearing and raising of children.” Pew also found that only 41 percent of today’s adults see parenthood as very important to a successful marriage, down from 62 percent in 1990. If anything, it can be a detriment. The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, “You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship,” which she says few people have the courage to do. Instead, she says, we do the opposite. “Kids, kids, kids. That’s how we forget about our own needs—it’s all about them. And no one is happy like that.”
Robin Simon of Wake Forest University surveyed well-being data from 13,000 respondents and, in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, published her findings that adults with children experience depression and unhappiness in greater numbers than nonparents. That’s regardless of class, race, or gender. Simon understands this phenomenon as a ruthless combination of social isolation, lack of outside support, and the anticipation of the overflow of bliss that we believe is the certain outcome of every birth. “Our expectations that children guarantee a life filled with happiness, joy, excitement, contentment, satisfaction, and pride are an additional, though hidden, source of stress for all parents,” she wrote in Contexts magazine, adding, “negative emotions may also lead parents with children of all ages, especially mothers, to perceive themselves as inadequate since their feelings aren’t consistent with our cultural ideal.” Right on, sister.
I find that parenting offers an untold bounty of happiness, joy, excitement, contentment, satisfaction, and pride—just not all the time. Each child is an additional source of pride, sure, but also an additional infringement on freedom, privacy, and patience. I can understand why Jean Twenge, in a study on parenthood and marital satisfaction, found that happiness in a marriage tumbles with each additional child. This finding bears out worldwide and not just in the United States. Demographer Mikko Myrskylä discovered that in some regions, like southern Europe, happiness was also significantly higher among parents with one child. At a demographic conference, Myrskylä tells me about the immense pleasure he takes in his two children—though he’s known to put in longer hours at work these days, he says, since it feels “like a holiday” after being at home.
At that conference, a young researcher named Anna Baranowska presents a paper giving additional heft to the finding that one child may maximize personal happiness. The first child tends to spike happiness in a parent, she declared, while every subsequent child lowers it. In fact, social scientists have surmised since the 1970s that singletons offer the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add: all the miracles and shampoo mohawks but with leftover energy for sex and conversation. The research of Hans-Peter Kohler, a professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jere Berman, a professor of economics, gives weight to that idea. In their much-discussed analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler tells me, “At face value, you should stop at one child to maximize your subjective well-being.”
At a recent gathering of single-child families in New Jersey, the selfish question comes up. Every woman at the table—some of whom had gone to expensive, debilitating lengths to conceive again—recounts being accused of selfishness by family members and strangers alike for not having a second child. Not a single man can offer up an equivalent story. One, a salesman in a pink oxford shirt and tie, says with smirking self-awareness, “Why would anyone say anything to me? I’m the father.” Mothers are the ones who face the accusation. Both fathers and mothers pay dearly for the miracle of parenthood, but in most cases, it’s women who pony up for the bulk of those costs.