The case for having an only child
"Julia needs a sibling," my mom friends will often tell me. They forget that I'm parenting alone in New York, one of the priciest cities in the United States.
"I agree," I respond. "The universe will have to provide it, along with a husband and another paycheck."
After ten years — four years of infertility and a three-year adoption wait, with a few years of fear and indecision thrown in for good measure — I'm thrilled with motherhood. And with that thrill comes the goal of raising a healthy, happy, well-educated daughter. One healthy, happy, well-educated daughter.
It seems like lately, many of us have only children on our minds. Lauren Sandler, the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times that ran down the ways in which the United States is an anti-only-child society.
She argues that between the suburbs-with-two-kids dream and the fears that only children grow up to be "lonely," "selfish," and "maladjusted," America vetoes single-child families. Yet, she points out that studies ultimately show little difference between people who were raised as only children and those who were raised alongside siblings.
On the surface, Sandler and I don't have much in common. She's co-parenting in a two-income home; I head up a one-income family with my 3-year-old daughter, adopted from Ethiopia in 2010. The Sandlers represent the classic Norman Rockwell family archetype; mine is more the 21st-century, making-it-happen variety. Yet we agree on the financial and social implications of raising an only child today.
One child, one income
By Sandler's calculation, a child born in 2010, my daughter's birth year, will cost an average of $226,920 from diapers to college kickoff. Caring for Julia on the single income of an advertising writer presents a financial challenge (one I willingly accept, one case of Huggies Pull-Ups and gallon of organic milk at a time).
While my two-parents-two-incomes friends dine out and order in, I've become a home gourmet. "I'm dating Jacques Pépin," I frequently joke to friends about the 77-year-old world-renowned chef and host of the PBS show Fast Food My Way. One of my favorites is his broccolini, beans, and sausage ragout, which I make following both his creed ("If you have 30 minutes, you can make dinner") and my own ("Upon walking through the door, do not sit down. The chances of pizza increase with every minute on the sofa").
My biggest expense is, of course, child care. Full-time coverage from my fantastic nanny — excluding holidays and vacations — comes to about $28,000 a year. I choose to go nanny rather than day care for an important reason: My daughter spent the first eight months of her life in what could be called a 24-hour day care — an orphanage.
I was advised that Julia would be developmentally delayed (as many internationally adopted children are) and would not catch up as quickly in a group setting. If that isn't enough, centers in my area cost close to $1,000 a month … and I'd still need coverage for city holidays, ranging from Ramadan to Passover, that prompt school-but-not-office closings.
With no mate to trade off with, and my family based in Michigan while I remain in New York, I rely on friends willing to babysit gratis when my nanny is off-duty. During my first holiday season as a mom, after receiving an invitation to a Christmas party — the sort of big bash I hadn't attended in ages — I leaped at the offer for adult conversation and good food prepared by someone else. I arrived home before midnight and was greeted with a $100 babysitting bill … for the first and last time.
The upside of having an only
My mom's advice about having children was simple. "You can always find someone to watch one child. Two is completely different. Having two is really the work of three." Considering that she has three herself, I believed her. I also remember feeling bitter that my younger brother received more attention. (He still does.)
Being the only parent of an only means Julia and I connect on a rich level. I talk to her, read to her, play with her, and fully engage her. I've never favored baby talk — so neither does my daughter. "Have you noticed that Julia says a crisp, clear 'yes'?" a girlfriend asked. I hadn't. Now I realize our bond strengthens even her verbal skills.
When my friends come over for dinner, they engage Julia too. She takes her place at the table, in her booster seat, her face aglow — a big-little girl hanging out with the ladies. Later, before bed, she likes to settle onto the sofa and read books, "like mommy" … albeit often upside down.
As Sandler points out in her book and op-ed, in "hundreds of studies during the past decades exploring 16 character traits — including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment — only children scored just as well as children with siblings," excelling in "achievement motivation and self-esteem."
As a very confident 3-year-old, Julia's "achievement motivation" is off the charts. She wants to do everything for herself: dress, comb her hair, shovel bowls of oatmeal into her mouth. "Miss Independent," a friend calls her. Julia is generous and cooperative with one exception — her baby stroller and dolls — and she watches playdate squabbles between her friends and their siblings with wide-eyed curiosity. "Share, share," she advises from the sidelines.
Some people argue that parents of onlies overspend on pricey entertainment like iPads and classes to overcome their kid's lack of a built-in playmate.
Fortunately my kid is crazy-happy at the playground, reading pop-up storybooks, and having her mom's empathetic ear — although she does takes a music class to aid her development and social interaction. I'm saving money for more music lessons, as well as swim lessons and summer camp. We have a Disneyland trip with my brother, sister-in-law, and two of his four kids planned for 2014, which means Mommy will continue bringing her lunch to work.
Why I just can't afford two
I'll admit it: Sometimes I do wish Julia had a sibling. In fact, I cherish my two brothers more as we grow older. I rely on their counsel and their humorous take on life almost daily. But without a working husband — maybe one who is already a father — I just can't see parenting another child.
And the way I look at it, Julia didn't have a mom — now she does. I needed a child — now I have one. Things are looking up for both of us.
"But many women raise more than one child," a friend chided me back in the spring after a church service while Julia did laps around my legs. "I did it," she reminded me.
"But you gave birth to two children," I explained. "You didn't have to go to the baby store and get one."
My girlfriend rolled her eyes, then settled them on my giggling daughter, busy stuffing goldfish-shaped crackers into her mouth. "I guess I'm asking because Julia looks so happy."
A second child? I thought. The adoption costs alone would create a personal financial apocalypse. The fees I paid to bring Julia home came to $15,000, a mere thousand-dollar difference from her pre-K costs (a tuition that haunts me into the wee hours with the frequency other women dedicate to fantasizing about Channing Tatum). Good thing it's paid in monthly installments.
Sure, some single moms adopt a second kid. I've met two such moms at New York–area functions — presumably badasses with trust funds.
Just the two of us: How we make it work
"Another person asked me when I was adopting a second child," I told my mother recently.
"If you called me and announced you were adopting again, I'd have a talk with you," she replied.
"If I called you and announced I was thinking of getting a second child, I'd have to have a talk with myself."
The only real flaw in my plan is that one day I will die. Julia, unless the universe intervenes, will have no sibling to share memories of me, no one with whom she shares a personal history. My two nieces and two nephews will have to suffice.
Julia and I travel to Michigan to see her cousins three to four times a year, and two of Julia's four "adopted cousins" (Ethiopian-born children raised by other single mothers) live close by. We have regular play dates, forming a bond our children will need later in life. And Julia and I have adopted my adult only-child friends into our family, giving my daughter a host of local aunts and uncles.
In the end, Sandler and I feel the same: "A happy mom equals a happy child. And mothers can better keep their self-connection when they parent one child."
Recently, at the office, I overheard someone ask a newlywed sporting a still-gleaming diamond wedding band, "So when are you going to have a baby?" I grimaced. The world always wields a to-do list, I thought. But my daughter, my heart, and my wallet are happy with my just-one decision — and that's our bottom line.
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