Here’s what we don’t talk about when we talk about having it all: mothering less. Not wilful child negligence, but simply having one kid, and no more.
I’ve watched most of my friends tread into the tunnel of second children, few of them to emerge as how I remember their former engaged selves. They tell me there’s hardly the time to even consider maintaining a self. “You don’t have any idea how hard it is—it’s more than twice as hard,” many of them say repeatedly, impatient and dazed. It’s true. Our family life, busy with plentiful travel, the delights of urban living, late night rock shows and dinner parties, and the frequent freedom to binge on a novel over a weekend, allows as much freedom and pleasure as parenting without a trust fund could possibly offer. There’s a reason that in a study of 35,000 Danes, parents of only children were found to be happier than anyone else. We have the rich pleasures of parenting, time for work, and also some measure of freedom for ourselves. Researchers across disciplines and cross the world say there’s nothing but support for singletons as the way to balance the profound joys of parenting with the constant clamour of the rest of our lives.
Lauren and her daughter Dahlia
It seems the more of a parent you are, the less you are of anything else. Women devote about 13 hours a week to childcare, up from about 10.5 half hours nearly a half century ago—when they didn’t work outside the home. Each child adds no less than 120 hours of housework a year. Meanwhile, over the past century, adulthood has come to promise more than just duty, but pleasure. We envision a liberated existence, one of satisfaction and fullfillment, a life built upon intentionality and individualism rather than obligation and role filling. This liberated adulthood exists at odds with parenting.
It doesn’t take forced population control to raise the number of a country’s only children—the relative incompatibility of parenthood and modernity has taken care of that. We search for a partner who will satisfy our desires, develop a career that reflects our strengths, build a life that suits not just our needs, but our wants. Meanwhile, our bodies get older, our fertility more fragile. We make our sequential choices and often these days, they add up to one. The US has more only children than ever before, now over one in five, which is double the number since my mother made the choice to stop at one in the mid-seventies. Last month’s UK Census estimate that an astonishing half of British families have just one child; the same count put Irish single-child families at one third. A global study found that the lower the overall fertility of a country, the happier its parents are.