For much of history, “only children” were rare. Whether due to religious traditions, lack of birth control, cultural norms, or the simple need for manual labor, women commonly gave birth to numerous children.
Having multiples also offset the common childhood deaths resulting from harsh conditions of life. In 1800, American women typically had seven to eight children each. Even as late as 1900, “Thirty percent of all deaths in the United States occurred in children less than 5 years of age,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. “Pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, and enteritis with diarrhea were the three leading causes of death in the United States, and children under 5 accounted for 40 percent of all deaths from these infections.”
By 1999, largely as a result of enormous strides in public health, this tragic number was down to 1.4 percent.
For many parents today, having a handful of kids may feel overwhelming or redundant. Absent the grim need to replace siblings lost to disease, and without the religious command to procreate, some nonreligious folk like myself find one kid to be the perfect balance between stress and joy.
Most women of the past couldn’t even fathom a life outside of staying home and raising kids because it wasn’t feasible. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Americans got turned on to the idea of limiting the number of children they birth, and sales of family planning books skyrocketed, much to the shock of traditionalists.
Today, having a slew of kids is largely a thing of the past. As religiosity continues to decline in the United States, the share of only children grows, especially among highly-educated moms, and one-child families are the fastest growing family unit in the United States. In America, 22% of moms ages 40-44 have only one child, a percentage that has doubled since 1976, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. In 1976, 40% of the same demographic of moms had four or more kids.
A couple of years ago, the Washington Post published “The rise of the only child: How America is coming around to the idea of ‘just one,’” sharing that while a growing share of moms now only have one child, new research reveals that only-children myths—that they are snotty, spoiled, unable-to-function-in-the-real-world, sheltered brats—have been debunked. Instead, they’ve found only children are thriving at the same rates as their peers with siblings. They are just as likely to be self-sufficient, social, and happy.
Opting for just one may make room for parents (who want just one) to enjoy the magic of parenting with less stress; it allows some to thrive instead of just survive.
Religious influences on big families
Today, even with nearly a third of Americans having no religion, many still see parents of only kids as unusual.
Those who follow religions tend to have more children, likely influenced by pressures to essentially help grow the religion through procreation. Many adherents of all flavors are told that sex is just for procreation and abstinence-only birth control before marriage is key.
It’s no surprise that many Christians think it’s our earthly duty to have children. Genesis 1:28 reads, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
“Globally, the average Muslim lives in the biggest household (6.4 people), followed by the average Hindu (5.7), Christian (4.5), Buddhist (3.9), “none” (3.7) and Jew (3.7),” according to Pew Research Center’s most recent survey.
Muslims are projected to become the largest religious group mainly because they are younger and have more babies. White evangelicals are more likely than other Christians to say people should prioritize marriage and procreation, but even they are having fewer kids than before.
Societal influence on family size
Judgment doesn’t only come from the religious. Society perpetuates a deeply-ingrained pressure to have more kids. A common question after marriage is “When are you having kids?” in the plural, because siblings are often seen as essential, especially since most of us have siblings ourselves.
While having a strong positive sibling relationship(s) could be beneficial to a child, not all sibling relationships are positive.
“There is evidence to suggest that healthy sibling relationships promote empathy, prosocial behavior and academic achievement,” says child psychologist Dr. Shawn Sidhu. “While healthy sibling relationships can be an incredible source of support, unhealthy and toxic sibling relationships may be equally devastating and destabilizing.”
Those who have no siblings, or unhealthy relationships with their siblings(s), can go on to build close bonds with other friends and family, including their parents.
Many of the stereotypes portraying only children as lonely and strange go back to child psychologist Granville Stanley Hall, who said “being an only child is a disease in itself,” in 1896. Since then, most of the stereotypes have been proven as just that. Some studies say onlies show similar traits as first-borns and do better in school and have high self-esteem. And still, the negative stereotypes persist.
Some people wrestle for years with the question of how many children to have. Others feel the pressure of the proverbial clock.
Often moms of two or three kids (or more) wear a frenzied life from sun-up to sun-down as a badge of honor. Some truly enjoy it. Others could see no other way to live than alongside a big family because that’s what they’re used to and they find joy and comfort in it. For other moms, the phrase “two under two” ignites fear into their hearts (and ovaries).
Parenting workloads today
Multiple studies, including Pew surveys, show that women, regardless of employment status, do the bulk of childcare. Moms are typically the ones remembering to refill the household toilet paper rolls and schedule kids’ appointments. To put it mildly, moms (including many who are single parents) bear a large mental load. With two years of a global pandemic, in an already-overscheduled, highly stimulated, busy American parenting culture, some parents just want to lighten the load.
While caring for children, it’s hard to exercise, clean the house, pursue interests, read, have sex, do the laundry, or do the myriad things that adult humans tend to need or want to do to feel like a person. All the “chores” and “relaxation” get pushed to after-the-kids-are-asleep for so many moms, and at that point, the parents are usually so exhausted that downtime is almost completely eliminated, or traded for sleep, which exasperates the endless stress cycle.
COVID-19 brought about insanity when numerous parents were forced to work from home and care for kids at the same time with (often) no support or childcare. Even with childcare, and money, the parenting adjacent duties to be what Americans would call a good parent are hard. The expectations as far as car seats, safety in general, entertainment/attention, activities, learning, and beyond have only grown in intensity through generations.
If we could ameliorate all the societal, political, and cultural American norms surrounding the excess work and strain and drain on parents, perhaps parenting wouldn’t be so hard. Some who choose “just one” focus on how to best navigate their own circumstances and make choices that best suit them based on real life. They may aim to lessen the stress and make room to strive for better mental health, relationships, finances, career, hobbies or beyond.
Some parents deeply want multiple children, and they should absolutely strive for just that. They may have more support or stamina, or a stronger desire for a larger family, or their life just brings them more kids, and that’s OK, too. Others want more and it doesn’t happen. Some find that their age or finances get in the way. For some, having one child falls under a gray area between choice and circumstance. Some parents have fertility or relationship issues that complicate their original plans.
In the days of Instagram fertility warriors, we regularly hear stories of fertility struggles that result in only-children, but we also need to hear the stories of why, with today’s insane world of expectations for women, many people just only want one child.
Effects of parenting on personal happiness
Many studies have explored the idea that parenting makes parents unhappy. Last year’s deep dive by Atlantic professed that kids can cause unhappiness, but bring meaning. Kids downgrade quality of life for parents in the United States, according to the story.
A twin study by sociology professor Peter Kohler and his colleagues found a similar effect of babies on personal happiness. He found a first baby brings happiness to both parents, but a second baby has little effect on dad’s happiness and decreases the mothers.
A Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey followed 20,000 people for up to 16 years. “We found that mothers’ mental health improves with first children immediately following birth and remains steady over the next few years. But, with the second child, mothers’ mental health sharply declines and remains low,” the authors said. This is in a country where most moms take off work during a child’s first year of life.
Another study, based on a Council of Contemporary Families briefing in 2016, of 22 Western countries, found America came in first place for the gap in happiness between child-less people and parents (meaning a greater percentage of parents are unhappy). Support for parents (including childcare costs, maternity leave and cultural support) could be partially to blame.
Debunking stereotypes and a changing landscape
With the growth of onlies, “one and done” Facebook groups are flourishing.
Jess Myhre has broken ground with her and her husband’s “Only You,” a popular podcast that explores the decision to have an only child, the stigma surrounding it, and stories and anecdotes from people who’ve lived it. She’s currently also authoring a children’s book featuring a thriving only child.
The childfree movement is also mounting, and Gen Z is even more on board. In a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 44% of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say they are unlikely to have children.
If an individual doesn’t have a religion telling them that sex is just for procreation, or more importantly, a culture where two kids, a spouse and a house is the norm, and the “more the merrier,” how many kids would they have?
Moms are already under a lot of pressure. While plenty of people are happy with two, three, four or more children, some parents and future parents believe having one child by choice is a way to experience meaning and fulfillment that comes from parenthood and less stress from the complications of multiple kids and their schedules.
Some parents know their limits and make the best choice for themselves. This empowering decision should be celebrated instead of stigmatized. Others have and want more kids, and that’s great, too. It’s important for kids to see different size and types of families and appreciate the different dynamics whether due to families size, culture, type, and number of parents, and beyond. Ultimately, a child and (parent’s) life is dictated by their genetics, experiences, life circumstances, culture, and more, and cannot be summarized strictly by their number of siblings.
It’s time to break the stigma surrounding only children and their parents, removing these religious and cultural expectations once and for all. It’s well past time to make room for acceptance of individual decisions that include women’s mental health and quality of life. Families of all sizes are “normal.”