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01/14/2006

One and only

Skwish_1 We're driving home from the grocery store.  I'm riding the brake down the long hill into town.  Charlie's in the back crooning softly to his wooden toy.  As he shakes it, its loose-sliding beads make a pleasing marimba sound.

"I want another one," I say to Paul.

Paul doesn't answer.  "BaaaahHOHHHHHHwah!" Charlie sings, then abruptly crams most of the toy into his mouth, muting its seductive Latin rhythms considerably.

I try to explain.  "It's just that this one's so good."

"Well," says Paul after a moment, "I guess that's better than wanting another because this one's really not that great."

...

When you have one child, it's inevitable: sooner or later someone's going to ask you when you'll have another.  If you are infertile but polite, you will do one of the following:

  • Answer kindly but vaguely.  "We'd like another child, but it hasn't happened yet."
  • Answer kindly but candidly.  "We'd like another child, but it was very difficult for us to have little Legolas, so..."  [Trailing off significantly.]
  • Answer kindly but definitely.  "We feel our family is complete."

If, however, you are infertile but...well, me, you will do one of the following:

  • Provide in a monotone an unvarnished account of the ordeal you underwent to have little Legoland.  Include phrases like, "big old needle right up the coochie," "clots that looked a little like steak tartare," and "baby no bigger than a small canned ham."  Enjoy the questioner's discomfiture.
  • Take a long final drag off your menthol cigarette, then drop the butt on the pavement.  As you're grinding it beneath the toe of your shoe, mutter, "Never.  Can't stand the little bastards."
  • Squint into the distance, then suddenly point and yelp, "Hey! Over there!  James Frey's credibility!"  When the questioner whirls around incredulously to stare, make off with her wallet and her keys, cackling unrepentantly as you drive her car off into the lambent dusk.
...

Since I started wanting kids, I've always wanted two.  The prevailing assumption is that it's better for a child to grow up with a sibling.  To some degree, given our circumstances and our personalities, I share that assumption with respect to our family.  But it's not for any of the usual reasons.  To wit:

An only child runs the risk of becoming the sole focus of his parents' attention, so he might not understand from the outset that he's not the center of the universe.  I am happy to report that Paul and I do have interests outside of Charlie — for example, showering without interruption; eating food that requires the careful application of molars; and reading books that feature neither big red barns, a snowy day, nor sheep in either a jeep or a shop — and fully plan to continue to cultivate a life that Charlie can take part in rather than entirely dominate.

An only child doesn't learn to share or take turns as readily as a child with a sibling.  Dude, we have a cat.  The sharing lessons are well underway.

An only child will have sole responsibility for caring for his aging parents.  Dude, we have a cat.  A cat I am training to care for me in my dotage, to summon help should I become ill, to dispose of my remains in a fitting fashion once I leave this vale of tears.  Now all I have to do is figure out how to keep him from standing on my chest while I sleep, looking at me intently, licking his chops, positioning his nose under mine to check for respiration, gently testing my liver temperature with a single questing paw...

Um, where was I before I got all tangled up in this shroud?

Oh, yeah.  I remember.  An only child will be lonely.  Yeah, I'm pretty sure Charlie will get lonely down there in the basement, where he'll spend roughly 90% of his time.  (Of course we'll let him out sometimes.  You know, like the day the exterminator comes to spray.)  Poor kid, chained to the furnace, forlornly clanking his manacles, forced to seek the friendship of the garter snake I saw down there this summer, which is actually probably dead by now, now that I think of it.

Are you starting to suspect that I don't think much of these reasons?

Listen, people have all kinds of motivations for their decisions about family size.  I respect that.  I just resent the suggestion — often veiled, but sometimes not — that we should have another child because we owe it to Charlie, that we'd be selfish not to.  To my way of thinking, what we owe Charlie is a family where his parents are present, engaged, fulfilled, and happy, full stop.  When I think about having another child, that internal discussion isn't really about him.

Instead, my desire's about me, and about my relationship with Paul, and about how being a parent makes me feel, and about the greedy drive to experience more of the good moments that occur at every stage of childhood. 

And if I'm honest, I must admit it's also about the iron-willed determination to discount the bad moments.  It is perhaps telling that as Charlie howls at bedtime between intervals of check-and-comfort, I'm looking in my address book to see whether I still have my local clinic's number and consulting my calendar to see when the next open house is at a nearby adoption agency.

...

On the other hand.  We're lucky to have one, and I often wonder whether we should quit while we're ahead.  After all, it's indisputably easier not to have another.  Talk about easy: I don't even have to use birth control.  Hahahahaha.  Ohhhh.

On the hard days, I find myself repeating, Four more years till kindergarten.  If we have another child, my days won't be mostly my own again — and, yes, on a bad day I do think in those terms — for quite some time longer.

On the good days, which are greater in number, I think, How long till we can take Charlie snorkeling?  Try snowboarding?  Feed him dim sum in Chinatown?  We can still do those things, of course, with a second child, but I can't deny that I'm sometimes inclined to think of a second child as an impediment to fun during those first helpless years instead of an enhancement later on.

A 2004 study (PDF) examined the effects of having children on one's subjective happiness by comparing sets of identical twins.  Look, it would take a scientist to explain it — Happinessi j = β01 × partneri j2 × fertilityi j3 × Xi j + μj + εi j, for God's sake  — but the basic conclusion of the study was that while having one child does increase one's feeling of well being, having an additional child does not.  In fact, the study's findings indicate that having more than one child actually tends to  decrease women's happiness.  (Women with more than one child are still happier, however, than women who have none.  'Magine that, infertiles.)

It's enough to make you wonder.  I mean, when faced with such compelling evidence as fertilityi j = γ0 + γ1 × Zi j + γ2 × μ j + ηi j, who wouldn't?

Interestingly, this study also found that "contrary to the impression that children provide an important source of social, emotional and economic support for the elderly," having had children doesn't have a significant impact on the self-reported well-being of people aged 50-70.

Hey, they must have asked their cats to look after them, too.

...

All of these decisions are necessarily colored by our experience.  Before I had one, I knew I wanted two; before it was hard to have any, I was sure two would simply happen. 

Things have changed.  My ambivalence, when it surfaces now, has as much to do with the path we'd have to take to have another child as it does with the awareness that even a perfectly ordinary day of rearing one child can sap me absolutely dry.

I want to know what you think.

If you're infertile and don't yet have a child, have your feelings changed about how many you'd like?

If you do have only one child, has the route you've taken to parenthood  — infertility treatment, difficult pregnancy, protracted adoption process   — influenced how you feel about having another?

If you have more than one child, did the decision to have more than one come easily?

If you're an only child, how do you feel about your status as same?

And if you have a cat, how hard do you think it would be to teach one to salute at a graveside like John-John Kennedy in 1963? 

Because if I don't have another kid, I'm counting on ours to do it up nice.


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