One is enough?

Why more parents have only one child

Tanya Tabachnikoff couldn't be more tickled to be a new mom. Her six-month-old daughter keeps Tanya and her husband, a stay-at-home dad, happily busy these days. They are already talking about having another one. But not without some hesitation.

"We find the experience of raising a baby enormously fulfilling, but also rather exhausting," says Ms. Tabachnikoff, who is in her mid-30s. "I'm kind of obsessed these days with deciding about another one."

She often raises the topic with friends, seeking out opinions about the pros and cons of having just one. It's her hunch that it might not be such a bad idea.

If the couple remain a one-child family, they will be far from alone. Unlike in China, where one-child families are a state standard, a rising number of Americans are choosing to limit their progeny to one.

One-child families are now one of the fastest-growing segments of society. One in 3 families started today will have just one child, according to "Only Child" an online publication. And census figures show there are already more one-child families in the US than families with two children.

While family size is a deeply personal decision, there are societal forces at work, too. Worldwide, in the past three decades, family sizes have shrunk. Experts cite wider use of contraception, better education of women, and economic growth.

But in interviews, the reasons commonly expressed by couples for stopping at one are the high cost, demanding careers, a "late" start, divorce, and a desire to be better parents by focusing their attention. Also influencing this choice are studies showing that, contrary to popular belief, only children are not handicapped by a lack of siblings. In fact, they may be better off.

"The absence of siblings is not harmful," says Toni Falbo, professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin and a leading authority on only children. "The choice to have a second child should be because you want to, not for your first child."

Cultural changes have affected the way we raise only children and the way society views them, says Ms. Falbo, an only child. It used to be that only children were raised in isolation by their stay-at-home moms. Hence, the labels "lonely" and "spoiled." But life in the '90s means only children have abundant opportunities to interact with their peers. Play groups, day care, and Gymboree class help children broaden their social circles and develop social skills.

While it's vital for the only child to develop a network of friends and relatives, parents of "onlies" don't need to keep their children on a social treadmill, says Susan Newman, author of "Parenting an Only Child." Her research has shown that children's time alone enhances creativity, independence, and the ability to be comfortable with one's self.

Last year - "What Only-Child Syndrome?" - a New York Times Magazine article by Bill McKibben poked holes in the stereotypes. He found that only children are often smart, well-adjusted, and mature for their years.

Mr. McKibben, who wrote "Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families" (1998), initially delved into this topic for personal reasons. Motivated by the desire to help keep world population down, he and his wife wanted to stop after one child. But they were torn. Would this decision harm Sophie, their four-year-old daughter?

The McKibbens got their answer. And his book is intended to "get a conversation going about one of the last subjects we avoid in this taboo-free society."

It may be an avoided topic, but parents and "onlies" interviewed were eager to share their opinions.

"For us, having a baby was such a huge event - the best thing we ever did," says Anne Perryman. "I used to feel Emmy was my Magnum Opus. We had so much fun raising her. She just seemed to be enough."

Ms. Perryman says Emmy, now 23, had many only-child playmates while growing up in New York City. And they have worked hard to keep her in close touch with her cousins. Her only concern is that Emmy may feel a bit lonely when her parents are older. When young, being "it" has many advantages, but later, it could be a burden, she says.

Indeed, being the sole caregiver for her parents is perhaps the biggest challenge about being an only child, says Emma Chambers, who now lives with her mother in Houston, Texas

But Tracey Hurd, a child development professor at Simmons College in Boston, says all this could change. The concept that "it takes a village to raise a child" may eventually apply to older parents. "So many adults can't take care of their parents, children, and careers simultaneously," she says. "They are getting help from friends, churches, and other support networks."

Amy Gartner, another grown-up only child, says her hurdle has been the fear of failure. "My parents have put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. I would hate to disappoint them," she says.

But otherwise, she says, being an only child is a privilege, which she plans to duplicate someday. Her parents could afford to take the family on vacations to Europe, Australia, and Canada (several times), for her mother to stay home, and to send her to top-ranking journalism school.

Joyce McCallister and Greg Joksch chose to have one child so their daughter, now 18, wouldn't have to compete for attention. "Both my husband and I were first children," she says. "Our parents' attention, which had been so complete, shifted away from us to our siblings.... We missed that early friendship with our parents and wanted to stay close to our daughter."

They also wanted to preserve time for each other. "We have stayed very close and continue to be best friends. In fact, our marriage is stronger than ever."

From an early age, Pat Dwight knew she wanted to have a career and a child. To succeed at both, she and her husband, Mike, chose to stop after one.

While her daughter, Christine, got "100 percent of our time, energy, support, coaching, love, financial considerations," she says, often she would ask for a sibling. Mrs. Dwight told her she was so special that they didn't feel the need for more children.

Now that she's an adult, says Dwight, "Christine loves being an only child - well, most of the time," she says. "Holidays are sometimes a little rough." But she would make the same choice today, she adds.

Of course, in any family configuration, a lot depends on parenting style. And there are as many ways to parent as there are ways to assemble Legos. "If you have a good attitude and are content with one child," Newman says, "that child will turn out just as well as a child with siblings."

*Jennifer Wolcott is the parent of an only child.

ONLY CHILD RESOURCES Books: Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families By Bill McKibben (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only By Susan Newman (Doubleday, 1990)

You and Your Only Child: The Joys, Myths, and Challenges of Raising an Only Child By Patricia A. Nachman (Harper Perennial, 1998)

Your Second Child, by Joan Solomon Weiss (Summit Books, 1981) The Only Child: Being One, Loving One, Understanding One, Raising One by Darrell Sifford (Harper Collins, 1990)

On the Web: www.onlychild.com An online newsletter published by parents of an only child.

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