It wasn’t long after the birth of our daughter that the barrage of nosy questions began. Well-meaning aunts, neighbors, and even total strangers at Whole Foods would say things like, “Time to get started on number two!” or, “Wouldn’t it be nice for Ella to have a little brother or sister?”
I wasn’t prepared. The first time around, I had been warned that people would feel entitled to insinuate themselves into the very personal question of if, and when, we would have a baby. We had barely stepped out from under the chuppah when our wedding guests told us how beautiful our children would be, and did we think that our firstborn would be here within the year?
This has always struck me as wildly inappropriate. Putting aside the fact that this implicitly involves discussing our sex lives in public, it’s a Pandora’s box of potentially painful questions: What if we happened to be struggling with infertility? What if one of us had decided that we were not parent material, creating a source of conflict in our marriage?
Ultimately, we survived that first round of interrogation and made everybody happy by bringing Ella into the world three years into our marriage. But the second time around, the questions have become more troubling. The fact is, we’re not sure whether or not to have another baby.
While it sometimes feels like we are alone trying to weigh the pros and cons of going from a family of three to four, this is a conversation that families (especially those with two parents with full-time jobs) across the country are having. For this story, I talked to women in demanding careers in cities across the country asking themselves the same questions we are, and coming to varying conclusions. I also studied the data about what it’s like to go from one to two children, considering changing demographic trends, the costs, and the career sacrifices involved. None of these data points or interviews helps make our own decision any easier, but it does provide food for thought.
The Persistent Stigma Of The Only Child
It seems that part of the reason that Americans feel so comfortable asking about when you’ll have a second child is because two-kid families are the norm in this country. In 2014, Pew Research found that 35% of women in their 40s had two children, which was significantly higher than the women who had one child (18%), and those who had three (20%). (It’s worth noting that 15% of women in their 40s were childless, making the persistent post-wedding, “When are you going to have children?” question more rude.)
Not only do most American families have two children, but there is also a cultural consensus that having one kid is not ideal. According to Gallup, in 2015, 48% of Americans said that two is the ideal number of children for a family to have compared to 3% that said one. So parents like us are wrestling not only with our own feelings, but with the social pressure that 97% of Americans don’t think that having only one child is a good idea.
The Myth Of The Lonely, Selfish Only Child
Aimee Grove, a principal at Smitten Communications, doesn’t feel like she settled for one kid: She’s extremely happy being a small family in San Francisco. Yet she feels like she has to constantly make excuses for why she doesn’t have more children. She often falls back on the explanation that she had her first child late at 39, so it may have been hard to have another. “I have found these words coming out of my mouth, but I don’t think they are true,” she says. “I think it is more socially acceptable to say you wish you had had two.”
And even though only children are increasingly common in the U.S., there is still a stigma associated with growing up without siblings. Much of this goes back to a book written by a psychologist named G. Stanley Hall in 1896, who argued that only children are “peculiar,” prone to having more imaginary friends, lonely, and selfish.
Lucy, a New Yorker who works in the fashion industry, had to wrestle with these stereotypes when she decided to have one child. (She’s asked to use a pseudonym because there is so much judgment around this decision.) “There is this notion that only children are little monsters who never learn how to socialize,” she says. “It took me a while to realize this was an unjustified fear. I realized it was up to us, as parents, to work hard to make sure our daughter plays well with others and thinks about other peoples’ needs.”
My husband and I try to tell ourselves not to make a decision based on social norms because these norms are constantly changing. The data show that Americans’ feelings about the size of the ideal family have shifted significantly over the decades. Back in 1971 was the first time that Gallup reported that the majority of Americans (38%) said two kids were ideal. Analysts say this shift dovetails with the availability of birth control, which made family planning possible, and also the increased number of women entering the workforce. And if you go further back to 1936, one-third of Americans said that three children were ideal, while one-third favored two. While choosing to have one child is still relatively uncommon today, who knows what the norms will be in the U.S. in the next decade? (In Italy, for instance, the birth rate is 1.34, and one-child homes are very common.)
The Benefits And Costs Of Baby Number Two
Ultimately, there are deeply personal reasons that people choose to have a certain number of children, many that come from formative experiences in the parents’ own life. This is immediately apparent when my husband and I talk it over. We cannot help but reference our own, idiosyncratic life experiences.
For instance, my husband has a younger brother and thinks it would be nice to give our daughter a sibling. He thinks that it is particularly important when children are facing the burden of taking care of their ailing parents, but it continues to be important after they are gone, because it means you still have a member of your nuclear family nearby. Of course, we also acknowledge that not all sibling relationships are alike, and there’s no saying whether our children will be close.
I have a very different perspective as an only child. I had a wonderful childhood–and going against many stereotypes about only children–I was rarely lonely, and my parents were careful not to allow me to think that I was at the center of the universe. My family found it easier–and more affordable–to travel, dine out, and visit museums with only one child in tow, so I think I did more of that than my peers. On the other hand, my daughter and I might have different personalities: She may desire the companionship of another child more than I did.
However, personal sentiments are only one part of the puzzle. We’ve also had to reckon with a range of other factors. Cost is a big one. The price tag associated with raising a child born in 2015, like my daughter, is $233,610. (This figure only goes up to age 17, so it does not include college expenses.) Having multiple children carries a small cost savings per child, allowing parents to buy fewer toys or put two kids in one bedroom. According to the USDA, you’re expected to pay around $25,108 a year for a toddler, while a toddler and an infant together costs $39,540. But there’s no doubt that the second child has a huge impact on the bottom line.
Then there’s the issue of our careers. My husband and I are struggling to stay productive in our respective careers. Having one baby definitely threw a wrench in our professional lives, but we’re managing. Between the two of us, one parent can travel for work while the other stays at home with the baby. On weekends, one parent can recover from a hectic week, while the other does full-time childcare. With two kids, some of this changes. When your child is not in daycare, it’s suddenly one parent to one child. According to FiveThirtyEight, 65% of women are unhappy in the years after their second child, as compared to 40% of men, suggesting that baby No. 2 is harder on moms than dads. This might be because women still do the majority of childcare and housework, according to sociological research.
How Women Make It Work
I’ve spoken to women who looked at all the same pros and cons, and made different choices about the second baby.
All of this is fresh on the mind of Libbey Baumgarten, 33, as she was just about to give birth to her second baby when I spoke with her. She spent her twenties focusing on her career as a publicist, quickly rising up in the ranks of her industry. She traveled a lot with her friends and her husband. And she put off having a baby until she was in her early thirties. But it was very clear to her after he was born that she wanted to have another one. “I didn’t expect to love motherhood so much,” Baumgarten says. “But it transformed me. It’s like a part of me had been missing and I suddenly felt whole.”
With one baby, she and her husband could manage in her one-bedroom New York apartment. It was tight, and there certainly wouldn’t be room for a second baby. So she made the difficult decision to move to Westin, Connecticut, which is an hour-and-a-half train ride to New York, where she and her husband work. It’s a big sacrifice, but she feels it is entirely worth it for their lifestyle. “I want my kids to have a yard and be able to play outside,” she says. “And of course, I make the most of it, using the train ride to answer emails and get work done.”
After laying the groundwork for her family, the decision to have a second baby became much easier. Baumgarten has daycare lined up, although between her two children, she’s accepted that childcare will consume about 40% of her salary.
San Francisco-based Aimee Grove, who gave birth to her son at age 39, says that the high cost of living in the Bay Area played into her decision to have only one child. Having another baby would mean going from a two-bedroom apartment to one with three or four bedrooms, and then she had to consider how much her family could spend on daycare. “When I was pregnant, I remember staying up at night and wondering how I am going to pay for college someday,” she says. “It’s not cool to talk about it, but when you have another baby, these are the costs you have to think about.”
And ultimately, having more resources as a small family means that everybody has an easier life, not just the parents, but also her son. She likes that she is able to give her son more personal attention and she can afford to give him more experiences, like going to restaurants and regular family vacations. “It enables us to have more of what we wanted,” Grove says. “We could live where we wanted, I could have a career, we could travel and pursue things that are fun in our lives. When you become a parent, you give your whole life over to your kid, and with only one, it’s a little more manageable.”
Grove has no regrets about her small family, except perhaps that she has let other people’s opinions seep into her life and make her question her own happiness. “In your whole life, there is nothing you’re going to do that is going to have more impact on the world and yourself than having a child,” she says. “I don’t think anybody should bring a human being into the world because you feel social pressure to do so. It really needs to be you and your partner’s decision, and everyone needs to support you.”
Being A Little Selfish Can Be Selfless
One of the hardest parts of this decision-making process for me has been finding the space and time to think clearly about it, without the external forces pushing me in one direction or another.
Leland Drummond, co-founder of 30-person PR and creative agency AZIONE, says she’s been wrestling to make the right decision for her family. Now that her son is 2, she feels physically ready for another pregnancy. She’s also looked at her finances and concluded that another baby wouldn’t be a burden. But just because you can have another baby doesn’t mean you should. “Our society is prone to rushing through everything and focusing on the next step, whether that’s college or career or marriage or children,” she says. “I’ve been really trying to fight this. I have been willing to admit that I really don’t know if this is the right thing.”
She’s been weighing all the factors I’ve described in this story. And she says it’s important not to overlook your personal desires. Women often don’t feel comfortable talking about their own needs, particularly when it comes to family life, but Drummond believes that being honest with yourself is crucial at times like this. “I ask myself how this is going to affect my life, my marriage, my son,” she says. “You need to think of it a little selfishly too, because you don’t want any resentment creeping in on you later on. That’s not fair to your child, either.”
Thinking about it in this way has been helpful. Drummond is now convinced that she wants to have another child. “I’ve been mulling over everything,” she says. “I don’t want to have a second baby unless I can give him or her everything that I’ve got. And I feel confident that I’m ready for it.”