Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why one isn't always the loneliest number

By Courtney E. Martin, Special to CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Chelsea Clinton is an only child.
Chelsea Clinton is an only child.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Courtney Martin: Women often get asked if they have multiple children or plan to do so
  • Martin: How many children you choose to have has a huge impact on your work-life balance
  • She says a new book by Lauren Sandler presents good reasons for having just one child
  • Martin: Living a happy life is about the freedom to choose if you want to have children or not

Editor's note: Courtney E. Martin is a writer and speaker who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women," among other books. Follow her on Twitter at @courtwrites.

(CNN) -- One of the most common questions a pregnant woman gets asked: "Is this your first?"—suggesting there were more or will be more.

But how many children you choose to have has a fundamental influence on your capacity to juggle the 21st century work-life balance. More kids simply demand more resources: energy, money and time. This is an aspect of family life that doesn't get discussed much.

If our increasingly wired lives leave us starved for time and more scattered in our attention, having an only child can be a path to freedom. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number since the 1960s. And yet, our public conversation hasn't caught up to this increasingly common reality.

Courtney Martin
Courtney Martin

Those who choose to have one child are often confronted with not so subtle snooping on the part of neighbors and friends. Infertility problems? Marriage on the rocks? Too career focused? We simply assume people are having multiple children unless we learn otherwise.

In some ways, multiple children are the "American dream" story of the work/family debate. Just as the Horatio Alger tale urges us that no matter where we come from, we can work our way up the ladder one rung at a time (ignoring systemic and structural factors), the superwoman tale pretends that there are no limits to a mother's resources (ignoring, well, the realities of the space-time continuum.) There's always more room in the womb and more time in the day; as long as she's got a smartphone and a big heart.

But in a new book, "One and Only: Why Having an Only Child, and Being One, is Better Than You Think," journalist Lauren Sandler isn't buying it. She writes, "One of the central myths of America is that we can engineer a life without tradeoffs."

She counters all the stereotypes of only children—selfish, lonely, maladjusted—with a range of convincing research, explores the environmental arguments for keeping families small, and also looks at the evidence that children from one-child families tend to achieve more and, as a result, can contribute more to society. Just a few examples: Condi Rice, Alicia Keys and Chelsea Clinton are all only children.

The important questions center around our assumptions about family, what makes us happy, fulfilled and loved. In other words, how do we recognize our full range of choices as parents? "Is happiness the result of finding purpose and meaning? Is it the absence of depression?" Sandler contends that "it has a lot to do with having the freedom to live the life you want to live, whether that means five kids, or one, or none at all."

It is what we know in our heart of hearts, even when we're fully ensconced in the myth—sucking down a smoothie while driving our kid to school, rescheduling a doctor's appointment, and trying to read the notes for the morning's meeting all at the same miserable moment. It is related to the work-life balance issues that Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg touched on.

We are human, and as such, we have limits. Whether you scale back your job, scale back your social time, scale back your self-care, scale back your child care assistance, or scale back your family size—something's gotta give.

Admitting that isn't just a smart strategy for a saner life. It cuts at the core of one of modern women's most stubborn, self-defeating beliefs -- that unless we are everything to all people, we are nothing, that our worth is tied up in our limitless capacity (at least when it comes to caring for others), that we don't actually deserve to live a selective life and take or leave a number of energy-sucking pursuits.

It's not that we have to choose to parent just one child if we want to be sane in contemporary society, but that we owe it to ourselves, our partners and even our potential progeny, to consider other possibilities.

Women, in particular, need to slough off socialized norms and think in a fresh, free, way about the kind of life that will really make our families -- and ourselves -- healthy and fulfilled.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Courtney Martin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT