Fertility rates have dropped for the third year running in Canada, falling to 1.61 children per woman in 2011, according to a Statistics Canada report released this week. As women take on breadwinner roles and delay having families, “only children” are on the rise, while multiple kids are on the wane. The Globe spoke with Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One about the shift to solo children and why parents are still often damned for this choice.
What does 1.61 children per woman imply?
It indicates that more people are having one child and it also indicates that more people are having no children. These are both big trends right now.
Why are only children becoming the new normal?
A bad economy and fewer births always go hand in hand, but the conversation is much bigger. The reality for women has changed so radically: In this generation, we are coming to terms with the limitations of a life as a mother and as a mother of more children. We are beginning to reconcile the difficulties of raising a child and having an engaged, fulfilled work life with minimal social support. It’s better in Canada than it is in the States, but it still ain’t Scandinavia. When people imagine what an adult life looks like, it’s not just about stretching yourself thin between the duties of your job and your parenting: People actually want to have more fun than that. They believe that pleasure is not necessarily something to be denied as radically as people used to think it should be.
But many are also delaying family because they want to do it right.
We delay our fertility, waiting for the right moment in our careers, till we can afford it or till we feel we’ve found the right partner. You can’t live in a culture that promotes pleasure, romantic and social fulfilment, and then says that as soon as you’re at the point to consider motherhood you have to throw it all away. That has a lot to do with why I only have one kid. I love being a mother, more than I ever expected to, but I also want to have a really present, intimate relationship with my husband, my friends and myself. That is considered incredibly selfish.
Have you closed the door to having other children?
I haven’t. I haven’t sterilized myself, my husband hasn’t had a vasectomy. These are things that we have discussed and decided not to do. We just have that door a little bit open still. Having just written this book, I want to be clear that I’m not saying [only-children] are the answer.
In Canada, more women aged 35 to 39 are having babies than those aged 20 to 24, and that gap widens every year, even as it becomes tougher to conceive with delayed childbirth.
I had my daughter when I was 33 and I felt like I was a teen mother in New York. Amongst an ever-widening stripe of women, putting off fertility is no longer just what the most educated and elite women do. In the States right now, four of 10 mothers are breadwinners in their families. Now this is all of us.
And still we talk about wanting to have “kids,” plural. How do these outmoded values collide with modern realities?
We continue to tell this story that if you have one child, you’re screwing up your kid right out of the gate. Most people have their first child for themselves and their second child for the benefit of their first child. When you put that together with all of the data that show only children do just fine, it seems like a lot to go through if it’s something you don’t even necessarily want yourself.
I’ve been puzzling for three years now about why we keep telling this story that only children are disadvantaged and that their parents have done something horrible to them. As we were evolving as a species, we needed to have more of us to survive. Then we evolved into an agrarian community and we needed children as a workforce, they were life insurance. Then the Industrial Revolution came along and suddenly, kids cost more instead of earned more. Simultaneously, women went out into the marketplace for the first time. Here we are in a place of continuing discomfort about who women are and what a woman’s adult life should look like and we keep telling this story of, ‘you have to be a mother, you have to have more kids.’ But we all know that the more that you’re a mother, the less you get to be other things. There are plenty of people who maintain incredibly rich, full lives with more than one kid, but for a lot of us, it’s really difficult.
Do people with only children honestly face harsh judgment?
I get more e-mails every day from people confessing how tortured by guilt they’ve been, how many pediatricians, psychologists, mothers-in-law, teachers and strangers had suggested they were doing something terrible to their children by not giving them a sibling. Frankly, a lot of these parents couldn’t have another kid and yet we still have a strong degree of social judgment around this. It’s baffling to me.
Still, what has happened in just a few decades in urban areas like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou is that people have learned that raising one child isn’t such a bad thing. Even though that cultural voice still whispers in their ear, when confronted with the reality of their lives it seems like a really powerful and positive choice. I wonder if that might happen throughout the rest of the world as the number of only children increases.
And we realize they’re quite normal after all.
Or, you know, not less normal than other people. Everyone is screwed up, lonely and selfish, and everyone has a story about how they got that way. But for only children it just becomes such a totalizing narrative.
This interview has been condensed and edited.