At home in Thunder Bay, Megan Elsey sometimes feels troubled when she passes an alcove full of her three-year-old daughter’s outgrown baby clothes, packed away in anticipation of a second child.
“If I had children, I was always going to have two,” said Ms. Elsey, 36. “I had this vision for myself and my family, and for who I was going to be as a mother.”
The past three years saw an unravelling of best-laid plans. Two days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, Ms. Elsey, a manager, was laid off, following her husband’s own layoff several months earlier. In April, 2020, with the world brought to a standstill, their daughter arrived.
Unemployed and isolated from family and help in lockdown, the new parents witnessed their mental health erode. Though both landed new jobs in 2021, Ms. Elsey feels her family remains in a holding pattern. She’s unsure she has the energy to parent for two, or to provide financially for them the way she would want to.
“I can’t do what happened in 2020 again,” she said. “The dynamics that come after that, they change you.”
The mother is one in a growing tide of ever more vocal “one and done” parents. Just as the pandemic altered status quo ideas about work, it also shifted expectations within family life, with more Canadians rethinking their plans, questioning what comprises a complete family.
Only-child families were the single most common type of family in 2021, according to Statistics Canada. Forty-five per cent of families had one child, compared to 38 per cent with two and 16.6 per cent with three or more. In 2021, some 14 per cent of Canadians ages 25 to 44 said they wanted fewer children than they did before the pandemic, with nearly one in five saying they now wanted to delay having a child. When young people ages 15 to 24 were asked how many kids they saw themselves having, their responses fell closer to one than two, a 2022 survey from the agency found.
These shifts in childbearing plans echo global patterns: One third of American women said they wanted fewer children or to have them later, according to 2020 data from The Guttmacher Institute. Demographic research found similar patterns among “delayers” and “abandoners” in Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom in response to the pandemic.
“The opportunity to live through a life-shifting event pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you evaluate everything about your life,” said Therese Shechter, a filmmaker whose documentary My So-Called Selfish Life follows women who choose not to have children.
“Just like we rethought what our working lives could look like, people also rethought what their family lives could look like. A lot of women left the work force during the pandemic. It brought to light the inequities of childcare between men and women. It’s in those times that we can take a good hard look at our lives and think about what we want,” Ms. Shechter said.
She’s found parallels between non-parents and parents who decide one is enough, with both groups feeling pressure around their family planning. The push for two children persists from family and friends who rehash mistaken tropes about kids needing siblings to develop properly.
“There are all these pseudoscientific studies around this that people just repeat because it’s what they hear, because it fits their idea of what the nuclear family is supposed to look like,” Ms. Shechter said.
“The one-and-done decision is completely of a piece with the I’m-not-having-any-children decision. It’s about having choices, being able to think about it, being aware of the challenges, as well as the joys.”
In Canada, births have been trending downward for decades, experts note, most dramatically after the legalization of contraception in 1969 and the introduction of year-long paid parental leave in 2000.
“The more educated and the more urbanized women become, the lower their fertility rates,” said Lindsay Tedds, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary who studies birth seasonality.
So far, Prof. Tedds questions the pandemic effect on birth rates in Canada, saying some families merely delayed having kids. The most dramatic dips in births came in 2020, she said, and had more to do with an immigration effect than any domestic trend. In the spring of 2020, births rapidly declined alongside border restrictions, with fewer births coming from new immigrants and non-residents unable to enter the country, Prof. Tedds explained.
The pandemic’s long-term impact on births remains to be seen: Though births were lower in 2021 than prepandemic in 2019, Statistics Canada isn’t set to publish 2022 birth data until the coming fall.
“I’d hazard we will see neither a baby boom nor a baby bust, outside of the immigration effect,” Prof. Tedds said. “We are still waiting on another year of data to be sure.”
At the same time, families of only-children became increasingly visible throughout the global crisis. From Sudbury, Jen Dalton started her “One and Done Parenting” Instagram account in February, 2020. Today, the community counts nearly 22,000 followers, the vast majority of them women. They delve into second-baby pressure and finding happiness in their smaller families.
“If you have a first child and you don’t have a second, the assumption is that you don’t enjoy being a parent, especially if you have all the means to do so,” said Ms. Dalton, 32.
She and her husband have one daughter, four-year-old Nora. Though the couple planned on having a big family of three or four kids, they reconsidered after realizing how much parenting takes. Five months of daycare closings in the pandemic reaffirmed the couple’s decision. Relying on their aging parents for childcare, Ms. Dalton said she and her husband experienced a “thankful-we-only-have-one kind of feeling.”
Many in her online community question how families do it all with two, three or four children. “How are they mentally well, financially well, physically well, and able to handle the complexities of multiple little humans at a time?” asked Ms. Dalton, who works in marketing.
Still, parents in her circles sometimes describe a sense of guilt and inadequacy. Though many consciously chose not to have more than one child, others wanted larger families but divorced from their partners, or struggled with the high costs of IVF or secondary infertility, the inability to conceive or carry a child to term after previously giving birth.
“It’s that feeling of, ‘You should give your child a sibling,’” Ms. Dalton said. “A lot of that comes from family and societal pressure. The ‘picture perfect family’ is two parents and two kids, ideally a boy and a girl, spaced a couple years apart.”
Stress Test podcast: Canadians are waiting longer to have kids. If they do, they’re having fewer.
When Ms. Shechter shows her documentary about the childfree choice at college campuses, students often tell her they never viewed childbearing as optional – a mindset the filmmaker finds dismaying.
“I would like to think that each successive generation is more open-minded and less caught up in ‘the one true path,’” she said.
“The more we see examples of other ways to create our families – having one child, having no child, having a family of friends – the more the world opens up to those possibilities.”
Ginny Hogan, 31, sees a wave of only-children families coming. Last month, the author launched the podcast Raising Questions, interviewing parents and non-parents who spent their thirties uncertain about having kids.
“There’s a changing idea of what can be a family,” Ms. Hogan said. “People say they want to find different ways of forming communities that feel like families. An only child might not feel like an only child if they have a family friend who lives right next door who they have meals with.”
Ms. Hogan argued that while much has been made of the rise of “one and done” parents and childless adults amid the pandemic, climate change and financial uncertainty, her interview subjects often admit these are merely socially palatable excuses: many just have no urge to be parents. Among adults under 40 who said it was unlikely they’d have children, some 60 per cent said plainly that they don’t want them, a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found.
In Thunder Bay, Ms. Elsey is slowly coming to accept her family of three isn’t better or worse but different.
When distant acquaintances probe for a timeline on a second baby, she offers pat responses. “I say, ‘Things are just too unpredictable right now; we need to have more solid ground.’ Which is all very true – but it’s easier for people to digest, if I say it like that.”
Recently, she felt herself tense up as she answered a friend’s baby queries more honestly: “I was trying to dance around it. Finally, I had to just say, ‘I just don’t think it’s in the cards right now. I don’t see it working, it doesn’t feel right.’”
Ms. Elsey hopes for more kindness toward people who choose different paths.
“We can have the conversation about not having kids – or not having another kid. The world is changing. Your family planning can change too.”