I have one child. She is two and a half. She never stops chattering (unless very very tired), is funny, feisty, and very, very sweet. She is, undoubtedly, the best thing I (we) have ever done and one of the great loves of my life.
The other day I had a doctor’s appointment and no childcare, so along came my girl. She sat, ‘reading’ out loud and eating blueberries, intermittently asking, “What are you talking about, Mummy?” before having an investigatory ramble around the doctor’s consulting room (“Now, this is in-ter-es-ting.”). The doctor nodded and remarked – in her splendid Italian accent – “Yes, she is very active, isn’t she?,” and then did one of those continental shrugs and said, “This is girls. If you have a boy next you will say, “’What is this? Why is he so easy?’”
Leaving aside the blanket generalisation, and an interesting foray into gender differences (another post, another time. Am sure mothers of boys would have a LOT to say to this comment…), the part of that sentence which made me stutter was the word ‘next’. Because what if this – by which I mean the aforementioned two-year-old – is enough? What if I – we – only want one child and there is no ‘next’?
There has been much said on the subject recently. Lauren Sandler wrote a provocative piece for The Atlantic, in which she postulated that the secret to being a successful writer was to only have one child (unless, like the other progenitors of motherhood/work arguments, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, you can afford round-the-clock childcare and housekeeping). She quotes Alice Walker who, when asked if female creative types should become mothers, replied, “”They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them” (incidentally, I love this casual aside, almost a slight), “but only one. Because with one you can move.With more than one you’re a sitting duck.”
Zadie Smith (mother to two children) wrote a hearty riposte: Sandler’s argument was “absurd” and more than one child leaves you with “a surprising amount of free time”. “I have two children,” she responds, robustly, “Dickens had ten – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque?”
Of course they didn’t – because they’re men; fathers not mothers. Much as I agree with the tenor of Smith’s general argument, I think this is a weak point. For most women, theirs is the larger share of child and domestic related duties. This is still an inescapable fact.
I think it’s less about being a “sitting duck” and more a simple question of time. I have a lot going on in my life (this is why I am sitting by the pool with my laptop on holiday), and a husband who is both an entirely brilliant father and a hugely busy man. Time rich we are not. One child we can fit; two might – this is my fear – be something of a push. I worry it will propel us over the edge: into the realm of arguments, tightly-flung accusations, insufficient attention for our existing child, insufficient time for us, insufficient time for me.
I realise this sounds, essentially, selfish. (Especially that last line.) That my daughter, who cannot wait to “go to nursery like a big girl” to see the other “big boys and girls” and who asked if Alex’s boys were coming on holiday with us, would be thrilled to have a playmate, a partner in crimes against the parents, someone to lie awake whispering to on holiday. There are six years between my brother and me; this, and the essential difference in our characters, meant we weren’t exactly bosom buddies when we were younger (quite the opposite – I think we possibly drove our parents to the brink of distraction with our squabbles). Now, however, I think he is terrific. At his birthday last month, I was filled with affection and pride for the man and brother he is – funny, bright, quietly but determinedly there if you need him. I am thrilled that he and his girlfriend – adored uncle and aunt that they are – live ten minutes down the road from us. We may not, on paper, have that much in common, but I would never be without him. How can I not want my daughter to have that bond?
Something Sandler writes in another piece, for the New York Times, really resonates here: “Most people say they have their first child for themselves and the second to benefit their first.” It brings to mind several conversations: the friend who told me that she wanted to have a second child because she wanted her daughter to have a ‘best friend’ (for my friend, her husband fulfills this role). The friends who tell me how glorious it is to see your children together; how inordinately sweet they can be. (I have to admit that seeing friends with their dear chubby little two and three year olds and a tiny new baby does fill me with joy.) I watch Alex’s boys – how the younger just beams at the elder, tracking him adoringly with his big eyes, laughing uproariously at pretty much anything his big brother does; how the elder is so gentle and solicitous – and I think, yep, I could have me some of that.
The other week, incarcerated by the pox, I caught up with three university friends on the phone, all of whom have two children, one is about to have her third. All three of them asked me when I was going to have another child – not because they wanted to put pressure on me (I think!), but simply because they love having two and want me to share the joy; and, I suspect, because, to them, more than one child constitutes a family – their second child has made them into one.
But then there comes the question: how you define ‘family’. Amy Raphael (an only child herself; mother to an only child) wrote in The Times this weekend about her total lack of regret for having just one child – her family was, she said, entirely complete with her daughter. My friend and boss, Jo Elvin, wrote a thoughtful, eloquent piece about having an only child (and why oh why it is still considered “selfish” and ripe for criticism) for the July issue of Easy Living. I know how she adores her daughter, that she in no way feels that their family is incomplete – on the contrary, that she is lucky to have the lovely daughter and close-knit unit of three.Why do we still think that two children plus two parents equals a family? There are so many permutations on the theme these days.
On holiday in France, I notice that the family-as-three is a more common theme. And very civilised it looks, too. “You do have a lot more freedom,” admits Kate, mother to Archie, eight. “We can do things, or should I say, afford to do things, we simply couldn’t with two. We have amazing holidays – where the three of us really do go off and explore. When Archie didn’t get into any of the local state primary schools, we could afford to send him to the private prep school nearby. We really are a little team – incredibly close.” Sounds pretty tempting. “The downside, of course, is that one of us (usually my husband, I have to admit) has to be the dragon to Archie’s knight on rainy days.”
Ah, yes. The old playmate chestnut. Shortly after I had my daughter, a lot of people encouraged me to ‘get the pain over and done with’ and have a second: ‘you’re tired already, why not just do it now when you know no different?’ ‘Go for the ripping the plaster off in one go’ approach’. ‘Give it a year or so and number one and two will play together and you can put your feet up and have a coffee in peace.’ (Am not sure I believe this – I have yet to drink an entire cup of coffee without warming it at least once when in my daughter’s company.) “I do notice the difference on the weekend when Freya [10 and an only child] has a friend to stay,” admits Rebecca. “I can actually get things done, rather than keeping Freya entertained. Usually she follows me around asking what I’m doing and ‘when can we go out and do something please mummy I’m so bored’. When she has friends over, they’ll disappear for hours at a time. Much as I love the fact that Freya and I are so close and spend so much time together – I also love being able to do something for myself. Even if that’s cleaning the kitchen. (Tragic, I know.)”
I do not, in any way, regret not having another child yet. I have loved the one-on-one (or two-on-one) time with C and held it very dear – and think she has loved it, too, I do, however, worry in the long term about the cliche of the only child: indulged, selfish, lonely – although Sandler is keen to point out, in her new book One and Only, this is essentially a myth. Bang goes another reason to increase your family.
Actually, this is all rather liberating. If I am not to have another child for myself or for existing child and if I do not choose to have another in order to fulfil an ideal of what constitutes ‘family’ – then, should we decide to have another (and be lucky enough to have one), it will be for the best reason of all: for the sake of wanting that child for him or her self.
Still, let me hedge my bets for a bit, eh? At the moment, one is great fun.