How We Made the (Hard) Decision to Have Only One Baby

I already had my miracle baby. So why did I feel like it wasn’t enough?
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By Joanne Chen, Contributing Writer
Published July 25, 2017
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Image: Claudia

“When am I getting a brother?”

It was a reasonable question, and one my son started asking when he was 4 years old. After all, siblings seemed to be an inevitable rite of passage. Both my husband and I grew up with them. Most parents he saw at drop-off had a baby or toddler in tow. When was it his turn?

“You already have so, so, so many cousins,” I’d say to him. This includes my sister’s son, who is two and a half years younger—approximately the age of a little brother, if I had had another child. My nephew, who lives just 10 minutes away, wears my son’s hand-me-downs, plays with him, and fights with him too. Sometimes, when his parents are out on date nights, he even gets tucked in with my son, and they fall asleep together.

But eventually his almost-brother always would go home to sleep in his own bed. “It’s not the same,” my son would say, more defiant than forlorn.

He was right, of course. It’s not the same, but I figured it would be okay anyway. My husband and I are extremely close to our extended family, which means one of the main reasons why people have a second child—so that the first one won’t be alone—doesn’t apply to us. My son has aunts, uncles and cousins, people who live nearby and who are blood; people he’s seen almost every week since he was an infant; people who will be there for him when we’re no longer here.

Besides, even singletons without the luxury of a close-knit extended family turn out fine. Blood is important, but so are the deep friendships that come to resemble family units of their own. The adults I know who grew up as only children absolutely cherish these relationships. And instead of the selfish, socially inept people that they’re often accused of becoming, these only children are among the most thoughtful, lovely people I know.

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Yet for the longest time, I couldn’t help but feel a strange mix of disappointment about not having a second child and envy for those who do. These emotions annoyed me, especially since this nonexistent child wasn’t part of my plan in the first place. Did I suddenly want another kid because everyone else seemed to have one? (More than once, I scolded myself:? “A child is not a designer handbag!”) Was it maternal instinct, a need to give all that’s available to your child, including another human being? Maybe.

This new desire to have another baby also surprised me, because before I was married I didn’t even like kids; they always seemed too messy, too loud. I had no patience for them. But still, I knew I wanted one—just one—because, frankly, I was afraid I’d regret not having one once it became too late. But why would anyone want two? Another nine months of pregnancy, breastfeeding, washing bottles and changing diapers seemed exhausting, expensive and, on top of all that, a superfluous experience.

And then there was the issue of my age. By the time I had met the wonderful guy who would eventually become my husband, I was already well past 35. It’s the age at which doctors consider you to be of “advanced maternal age”—or AMA, in medical-speak, which means, compared to younger moms, you’re at greater risk for things like high blood pressure and gestational diabetes when you’re pregnant, and your baby has a bigger chance of being born too soon or having chromosomal abnormalities. That’s why we got right down to business. Within a year and a half, I gave birth to my baby boy—just squeaking by before the door slammed shut, and I felt victorious. (And yes, my boy is messy and loud, but I now suddenly have oceans of patience—funny how that works.)

Around the time I became a mom, a couple of friends my age did too. But unlike me, they were barely spoon-feeding their first kid when they started hatching plans for a second. This surprised me. I thought the goal was just to have one and check the giving-birth thing off the bucket list. I never got the memo about a second child.

Then, all at once, it seemed those second babies were everywhere. I had finally gained entry to the “mommy” party, only to realize there was a cooler after-party everyone else had moved on to, except for me. I found myself surrounded by moms with big bellies. Teachers were constantly congratulating my son’s classmates for becoming older siblings. “Isn’t my little sister so cute?” a girl in pigtails said to me one day. Holiday cards were filled with images of my son’s peers wrapping their arms proudly around the new family member, or building sandcastles with their siblings at the beach, or making angels together in the snow.

And then there were the pictures of my son, with his dazzling, self-assured smile, by the Christmas tree or his bike, alone, frozen in time.

Friendly suggestions turned into outright questioning. “When is the next one coming?” the well-meaning owner of the dry-cleaning business down the street would ask in Mandarin whenever I dropped off my snot-stained skirts. “You have to have a second one. It’s best for your first.” Moms in playgroups just assumed the second one would surface at some point.

Thanks to a combination of avid sunscreen use and decent genes—and, just as likely, the inability of most people to discern an Asian person’s age—I passed as someone young enough to push out another baby or two. My mom, my in-laws and my closest friends knew better. For me, a second child was not just a matter of strategically scheduled romantic evenings; it would require a team of experts with fancy degrees, ongoing hormone injections and a spare 10 grand or so, all for a 5 percent chance of giving birth to a healthy baby.

And yet…

More than anything, I wanted my son to be happy. Given that I didn’t know what I’d ever do if my brother and sister weren’t around, and that humans have provided their child a sibling since the olden days, I felt I needed to give it a go. So despite the reservations I had even just a few years earlier, we plunged back into baby-making mode when my son was a year and a half, at least until our insurance stopped paying for the fertility treatments.

After a failed attempt at fertility treatments, followed by, months later, a positive test (via the natural, old-fashioned way) for a pregnancy that lasted only two weeks, I asked my husband: “If you won a billion dollars at roulette, would you bet it all to play again?”

It was precisely how I felt about the whole affair as the disappointments kept piling up. Ever since we started trying the first time around, I was constantly reminded that I had a lower-than-usual chance of getting pregnant and a higher-than-usual risk of something going wrong if I did. And yet, besides accomplishing the stupendous act of being born, my son entered the world alert and healthy. We had already hit the jackpot.

What if we weren’t so lucky the second time around? The repercussions wouldn’t just affect us, but our son too. In the end, we just didn’t have it in us to take the chance. And so while people around us were having second kids for the sake of the first, we ultimately decided not to for the very same reason.

Our decision was resolute, but this did not make having a single child any easier, at least at first. I felt bad seeing him play alone. I wondered whether his toddler play dates would go more smoothly if he had someone to share things with every day. I worried that he was bored.

But as he got older, that angst slowly melted away. Parallel play turned into collaborations. He found kids with shared interests (baseball, trains, buses) and built tracks and Lego cities with them. He discovered the joy of reading to his younger cousin and teaching him how to play Star Wars (apparently, there’s a right way and wrong way to play). More recently, he started doing things on his own and enjoying it, from creating poster-size drawings to putting together his own book.

I also realized that being sibling-less and sad was a notion cooked up by my own biases. Though he asked about a little brother, my son never actually showed any signs of being unhappy or bored because he didn’t have one.

A psychologist I once interviewed for a magazine article told me that it’s human nature for people to respond to each other in kind. If you give off positive vibes, the person you’re speaking to will give off positive vibes. By embracing the advantages of having my one and only, instead of wallowing in the what-if’s, I’m projecting joy on to my son and helping others see the upside of having a small family too. We’re nimbler than larger broods; we have more time and resources to give him. And besides, my son has since moved on to other more important questions, like “How far is the moon?” “Why do people have tattoos?” and, most pressing of all these days, “When am I getting a dog?”

Published July 2017

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