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The pandemic has changed how many think about family size, and those wanting children—be it a first or second or third—face a newly complicated landscape.
The unpredictable nature of COVID-19 and its economic fallout have been added to the equation, but one outcome seems certain: “We have no precedent to estimate changes in birthrates from these disruptions, but they will undoubtedly also contribute to a large reduction in overall births,” two economics professors from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College wrote in The New York Times.
If you have one child and were planning for more, it could be you are waiting for the pandemic to settle. Different sources predict different timelines as virus variants emerge. In other words, the goalpost for life as we knew it keeps moving.
Here are considerations—some related to the pandemic, some not—that you will want to evaluate before deciding if no children or “just one” or more children could be just right for you.
In an article for The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker predicted the pandemic trajectory, “Life this spring will not be substantially different from the past year; summer could, miraculously, be close to normal; and next fall and winter could bring either continued improvement or a moderate backslide, followed by a near-certain return to something like pre-pandemic life.”
Others are more cautious in their assessment. Because the path of the virus keeps shifting and with it changed regulations and restrictions, you may find yourself asking: Will waiting another year or two make a difference?
The pandemic has created a shaky economy and job uncertainty, especially for mothers. In the U.S., women “comprised 47 percent of the workforce prior to COVID-19, yet they sustained 55 percent of the job losses due to COVID-19.”
That translates to roughly four times more women than men, one of the primary reasons being the added workload for mothers during the pandemic. The National Law Center reports that those who stayed in the workforce worried about how their added caregiving responsibilities, such as homeschooling support, would be perceived at work and if using any time-off benefits an employer provided might cost them their job.
In these uncertain times, you will also want to examine your employer’s parental leave policy and think about how much time you want to be home after your child is born. If you are anxious about job security and advancement, it may be wise to wait.
Think, too, about your career objectives, your employer's attitudes about working parents, especially mothers, and decide how a pregnancy and family leave will affect the job goals you have for yourself.
You can’t put a price tag on children, but the reality is children are expensive. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost to raise one to age 18 (college not included) was estimated to be $233,610 for middle-income families. That number fluctuates higher or lower depending on where you live and your income.
Close to one-third of the total cost goes toward housing. A child or more children may mean you need a larger house or apartment. If you work outside your home, be sure to factor in childcare. Its cost can determine whether or not you leave or remain in the workforce. Harsh as this sounds, and you may not agree, but having babies is an economic decision.
Your decision may simply come down to how many children you can afford and whether or not the additional expenses would change your lifestyle significantly. Kenneth,* the father of an only child who is an only child himself and a subject in my recent study of only children, says, “a second child would shuffle our dynamic. Beyond having to move to a larger house, it would mean that one of us would have to give up our career—most likely my wife. Childcare is prohibitive where we live.”
Kids absorb discretionary income, and that may alter your lifestyle. If you worry about the parties, the after-hours cocktails with colleagues, maybe even trips you planned that you might not be able to afford, better to put a baby on hold. Or, perhaps, consider having just one child. With one, you will have greater mobility, more time, and energy for the things you want to do.
Without question, women, in general, are waiting longer to start families or add to them. Dr. Joanne Stone, director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, told the CBS Sunday Morning show, "Forty is the new 30… Everybody's older. If you have somebody that's 28, it's like a teen pregnancy."
Judith* makes no apologies for not having more children after giving birth to her daughter. She explains, “We started late; I was 40. I didn’t understand about eggs and fertility, and I wanted a career, but I wasn’t giving up on a baby. We had our daughter $180,000 later when I was 45. She will have to get a scholarship for college. We spent that money trying to have her.”
The options and advances within the fertility industry are enormous; however, the cost can be prohibitive, as it turned out to be in Judith’s case. If you are older and hesitant to become pregnant now, you may want to look into freezing your eggs or embryos for a future date. Fertility treatments can be emotionally difficult and stressful. It is one of the reasons why women with one child often abandon the idea of giving their child a sibling.
Avoid the mistake of believing a baby will resolve issues in your relationship. Parenthood tends to acerbate any problems, and you both need to be in agreement. Babies rarely, if ever, improve or cement a marriage or partnership for the long term.
And, if you both agree, discuss each partner’s responsibilities or how you see your future lives with more children or a child.
If you’re leaning toward “just one,” know that the nasty labels and stigmas that once surrounded only children have disappeared—in part due to huge numbers of parents deciding one child is just right for them and to parents of one being savvy and wise about how they raise their child.
The views baked into our culture that only children are lonely, selfish, bossy—the stereotypes—simply don’t hold up any longer. As I end a research project that investigated, in large part, attitudes about only children and their parents, I can say with a high degree of certainty that only children, especially most of those under the age of 50, don’t and didn’t feel they were ever targeted or labeled because they had no sibling.
Only child Genevieve, 45, says, “Sure, I was bullied in school, but it wasn’t about being an only child. It was those things kids are mean about... my squeaky voice, my hair, or my size. That sort of thing.”
Richard, 39, who grew up in the 80s and 90s when families were getting smaller and having one child was more common, reflected: “I always knew the myths about only children were out there, but I never thought they applied to me. If I had heard anything like that, I would have brushed it off as being silly.” Looking back, he adds, “Being an only child makes it easier to grow up without having a sibling you are forced to play with or be nice to.”
The mother of an 8-year-old singleton, Meg, 43, agrees. “I grew up with three sisters, and I can tell you that my daughter is much happier, more confident, and sociable than I used to be. I can still remember many moments that I felt lonely and misunderstood.”
Long before the pandemic, The New York Times asked almost 2,000 men and women why they were having fewer children than their ideal; their top reasons were akin to what women are saying in other countries: 64 percent said childcare was too expensive; 54 percent wanted more time with the children they had; 49 percent were worried about the economy.
More recently, The Brookings Institute and similar reports have predicted fewer babies as a result of the pandemic. They base their finding on the large number of women saying “that they plan to postpone giving birth or have fewer children.” And that is never an easy choice.
Ashleigh Wallace openly discusses her struggles, revealing painful feelings about herself and her needs as she wrestled with the question: Is one child enough for me?
Given all there is to weigh, could “just one” be just right for you?
*Names of study participants have been changed to protect identities.
"COVID-19 Puts Babies on Hold"
"6 Well-Kept Secrets that Affect Family Size"
Copyright @2021 by Susan Newman.
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