Deciding to Have a SecondFEBRUARY 2, 2008
- Bill Radke, wife Sara Bowen and Susanna
- (Barb Liang)
- Enlarge This Image
- Media & Mindless Consumerism
- You Can't be Happy All the Time
- Figuring Out Beauty for Herself
- My Easy-Going Myth
More From Bill Radke
This weekend, I'm looking for a birthday gift -- ideally with pictures of doggies and the moon. My daughter is turning a year old, and this means my wife and I are discussing the possibility of child number two.
She's open to it and I'm eager because I grew up one of nine and I had a blast.
I know it's not that simple, though. I've seen Al Gore's movie, and suddenly my memories of bombing down the highway in a gas chugging motor home with 11 people, two seatbelts and a Porta Potty ... well, it doesn't seem so responsible anymore.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben has thought about this. He wrote a book called "Maybe One," that makes the case for one-child families. I asked McKibben for some advice:
"If you were asking me whether or not you should have another child and you lived in Tanzania," McKibben said, "I would tell you that at least from a global warming standpoint it didn't make much difference; you weren't using enough energy for it to matter. But if you're living in this country and you're living like most Americans do and you think your child will probably grow up to live the way that most Americans do, then those numbers do begin to add up some."
"Whatever environmental action we take isn't going to have a big effect by itself?" I asked him. "It's a drop in the bucket, which is fine - I'll sacrifice a little for a drop in the bucket. I'll recycle and take the bus. But if I deeply want to produce another child, wouldn't I be insane to give that up for the sake of the environment?"
"I think you might," he said. "And I think if there are people who really feel like their destiny is to be parents and have another kid, then more power to them. One of the points that I wanted to make was simply that not everybody needed to feel that way."
But most parents do feel that way, McKibben says, because of their stereotypes about only children. The number one reason American parents give for having a second is so that their first kid will not be an only. We tend to think only children are lonely, spoiled, self-centered, socially inept, or all of those. And I had to admit that I hadn't thought it consciously, but somewhere in my desire for a big family lies that feeling; that a childhood without siblings is a rip off, it's a disservice.
"One of the most interesting parts of researching this topic was discovering where all these myths come from," McKibben said. "A single study done in the 1890s, in the birth of psychiatry and sociology by a very interesting American named G. Stanley Hall, who developed the first big study of all of this, had people collecting stories of only children from all across America and trying to decide whether or not they were peculiar. So people would send in their results, and they could be peculiar children if they were ugly or particularly beautiful of if they had a strong sense of smell. In fact, he didn't limit his data to actual people; he allowed fictional characters as well to be included in his data set. And when he was done with this study, what do you know? The two things he found that were peculiar were only children and children of immigrants."
Since then, there have been many studies that contradict the stereotypes about only children. I hit the library and I read up on the research, and mostly what it convinced me is that reading child psychiatry studies is no way to plan a family. The subject is just too complicated and too subjective to be much help.
So I sat down with some Weekend America co-workers who were raised as only children and asked them what it was like. I spoke to Angela Kim, Phyllis Owens and Marc Sanchez, and all three of them assured me that really, it was not miserable.
"People look at you like, 'Oh, you're an only, you're spoiled, you're all those things.' But I really don't think that's true," said Phyllis Owens. "I honestly think there's a maturity because you're around adults all the time. That's who you grew up with. You're used to having attention, and I personally feel that a lot of only children, because they're used to it, you don't seek it as much. I mean, you have it all the time, so you don't go out in the world like, 'Me, me, me!' I mean, you come from all of that.
"You grew up with so much support and love and validation, in a way. For example, if I argue with someone, I think, you're free to have your opinion and I'm free to have mine. There's not, like, the battle to the finish."
Angela Kim agreed. "I'm exactly like that when I see people arguing, I'm like, what's the point? I'm more of a listener."
So did Marc Sanchez. "Yeah, I have to say, when I hear people arguing, especially, like, families, it really freaks me out because my house was very quiet."
"We all grew up in the same house, that's clear," Owens said.
And they told me about other benefits, too. They all think being sibling-free made them more independent and also adaptive, because only children can't stick with their own tribe, so they learn how to engage the world and fit in with all kinds of outsiders.
They also agreed that being an only child feeds your imagination. Instead of playing with your siblings, maybe you're writing or daydreaming.
So I was a little surprised when I asked my friends about their ideal family size. None of them have children yet, and all of them said if they do, they'd like at least two kids. Why? Because having a brother or sister sounds like fun; sounds like friendship. They also said it would be nice not to be the only ones taking care of their aging parents. And there was another reason.
"My father's passed away," Owens said, "and I think when my mother goes, I'll be the only one who remembers my own childhood. I'll be the only one who's the keeper of my own flame. It's hard to describe. I can't turn to anyone and say, 'Hey, remember when we did blah blah blah?' You know, I can say that about trips maybe with cousins or something but a huge chunk of my life that only the three of us really shared, there'll be nobody to talk to about that. It's kind of a strange feeling. Have you guys thought about that?
"Not until now," Sanchez said. "Thanks."
But Angela Kim had. "Especially when you look at photo albums, you see it's either you and your mom, you and your dad or just the three of you. You just really see it's your own little world. It becomes really evident then.
"And even siblings who don't get along you're bound by that shared experience -- what your parents were like, how they behaved, what you did in time away from them, what you were like at five and 10. There's someone else who knows that, who knows you, kind of, intimately," Owens added.
This feature of an only childhood made me feel sad for my colleagues and sad for me, too.
The first Christmas after our wedding, my wife and I went to Arkansas, to the Ozark Mountain cabins our family used to own. I showed her the rock formations that my siblings and I had explored and named. We trespassed at the old swimming hole where my brother showed me how to skip stones.
We found a rusted tin cup that my sisters used for tea parties 30 years ago. We had a ball, but of course, the people who could have truly shared this with me weren't there.
I didn't expect my brothers and sisters to come to Arkansas. They're busy with their own families and anyway, I haven't exactly kept in close touch. I did invite them -- via e-mail.
In other words, I've realized that I've been doing my family planning based on my childhood memories of people I now take for granted. So this is where I've arrived: The environmentalist in me says keep it small, maybe adopt. The part of me that loved the whole pregnancy thing the first time around says do it again. The part of me that's my wife is up for another (although she's not keen on having nine).
And mostly, I'm back in touch with what a gift it is to have a family at all.
- Music Bridge:
- Baibaba Bimba
- Artist: Tenniscoats
- CD: Tan-Tan Therapy (Hapna)