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Bill's Values

Deciding to Have a Second

Bill Radke

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Bill Radke, wife Sara Bowen and Susanna
(Barb Liang)
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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)
More stories from our Bill's Values series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Jennfier Parsons

    From Brooklyn, NY, 04/19/2008

    RE Heidi, Thank you for eloquently expressing the feelings I've been wrestling with so much lately. I'm surrounded by women with one child who have just gotten pregnant or are desperately trying to in order to have a real 'family'. Therefore, I'm constantly hearing why having 2 is so important as they try to justify their own decisions and struggles. Unfortunately, all the baby and sibling chatter has eroded my own confidence in the decision to stick with just one. Somehow I let theur push for a second to make me feel selfish or less nurturing-- but as you said, I just feel so lucky to have one healthy beautiful girl, and that should be enough for me. Peer Pressure! Aren't we supposed to be over it by now?

    By Steve Griffiths

    From BC, 02/11/2008

    I was an only child. My father has one sibling and my mother has nine. Within that context there is every conceivable type of sibling relationship - close ones, ones that are indifferent and don't keep in touch much, even outright rifts in some cases. I've thought it would be nice to have a sibling if the relationship is close - but if not, there's not point.

    By Mark OConnell

    From Irvine, CA, 02/09/2008

    I vote for one child per family. Overpopulation being the main reason. Another observation I have is the fact that you double your odds of giving birth to a black sheep. Meaning the kid every couple I know with more than one child has. The black sheep kid will not only rob the good child of your time and attention but you will be guaranteed of having to house and/or otherwise support your black sheep well into their 30's. Take the fortune you will spend on the black sheep and travel the world with the good one.

    By Leah Honsey

    From Minneapolis, MN, 02/07/2008

    I like that Weekend America chose to cover the story of looking at environmental consequences and having children. I've felt like even talking about this has not been very welcome, especially with families who do have more than one or two children or people who want more than one or two children. People sometimes take these comments very personally, and one has to make it clear that having children is a personal choice, but that the environment is a consideration for some.

    I was suprised though that adoption wasn't presented as an option. My now husband does want to have a biological child if possible, that wasn't in my plans at all until I met him. But we fell in love and I decided that I could decide not to pursue our relationship but he would just go on and have kids with someone else. So we came to an agreement to try for a biological child and then adopt as well.

    I am adopted from Korea, and it grieves me to hear people speak about adoptees as if they are somehow not wholly a part of the families that adopt them. From my experience my younger brother and I were adopted by my parents and their biological son. And we the three of us, my two brothers and I, are very different in a lot of ways, but also the same in others. We may not look like eachother, but we all have scandinavian tendencies.

    I could live my life wondering what if...what if I hadn't been adopted at all? What if my biological parents had kept me. But what would be the point? It's nice that families are defined by the people who make them.

    By Joel Nesheim

    From Point Venture, TX, 02/05/2008

    I suggest you have no more than two children. We cannot afford to have an ever increasing population. If we do not limit population growth nature will do it for us (usually in a brutal way).

    By Pat Neuman

    From Chanhassen, MN, 02/05/2008

    If Bill McKibben has daughters and sons would he say to them: if you feel like it's your destiny to be parents and have a family then more power to you?

    By Shannon Callings

    From Olympia, WA, 02/04/2008

    As the one of two growing up I treasure all that shared with my sister, it made moving every year and the thousands of miles of road trips all that more fun.

    Now a mother of one, wanting a second so he would have the companionship (and jealous of my mother who is one of eight) but the timing wasn't right for the second to be the right age for "close" relationship. A few years ago I became aware of how rare good strong, loving families volunteer to adopt foster children. I am now pursuing that route. It is not pregnancy and birthing I desire but the joys of childhood and magic of a loving family.

    By Pat Neuman

    From Chanhassen, MN, 02/03/2008

    A middle age couple, having both parents gone, may not feel a lot of loneliness while their own children are still quite young and at home, or close. However, when their own children are older and not close then loneliness can set in unless they make efforts to derail it. On another point, what should a father say to his young adult daughters and/or sons about their wanting to start a family?

    By Heidi MacKenzie

    From Seattle, WA, 02/02/2008

    My husband and I have a wonderful daughter who is about to turn 3 in April. For the past 2 years I have been in deep turmoil as to whether or not to have a second child (my husband could go either way, but leans towards just one). I felt so much pressure from society, my mother, most of my friends to have another child. A few months ago, after doing my own research on the only child, I decided on just one and gave myself permission not to feel guilty about it. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders...until I heard today's story. After hearing Bill's coworkers discuss sad feelings of being the only keeper of childhood memories, all those feeling of guilt came rushing right back and I sat on the sofa and cried. However, as the day went on I began to get angry at myself for letting stories like this make me second guess myself. I am being honest with myself when I admit that I will be a much happier and better parent to one child than more. Some people thrive in busy, spirited, environments...I fall apart. I also think the grass always looks greener on the other side. Having siblings doesn't guarantee happier memories, or added help with aging parents. I think the worst thing about deciding to have an only child is dealing with my own feelings of needing validation.

    By Chaya Kostelicki

    From Kent, WA, 02/02/2008

    I'm the 12th kid in the family, my parents couldn't control the other kids' behaviours. Even now, I can't depend on my siblings for help or support. As of the last three months, my daughter and I are in a time of crisis, three of my sisters have been able to help, eight couldn't care less. That's the way it will always be.

    By D Bull

    From Seattle, WA, 02/02/2008

    I think the key to relationships with siblings is the same as with parents is that of commitment. Another way to look at is lack of choice. I am from a big family (2nd of 5 kids) but am now single and childless/childfree. One of my siblings has basically chosen to become estranged. They visit very rarely, though they stay marginally in touch with one parent and a few other siblings, they will not engage in conversation about difficult subjects. In this way I've seen a family relationship dissolve in the same way that I've seen friendships dissolve. I used to think that the relationship of "siblings" is inalienable. And in a way it is, but in a way it's just like any other relationship. I have had friendships with almost the same level of commitment as my sibling and cousin relationships, sometimes I think the only difference is the categories in my mind. I think I could have the same bond with friends that I do with family, but I choose to trust the familial ones just that hair more. It's a family culture, my family culture. I see that it's the same for my parents with their families of origin, though it's not the same with all of their siblings necessarily.

    As with adoption of a child, we can adopt other people as family. I struggle to find a home environment that will feel like home to me. I need more people around me than I have, and I need them living with me, I need that family. I'm not married and I don't have kids, so I'm trying to figure out how to make it happen.

    By Stan Severance

    From Darlington, SC, 02/02/2008

    From the point of view of US environmental impact, it makes no difference what you do. All of my childhood (dob 1956) there was concern over overpopulation in the US. Just as soon as native birthrates dropped to less than replacement levels (1972)immigration laws were changed and laws were ignored to increase its rate by a factor of much more than 10. In this century we will become a nation of over a billion. We could have maxed out at less than 250 million. What a shame and what a disaster. Go ahead and have two kids. Without a return to 1960s levels on immigration it makes no practical difference. The people running the country will just bring in more worker/consumers if you don't.

    By Jaime Halprin

    From Chicago, IL, 02/02/2008

    I started dating an only child over five years ago and I have never understood why he loves being an only child so much. But the comments above make so much sense to me. In regards to how the only children don't feel like they need to battle to the finish, and that arguing in general is a bit scary for them, I see that in my boyfriend and it's very foreign to me. But, it has made me a much better person in that I no longer get upset about small things or pick fights with him for no reason. Sometimes in a big family the only way to be heard at the dinner table is by shouting. However, my boyfriend and I are at peace a majority of the time and it is very different then the family I came from. But it is amazing and a much healthier way to be in a relationship. We've had the discussion about how many kids we want to have and up until now I've been very adament about having at least two. He on the other hand is very content with just having one. Thank you for making me think harder about a very important issue.

    By Pat Neuman

    From Chanhassen, MN, 02/02/2008

    Are young people weighing environmental futures before having children? What environmental risks need to be assessed before making decisions to have children? What about global warming? Why do many young people weigh economic futures in having
    children but give no thought to environmental futures before they have children? Why aren't there any government agencies helping young adults consider environmental futures in making decisions about the future of their families?

    By Ladonna Weeks

    From Defiance, MO, 02/02/2008

    Both of my best friend's parents are only children. She has no aunts, uncles, or cousins. I can't imagine.

    By Peggy Finley

    From Wooster, OH, 02/02/2008

    I enjoyed the piece on "The Only's" today. I am one of 6 children and used to wonder what it would have been like if I had been an only child - mostly when I was much younger. I found it interesting today that one of the comments made was that fear of being all alone once the parents are both gone, that there is noone to share your memories with. I would like to comment on both. Both of my parents are now gone and that feeling of being alone is very real, even though I have 5 siblings. As most of North Americans do, we have spread out and are scattered around various cities and towns each with our own lives. Without the parents to bind us together, we have to really work hard at keeping in touch, let alone getting together to see each other. We all have different paths now and the only thing really that we have in common anymore is our memories of our youth. The funning thing about memories, is that time changes how we see things in our minds and, amazingly, when all of us finally DO get together and begin stories of the past that we hold so clear in our minds, it is bizzarre how each of us has a completely different summation of the event!! So it may be better to be an "only", so that you are not faced with wondering if your mind is deceiving you or if things really were not as you remember!!

    By Mae Arant

    From Chapel Hill, NC, 02/02/2008

    The more fundamental question here is the choice of adoption-there is no dispute that adopting a child would provide the extended family, reduce environmental fall out and increase social wellness. The question is whether you are prepared to make a different leap of faith.

    By Bart Coleman

    From Boise, ID, 02/02/2008

    I work with the terminally ill and their families. I notice "only's" having to take on responsibility for the care of aging or ill parents report wishing for someone to share the emotional as well as financial stress. Also in bereavement, "onlys" would like a sibling with whom to reminisce or share the grief in the midst of death of parents.

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