Choosing to Have an Only Child

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This is part 1 in a series on Raising Only Children

Go Forth and Multiply?

By Heidi Lindelof

One of my favorite things about traveling to foreign countries is meeting people and seeing how they live.   I’m curious about our differences and I’m always struck by how similar we all really are.

Ruth is a friend I made in Nigeria. Like many African woman I know,  Ruth is deeply loving (sits very close), incredibly funny (laughs very loud) and is fascinated by others (some might call it nosey).  One afternoon, while playing with my stringy blonde hair (something that amused her to no end), Ruth asked me how many brothers and sisters I had.  I told her none.  She blinked and jerked her head back as though I had said a terrible word.  She asked me to repeat myself thinking she must have misunderstood.  “I’m an only child,” I clarified.  Tisk-tisking, she shook her head.  “Awwwww Heidi, I am so, so sorry girl.”  Ruth was genuinely heartbroken for me.

I found this riveting.  Ruth has HIV.  Her husband died of AIDS and her daughter has tuberculosis.  She works in a hospital where she sees people die every day and in this moment, she felt sorry for ME.  Completely.  Like, a real sense of sadness, and even loss, for ME.

I understand that Ruth’s happiness and wealth are defined by her family.  Although she only has two daughters (because of her illness, she is not having more), she is surrounded by brothers & sisters, aunties & uncles, in-laws and all of their many children.  She assumes I am lonely.  That I grew up alone and therefore sad and in her word, “without.” I assured her that I was not only okay, I was great!  That being an only child was a wonderful experience for me, and that until that moment, no one had ever really felt sorry for me for this reason.

I reassured her.  “I loved growing up this way.  I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She didn’t believe me.  And I understood.  It’s so ingrained in the African culture – have children young and have many – thus is a full and rich life.  Theirs has often been a struggle to raise children healthily into adulthood.  And so this makes sense.  While I may not understand it in my head (hello, you can barely afford to care for one child, why are you having five?), I completely get it in my heart.

It’s been eight years since I met Ruth in Africa.  Since that time, I’ve gotten married and had a child of my own.  It will probably come as no surprise that in every correspondence we have, Ruth asks me when I’m going to have another.  She simply does not understand my desire to stop at one.

And here’s the interesting part.  Neither do my American friends.

Since my son’s birth six years ago, I have been a little confused, mostly amused and a few times offended by the issue people take with my choice.  I’ve been called irresponsible, mean, selfish, and have even been told I was hurting my son by not giving him a sibling.  Mostly, by total strangers.  Sometimes, by dear friends.  I had no idea that our decision to not have multiple children would even register for other parents, let alone be so taboo.

While most people don’t call me mean on a regular basis, many think nothing of asking WHY.  “Are you going to have more?”  This is usually asked with the assumption that the answer is some form of YES (yes, we’re trying, maybe, we’ll see, we’re thinking about it), but never a straight up NO.  So when many folks get a straight up no, the next question without hesitation is, “Why?”

I’m not sure how to even answer this.  Because I was an only child and my husband was an only child and it seemed to work out for us?  Because I’m lazy?  Because our son is perfect and we knew we couldn’t do better?  Because I forgot?

And I’m not sure I should I have to answer it.  I mean, can you imagine if a friend who already had a child, announced that she was pregnant with her second, and I looked at her and asked, “But … WHY?!”

In the beginning, it was our biological imperative to have multiple children.  And although our earth is significantly (overly?) populated, and we have a choice, it’s still very deeply rooted in the culture.  Obviously, there are many reasons parents decide to expand their families with more children.  I don’t question those reasons, because I have to believe a lot of time and thought went into that choice. I cannot tell you the number of hours my husband and I have logged (usually late at night, usually with me asking, “are we ruining our son?”) discussing whether we are ‘doing the right thing.’ But I think it’s time to move on.

We love shows like MODERN FAMILY with its depictions of all the many ways families are made today.  Yet, many still define the nuclear family as a man, a woman and two children (preferably a girl and a boy, right?).  And maybe a dog and a cat.  But as we redefine what family is, let’s consider all of it.  One mom.  Two dads.  Five kids.  No kids.  Adopted.  In vitro.  One and done?

I know in my heart that people are not trying to be cruel when they ask why we would “do that” to our son.  But it’s still a drag.  Like everyone else, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can for our family.  And for now, it means stopping at one child.  We’re a happy threesome.  And if you asked me today I’d still say, “I wouldn’t change a thing!”

Heidi Fugeman Lindelof  hails from Lexington, Kentucky.  And although she moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago to work in feature films, she is still a down-to-earth gal.  Lindelof left her 74-hour-a-week job to get married and raise their son, not realizing her new job hours would be WAY more!  (In both number and satisfaction.)

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show,” along with our beautiful children’s booksmusichandmade dolls, and more.  Our mission is to “Help Parents Raise Good People” – we hope you will join us!

Posted in: Family, Mindfulness, Parental Wisdom

Comments (42)

  1. Gems from my Instapaper Backlog |

    […] Choosing To Have An Only Child – Thank you Heidi Lindelof for putting this out there. For the first ten years with my wife, all people asked was when we would have a baby. For the last year, they all just ask when we’re having another. We haven’t decided for sure, but it’s nice to see at least one person saying one may be the perfect number. […]

  2. Alex

    This has been the best article I have read in a while about having an only child. What made it so powerful is the fact that YOU are an only child. It is very validating to read about an only child who LOVED it. When I was deciding whether to have a second child, I solicited the opinions of a bunch of friends and co-workers who are only children. All of them said they really enjoyed their childhood except ONE person. For whatever reason, the one person stood out in my mind, which is ridiculous. Her parents went through a divorce, which was rough on her. I could see how that could negatively impact her only-child status. I have decided to stick with my one child, and, like you, we are a very happy threesome. No one has ever said I would damage my child, but I have read comments in articles like this about how those of us who choose to have one are damaging our children. To me, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse damage a child. Neglect damages a child. But not giving your child a sibling? Give me a break.

  3. Laurie

    This article is wonderful and affirming. Among folks who take the work of parenting seriously, who are doing their best…it seems absurd to parse individual decisions – made with love – as somehow ‘make or break.’ The finish line is so very far away, after all… and we’re all giving the journey everything we’ve got.

    Maybe anxiety emerges among loving and well-intentioned parents BECAUSE everyone is trying so hard. If we’re all doing our best, we cling to one thing we hope will make our child particularly safe from whatever difficulty we fear awaits in the big world.

    Meanwhile, we’re forgetting that all of this loving parenting will result in an adult individual with opinions, who is likely to regard all of this over-thinking as antiquated, and tease us about our anxious “2012 parenting.”

    If we’re doing it right, that is.

    Frankly, I’m too pooped, nervous about what I’m doing and skeptical about parenting dogma in general to inventory the status of the sleep, breastfeeding, family traditions, foreskins, time-outs or number of siblings the children of my friends and peers have or don’t have or…whatever. I figure we’re all jittery now and then, some disguise insecurity with absolute certainty, others openly act jittery. We’re all just doing our best and nobody’s fooling anyone anyway.

    I love my friends’ kids… I know they are in good hands. Don’t we all?

  4. A great article about only children « momma yogi

    […] […]

  5. Student Mom (Jenn)

    I cheated. My husband came with two. We then had one. One of my boys lives with us and the other lives elsewhere, and our little girl lives at home with us too. The boys are adults (mostly) so although the Bunny isn’t an only child, she may as well be. But we’re happy. And happy is what counts. PS – I’m African too… well… white South African…. but African none the less, and I’m happy with just the one baby…

  6. Raising an Only Child

    […] This is part 2 of a series on Raising Only Children […]

  7. Another Heidi

    I’d also like to offer another perspective. Some of us only have one child because we tried to have a second and discovered that we couldn’t.

    In both cases, it’s nobody’s business why we have one child. We’re so very thankful and grateful to have the child we do have, now that we know how difficult it can be to even have one at all.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. Dana

    Thanks for sharing your story! I think that like your friend from Africa, we all look and compare (try on) the lives of others through our own experience/values/lenses. When this occurs for our family (don’t you want a girl, do you miss work, you are/aren’t vaccinating?) I choose to to educate from our perspective rather than feel judged. Thanks for broadening our view!

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  10. Brian

    “All that I must do is what concerns me, not what the people think.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self Reliance

    I always go to this quote when I mistakingly allow others’ assumptions to make me feel any hint of inferiority to the masses.

    “Be who you are and go all the way.” Thoreau

    Basically, people just need to mind their own business…

  11. Dawn

    Amen, sister! Great piece and it looks like a number of moms found it helpful. Thanks for sharing…

  12. Hope Slepak

    Your article…Beautifully expressed, brilliantly written, and such a personal and important family decision which sounds well thought out, and perfect for your lives.
    Well done…I support and love you and your family! xo

  13. Sarah

    Great article, Heidi! Also, thank you for introducing me to The Mother Co.! XO

  14. Anika Kohon

    This is a lovely article, and I applaud Heidi for sharing her experience. I am an only child myself and feel very complete and loved. I was often made to feel different growing up in the midwest in the 80s because everyone I knew had siblings, but being “different” has served me well in life. What people fail to realize is that the way THEY live their lives is not the “only” way to do it. Only children are fine, thank you. Even though my parents were never able to conceive another child and endured many heartbreaking years of fertility treatments (all the while being asked invasive questions by strangers about why they didn’t have a second), I will very likely CHOOSE to have only one child myself.

  15. Elizabeth Flora Ross

    Becoming a mother at the age of 40, my husband and I felt it best to be grateful for our beautiful, healthy daughter and leave well enough alone. I usually shut the questioners up by reminding them of how old I am and the risk associated with having babies at my age. But I resent that anybody feels it is her business.

    There are many proven, documented benefits to having one child. I don’t understand why there is so much stigma surrounding it. Thank you for this piece. It is very insightful.

  16. Brian


    My wife and I are in the same situation–we’re two only children who have and will have just one child. When friends (or strangers!) ask us why, I reply, “cuz 1 + 1 = 1”.

  17. Stacy

    great article–glad I am not the only one who wants one.

  18. Kandis

    Okay, now that I have adequately dried the tears from my [luckily inexpensive] keypad, let me first say, THANK YOU!!

    This subject has been a point of contention for me and the hubs from the moment we knew we were going to start a family. I had always made it clear to him that I only wanted one child, but he truly hoped and believed I would want more once our son arrived. Aside from our seven-year difference in age, early menopause for me a year ago finally extinguished any lingering ray of hope for more biological children.

    We both come from relatively big families and while I absolutely love having a brother and sister, my Mom is an only child and always told me there were wonderful benefits to that as well. I always dreaded the day that my son would ask for a baby brother or sister, and alas that day came about a year ago. He has brought it up maybe five times since then. And each time I am racked with guilt. And each time the wound is re-opened between me and my husband, which inevitably leads to hideous tension. [sigh] It’s a major topic of discussion in our marriage counseling and one with which we can hopefully come to some sort of resolve.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much this gorgeously-written piece touched me on a very personal level. Despite having to contend with often obnoxious looks of sympathy for being only children, I know that our boys are going to continue to grow to be loving, self-confident and independent young men who develop deep, lasting friendships.


  19. B C

    What a great article. I think it’s time we all stop assuming the “perfect” family includes a straight couple and multiple kids. I have asked many friends why they choose to do things (kids, dogs, key swap parties), and perhaps I should just stop being snoopy. My gay friends are getting tired of strangers asking how they are going to “get” kids. I think it’s human nature to look at a family outside of “The Cosby Show” model or “Brady Bunch” and wonder “hhmmmm, how did the ethnic, Indian toddler and Red Head, freckled baby end up in the same house?”… but we should all stop and instead just say, “Wow – that family looks really happy!”, as Heidi the author and her family do in the photo!

  20. Helene @ French Foodie Baby

    Hello, just discovered your blog and it looks like a great ressource. I really enjoyed reading this post. I have a 15 months old and was raised as an only child (wish now I had siblings though), and I’m not sure I will be able to have a second child (or whether I want one). I notice around me so many people having 2 or 3 kids not for themselves (they’re exhausted as it is), but for their first kid. I guess it’s all a balancing act of figuring out what’s best for the parents, the child… A fascinating topic, and a decision which definitely should have no judgement attached to it from strangers! 🙂

  21. Leslie Bronson

    Thank you so much for writing this! As a mom of an only child I cannot tell you how often people love to fill me in on what a mistake my husband and I are making. We are very happy with our three person crew and know we have made the right choice for us. I am adopted and I also disappoint people because I am not hung up about that either. I lucked out and got the best parents imaginable. I think some people simply cannot imagine a situation that isn’t exactly like theirs. I think Heidi really chose just the right words to explain how parents of only children feel.

  22. Gina @ Oaxacaborn

    I loved this. I have one daughter, and just don’t understand why it’s anyone’s business to ask us if we’re going to have another. Like you said, we parents of only children don’t go around asking other people why they are having more! People’s nosiness boggles my mind.

    I am still in incredible awe that I was able to have my one, beautiful, precious, miracle child. The fact that I don’t answer “yes” when I’m asked if we’re having more, doesn’t mean I love my daughter any less!

    And one thing that still confuses me is when “they” say having an only child is selfish. I don’t understand that. Selfish to whom? Selfish to babies who do not exist yet?!

  23. Cori Shepherd Stern

    As a child from a very big family (5 full siblings, numerous half-siblings), I don’t think I would have suffered any more than I already did (from my family’s insanity) if I were an only child. Healthy families are healthy with one kid or five. Unhealthy families are unhealthy with one or five, too.

  24. Renee

    Thank you!!!

  25. Janet

    Nice! My husband and I decided to stop at one as well. We have reasons (financial, age, etc.) but like you said, what difference does it make and whose business is it? Our daughter has asked for a baby brother or sister from time to time — that makes me a little sad, but then she asks for Barbies, more cats, and candy with equal or greater intensity. She is an outgoing, peppy little person who makes friends easily. People adapt to their situation. The most important thing you can give your kid(s) is LOVE, not siblings or anything else. Thanks for the article.

  26. Erin MacMillan-Ramirez

    It is so refreshing to read about another only child family. My husband and I are constantly assaulted by friends, family and strangers about our decision to have only one child. My husband and I are filmmakers. I’m in school earning my second Master’s degree. I looked at how committed I was when we had our son. I dropped everything to stay home and nurse. I quit working. I quit social activities. I totally enjoyed being a stay-at-home Mom. As our son grew I went back to school. I went back to work part-time. Things picked up, life changed. Now I’m looking at a PhD. program, a five-year-old son and a very busy work schedule. How I would fit a second child into all of that and still give that child everything I gave my first would be near impossible. Why do people want to make me feel guilty for finally being happy and feeling like one child is more than enough?
    I feel guilty whenever I land a great gig and have to spend time away from my son. I feel guilty when I have to travel to a set and spend even a minute away from my son. I feel guilty for enjoying alone time when my son is in school. I spend a lot of time wrestling with “Mommy guilt” I do not need people who supposedly love me, or people I don’t even know judging me and throwing a guilt trip my way over my choice to stop at one child.
    Unless someone would like to sponsor me while I gestate and nurse and get back to work I don’t see how it’s any of their business.
    There are three exceptions to all of this judgement. My Mother, my Grandmother and my Mother-In-Law. They completely understand why my husband and I only want one child. They secretly feel guilty whenever they talk about how their education level, job opportunities and income levels would have been much different if they had stopped at one child. They don’t regret having more than one. They just see the wisdom in stopping at one. I truly appreciate their support and love. It helps whenever I run up against someone who accuses me of abusing my son by denying him a sibling. Apparently just having parents who love and adore him isn’t enough to them.
    We beg to differ.

  27. Maureen

    Believe me, I sympathize; imagine, if like me, you chose to have no children. It’s amazing to me how easily people can pontificate. I’ve heard the “selfish” comment about having no children. For me, it was a matter of responsibility first – both relationship wise and economically. Yet, I was considered selfish which cracked me up coming from parents who had tons of kids and were not exactly in the financial shape to do so let alone in a healthy relationship.

    You have chosen wisely, and I applaud you for speaking out.

  28. Melinda

    I’m one and done myself. I always thought I would have two, and then we got done with potty training, and I said, “I’m never doing that again.”

  29. Heidi

    As an only raising an only — cheers, friend.

  30. meredith

    this is such a wonderful article! it is filled with humor and heart and i love that heidi reminds us all that we are each working to do the best for our families. it is so easy to judge each other as parents in hopes of finding some back-handed validation for what we have chosen to do in our own house. BUT, we are all in it together. thanks to the mother company for always reminding us of that and providing this kind of support for us all.