Choosing to Have an Only Child
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.)
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