Living

Only the lonely?

Parents' worst question ever: “When will you have another baby?”

Every once in a while, a modicum of decency prevents friends and strangers from interrogating the child-free about their reproductive choices. (Note: When tempted to ask why someone doesn’t have children, rephrase it to yourself this way: “So, can your vagina and his penis make a baby together or what?” If that sentence makes you comfortable, ask away.) But the couple who already has a child is fairer game. The panicked where’s-number-two query is an intervention of sorts, based on the assumption that an only child is a seething brat.

M., mother of a sweet two-year-old boy with a mad-scientist cap of hair and a penchant for sucking small wheeled objects, always wanted to stop at one. But as her son gets older, she’s becoming less certain. Wary of a triumvirate of Mom, Dad and W., she calls three “a shaky tripod rather than a firm vehicle that can drive forward confidently on the highways of life.”

A poll shows that most Canadians believe the ideal family has 2.6 children; the 0.6 sleeps in the basement, presumably. There’s an appealing order to the symmetrical two (and the push for two kids quietly assumes two parents; rarely does the still-scandalous single mom get pressured to procreate). Two is the middle-class fantasy wherein the parents aren’t outnumbered, unlike in the anarchic, lower-class large family. One means spare time to indulge a prodigy hellion.

Much of our negative perception is based on century-old studies by Alfred Adler, a Freud disciple, who believed that only children bloom into egocentrics, or human versions of the #1 foam finger. But newer research finds that onlies are often high achievers, with flourishing self-esteem from all that extra attention. As Toni Falbo of the University of Texas writes, “The proportion of maladjusted ‘onlies’ is the same as the proportion of maladjusted children from larger families.”

We had better get used to the onlies: Canada’s fertility rate is at a low 1.53 children per woman (the 0.53 sleeps in the attic), a problem shared by many developed countries including France and Italy. To keep the population replenished, societies are engaged in social “pronatalism,” coaxing breeders with tax breaks and baby bonuses. For Canadians, the pressure to top up may soon come not just from playground chatter, but from the government: In Quebec, subsidized daycare and increased family allowances have created a mini-baby boom, and other provinces might consider following suit. (Oh, please, please, please follow suit.)

But for now, the second-child lobby strikes on a psychological level. R., a Toronto dad, says The Question often comes from those who have just had their own second: “They’re sleep deprived, crazy. I sense they want us to share in their suffering.” A more generous interpretation, he admits, is that they want their friends to experience the joy of a second.

Of course, along with happiness comes the erosion of self and the enraged tantrums over the colour of a dinner plate. Cheerleaders for Number Two rarely admit that it isn’t double the work, it’s a hundred times the work. “Having just one gets the same disdain as bisexuality: You’re sitting on the fence. People think you have it too good,” laughs R.

But perhaps there’s also something off-putting about the image of a child alone: Damien at the zoo, scaring the animals. The only isn’t just an affront to our notion of the perfect, four-cornered family; he’s a manifestation of loneliness. One of an only’s key skills is the ability to be okay alone, a struggle for most of us. Modern life is designed to avoid isolation at all costs: While we’re on our cellphones and iPods, solitude looms as a kind of punishment.

For me and my partner, the decision to have a second wasn’t a decision at all. We put aside the many good reasons not to (the environment, our finances) and simply agreed that someday there would be two. When friends who are struggling with the decision ask how I knew, I answer the way many gay people answer the question “When did you know?” I always did.

But every so often, I do wonder if my rush for another child had something to do with consumption: more, more, never less, less. Small isn’t better, something I’m reminded of these days when I’m suddenly fielding a new question: “Have you thought about a third?”