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Zero-Sum Parenting

CC Gary Knight

Mary Rice Hasson - published on 06/14/13

When children become a calculated decision for one's own happiness

“Call me a terrible mother. I have an only child.”

So begins Lauren Sandler’s recent New York Times article, “Only Children: Lonely and Selfish?” Daring readers to judge her (one can imagine her eyes flashing, chin thrust forward, and arms defiantly crossed), author Lauren Sandler makes the case for only children—why they are smarter, better (seemingly at everything), and more conducive to parental happiness. Her new book, “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One,” expands on those arguments.

An only child and the mother of an only child, Sandler seems more than a little piqued at the culture’s prevailing judgment that raising an only child is undesirable. (A mere three percent of American women, for example, say it’s ideal to have an only child.)
So Lauren Sandler is woman on a crusade.

She extols the benefits of raising an only child, piling selected statistics one atop the other, hoping to make the world an emotionally safer place for mothers like her.

Turns out, though, that she’s less than even-handed in her treatment of the research.

For example, Sandler argues that, “Endless research shows that only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else.” Not so, according to a new study. Comparing data from before and after the institution of China’s one-child policy, a 2013 study shows a causal link between being an only child and acquiring certain negative character traits. The study found that ‘onlies’ are “significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.” Ouch, right? Of course no study should be used to pre-judge any individual. But it does cast doubt on Sandler’s sunny conclusions.
Sandler also claims that, “[P]arents who have one child tend to be happier.” Happiness data, however, is not only notoriously subjective but also more complex than the author acknowledges. The real answer to the question of what makes parents happier is, “It depends on when you ask the question.” A large-scale study of global trends related to happiness and fertility offers these conclusions: “The association between number of children and happiness strongly depends on age. In the youngest age groups (less than 30), happiness decreases… with number of children. At ages 30–39, the negative association vanishes, and at older ages (40–49, 50 and above) the association between number of children and happiness becomes positive so that those with three children are happiest.”

In other words, parenting is a lot of work but, generally speaking, it eventually yields much happiness, particularly for the parents of many.

Breeding or mothering?

Sandler’s marshaling of statistics here and anecdotes there in favor of raising an only child, however, is far less troubling than her impoverished view of motherhood.

Motherhood, she believes, reflects our “personal” choices about “breeding,” an experience that must be well-managed lest it threaten one’s identity and “authentic self”. Not long ago, in a Time magazine piece, Sandler displayed her open contempt for women who have three or more children, derisively calling them “champion breeders.”

Allow me to get personal for a moment. Anyone who speaks of motherhood as “breeding” comes from a fundamentally different place than I do. Breeding is what a farmer does with goats and horses, physically managing reproduction for the good of the herd, or his bottom line. My motherhood began with my love for my husband, and our mutual desire to create, through our love, another human being who will live and love forever—a person desired for his or her own sake.

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