My mother was one of 22 children - 15 of whom lived to adulthood. My father was in the middle of a pack of 9 children.
While Ms. Conroy was an only child, she and I co-parented six children. At one point in time, we lived in an eleven room house in Maine with eleven children - her's, mine and a few foster children, one of whom we adopted.
We have five grandchildren and look forward to at least a few more.
I love nothing more than holidays when the whole family gets together. We can't fit every one at the same table. The house hums with activity and conversation. It's happy chaos. I still make way too much food. Ms. Conroy buys extra containers to send everyone home with "intentional leftovers".
So, it's hard for me to understand the reported trend that more and more families are opting to have one child.
I mean, I get it. I do. The economy is fragile. The cost of living has never been higher. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average child in the U.S. costs his or her parents about $286,050 — before college. Those costs have risen during the recession.
College tuition in most state universities is now more than my father's annual income when he was alive - in some cases, more than he could have ever dreamed of earning.
In order to get admitted to college, you need the kind of education most public schools do not offer. So, you purchase a home in a community where the real estate requires you to pay property taxes that are almost as high as your mortgage.
Or, you work to get a job in a profession that provides enough income for you to send your kid to private school. The Montessori pre-school in my community comes with an annual tuition of $11,000. Mind you, that's pre-school.
Some of the private elementary and secondary schools in this neck of the woods cost upwards of $20,000 per year.
I most certainly understand the idea of "one and done" vs. "an heir and a spare". Or, in my grandparent's case, "cheaper by the dozen."
The cover story in this week's Time Magazine reports some interesting recent findings from the Guttmacher Institute, a leading reproductive-health-research organization.
The institute found that 64% of women polled said that with the economy the way it is, they couldn't afford to have a baby now. Forty-four percent said they plan to reduce or delay their childbearing — again, because of the economy. This happens during financial meltdowns: the Great Depression saw single-child families spike at 23%. Since the early '60s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number, to about 1 in 5 — and that's from before the markets crashed.But, what about the whole "only child syndrome"? They're supposed to be selfish, lonely, spoiled and solitary misfits, right? According to Time Magazine, "In fact, they're just fine - and on the rise."
The myth of the only child dates back to the late 1800s when G. Stanley Hall, known as the founder of child psychology, called being an only child “a disease in itself.”
He is most known for supervising the 1896 study "Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children," which described a series of only-child oddballs as permanent misfits. For decades, academics and advice columnists alike disseminated his conclusion that an only child could not be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment that children with siblings possessed.
Since the 1970s, that theory has been carefully dismantled. Here's what the Time article reports:
No one has done more to disprove Hall's stereotype than Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Falbo began investigating the only-child experience in the 1970s, both in the U.S. and in China, drawing on the experience of tens of thousands of subjects. Twenty-five years ago, she and colleague Denise Polit conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies of only children from 1925 onward that considered developmental outcomes of adjustment, character, sociability, achievement and intelligence.There's something more, however. Well, something that has sparked my curiosity.
Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren't measurably different from other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. Of course, part of the reason we assume only children are spoiled is that whatever parents have to give, the only child gets it all.
The argument Judith Blake makes in Family Size and Achievement as to why onlies are higher achievers across socioeconomic lines can be stated simply: there's no "dilution of resources," as she terms it, between siblings. No matter their income or occupation, parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their kid.
A 2007 survey found that at a rate of 3 to 1, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the "mutual happiness and fulfillment" of adults rather than the "bearing and raising of children."
That rang a bell for me. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer reveals a major shift in the theology of marriage. For the first time, we read these words at the introduction of the marriage rite in the BCP:
"The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord."For the first time, marriage was not solely about procreation.
That may not seem like much, but it was a HUGE shift in understanding marriage.
Indeed, the prevailing Roman Catholic and Evangelical theology is that marriage is for procreation. Which is part of the reason that "sex outside of marriage" is so taboo. Sex is about procreation and marriage is for procreation.
Don't want to produce "illegitimate children". (Can you imagine we once used that term?)
Fifty years after the advent of birth control methods and the relative ease of permanent surgical sterilization have certainly redefined "family planning." It must be said that the safety, accessibility and legality of abortion is also another factor.
When I was a Maternal Child Health Nurse, many "good Roman Catholics" and those who were part of the "back to Nature" movement used a method known as 'Natural Family Planning'. The saying was, if you used NFP, you could expect four "mistakes."
I think, more than thirty years after the new Prayer Book, we're beginning to see the results of that shift in theology. I don't think it's just cultural shifts. And, while the economy is clearly a strong influential factor, it's not the only consideration.
I think couples are thinking that there must be some balance between the joy our kids give us and the sacrifices we make to care for them.
If "mutual joy" and "the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity" are the main reasons for marriage and not just "procreation" - if it is God's will - then all the cards are off the table and a new deck has been dealt.
All the old paradigms have shifted. All the old truths are being dismantled.
One can still have all the children one wants if one is willing to make the sacrifices that the joy of having offspring can bring.
I still love my big, happy, crazy family. I love my relationship with our adult children. They are kind, generous, intelligent, productive human beings and outstanding citizens of the cosmos. I can't imagine life without one of them and I certainly look forward to future editions and additions.
I also understand the need and desire to keep families small. To balance the desire for children with the desire for quality of life - however that is defined for that particular family.
It's a brave new world out there, kids.
The last thing we need is harsh judgment or more "rules" that define what is a "family." And, it's about time that the church - Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant or Orthodox, or any version in between - got out of the business of telling people how to live their lives.
It is, after all, "God's will" - and it's up to the people who ultimately have to take responsibility for their lives to discern that for themselves.
The role of the church, it seems to me, is to provide support and guidance and understanding for that person - that couple, however they are defined - to do what is best for them and their families.
You know, discerning God's will. For themselves. Not by the imposition of rules and standards - no matter how "divinely inspired" or well intended they are.
In the end, love makes a family.
It always has.
It always will.