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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Only Child

I am the eldest of four children.

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.

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.
There's something more, however. Well, something that has sparked my curiosity.

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. 

Or, not.

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. 


Mary Beth said...

In the throes of dealing with my aging parents, and I can't imagine doing this without siblings. They don't always do what I want them to, how I want them to...but to be alone with all this? Egads.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Good point, Mary Beth. I think many people delude themselves into thinking that "long term care insurance" will solve that "problem". We just pay others to do it. It's part of the American Way.

marnanel said...

As a member of the Church of England, I've often thought it was interesting that whereas the 1662 Book of Common Prayer said that the purposes of marriage were:

"First, It was ordained for the procreation of children [...] Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; [...] Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other..."

the next revision of the service, in 1980, said instead

"Marriage is given, that husband and wife may comfort and help each other [...] that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and, through the joy of their bodily union, may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives; it is given, that they may have children..."

i.e. the order was exactly reversed. I sometimes wonder whether this was done consciously.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Interesting, however, that "it is given" that "they may have children".

". . .may have"speaks of option without the bit about "God's will.

Hmmm . . . .

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I'm sure Ms. Conroy will get what I'm saying here, as another "only."

I have never bought the spoiled thing. If anything, I was under more pressure NOT to "appear spoiled," as that was the stereotype.

But I often joke that "only children are born old, and go to work as soon as they're able to walk."

The advantage is we are allowed to see the adult world earlier (families of only children think spending money on babysitters is wasteful) but the disadvantage is we have to learn to "be kids."

I am still not very good at being a kid, and I realize what skills I have, are acquired.

But I cannot imagine what my life would be with siblings. I am just so used to having the alone time to think and dream and work on things without being interrupted. It's probably a big part of why I still live alone.

Yet it is precisely my "aloneness" that allows me to be able to jump full bore into community. To give with a complete heart. I think about the things you love in Ms. Conroy, and that seems to be part of it, her generous spirit with a crooked rusty halo and muddy feet...and that is a very typical "only" thing. Go figure!

Greenfield Public Library said...

As someone who struggled with infertility for years, I thank G-d daily for my only child. He is charming, affectionate, bright, and definitely not lonely. He has friends, classmates, and psuedo-siblings from our chosen family members. Having been raised in a family where I didn't get along with my sibling, I am glad my son has the peaceful childhood I didn't.

Saskia said...

One of the things I think about when I wonder if I want kids is that there are so many people living on this planet, more than are really sustainable. Do I want to contribute to that with a whole pack of kids? That, to me, is more important than whether I can afford it..

IT said...

We talked about the <A hREF='">new book, Red State Blue State, over at FoJ recently</A>. it points out that our attitudes towards children and families are also a product of that increasing divide.

"Blue" families are more likely to put off child-bearing until they are established, leading to later marriage and small families. "Red" families struggle often unsuccessfully with abstinence in a world of different sexual mores, and end up having children often too early, and not able to fulfill other potentials.

yet another chasm in our fractured country, where we seem to have two cultures overlaid.

marnanel said...

*searches Google* This page has the relevant bits from each CofE prayerbook.

Joie said...

Being a woman who is 1. an only and 2. falls into the "one and done" category, maybe it is strange that I still imagine big family gatherings in the future. One of the things we have done living far away from family is surround ourselves with friends who are really a family of choice. Having lots of extra seats at the table means we can open our home to those who are not related by blood a lot easier.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Joie makes another good point. We onlies see "family" in a very broad light. Most of who I consider my family doesn't have a drop of blood between us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

This has been a fascinating discussion with lots of angles I hadn't considered. I'm fascinated by the CofE stuff on marriage - especially how that will be 'reconciled' - if ever - with Marriage Equality in UK.

Thanks, IT. I will check out the link to FoJ

Kirkepiscatoid said...

You need to get Ms. Conroy to weigh in on some of this. She is the expert on this topic at your house!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ms. Conroy? Leave a comment? In cyberspace?

You're kidding, right?

Muthah+ said...

As one whose parents had their one child during the depression and then needed another to defer during WWII, both my brother and I were 'only' children. I too have had to learn to be a kid and I never learned to live well with a number of others. But also, I never learned to live well alone. So small community is better for me than tons of family.

Sometimes we wax philosophical about things that just happen and don't need to especially see trends or not. If economics were the real reason for the number of children, I don't really see it. Some may think that is the reason, but I think that having kids has to do with the amount of love that is in the family. (Spoken by a celibate--what do I know?)

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, sometimes when she is in a good mood, she sorta weighs in 2nd hand via you....sometimes.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Oh, and I meant to tell you that at the University of Missouri Hospital in the mid to late 80's, we referred to NFP as short for "Normally, four progeny."