03/11/2015 06:40 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Our Difficult Decision to Have Just One Child

Some of our concerns are longer-term. While we do okay financially, our jobs aren't super secure. Having one child keeps us nimble, and means that if we had to relocate to a more expensive city, we'd have a decent shot at maintaining our quality of life.


Photo by Jon Pinder: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rofanator/

While my husband and I have one child by choice, we find ourselves flinching at flip phrases like "one and done", which seem both to overstate our conviction and to underestimate the complexity and emotional weight of our decision.

However many children you have, there are always trade-offs. If you choose not to have any, you forego a deeply profound experience that can't be accessed any other way. If you choose to have one or more, the time and energy you put into parenthood means giving up other meaningful opportunities - for work, travel, leisure, learning, and so on.

Our son has brought more joy into our lives than we could ever describe. We have no regrets about having him or about the sacrifices we've made to raise him the best way we know how. But there's no tension between those sentiments and the admission that we've never been sure we want to make a whole lot more sacrifices for the sake of another child, or that we found the early years of parenthood at times seriously tough: the relentlessness, the physical demands, the loss of control over our time and movements, the frustrations of dealing with a pre-rational being, the sometimes barely bearable boredom. We've never reached the point of feeling ready to commit to that again.

Some of our concerns are longer-term. While we do okay financially, our jobs aren't super secure. Having one child keeps us nimble, and means that if we had to relocate to a more expensive city, we'd have a decent shot at maintaining our quality of life.

Then there's the question of retirement. I sometimes wonder if we're exceptionally pessimistic, as it doesn't seem to have stopped our friends from expanding their families, but it's a significant worry for us. With the world's population ageing, there's a pressing question about how people will be supported in later life. It already seems certain that government will pay out less and people will have to work longer. A second child would imply a radical reduction in our retirement savings.

It's also true that the last thing our planet needs is another western consumer. I don't judge anyone else's choice about family size but, in our personal deliberations, environmental sustainability (which, in case you're not aware, is about people, not just trees) has been a consideration.

And there are fears. Knowing how tough we've found it raising one healthy child, the prospect of having one with an illness or disability, or having twins - or more! - feels genuinely daunting. Every pregnancy is a gamble. People have said it's a gamble we'd be willing to take if we really wanted another child, but that seems way too simple. What does "really wanting one" mean? A blind urge that automatically overrides every other concern? I'm just not sure we ever make decisions that way.

And we have fears about not having another one, too. While the notion of a 'spare' child as insurance for the loss of the first is clearly much less apposite than it once was, I don't discard it altogether. Losing my son and simultaneously ceasing to be a parent would be uniquely devastating. So, we are gambling too. And, while our son is unlikely to die before us, one of us being left to live widowed for a good number of years, with a small family and therefore perhaps at a greater risk of loneliness, comes with much shorter odds.

The old stereotypes of only children - that they're spoiled, lonely and socially maladjusted - have been repeatedly disproven, but that doesn't mean there's not a cost to denying our son a sibling. We both know first-hand what makes siblings special. But of course there are also many people who aren't close with their siblings at all. You never know what you're going to get. And, for our part, we enjoy not having to play referee or worry about how we divide up our limited time and attention. I can tell my son as much as I like that he's my favourite.

For some, the decision about family size is straightforward: they know from the outset what they want and never waver. For others, like us, it's harder, and for those who find they don't have a choice because of biology, finance or other factors, there may be great heartache involved.

But there are always trade-offs.

Our son won't have a brother or sister, and we won't get the particular pleasures of seeing our children grow up together, or the comfort of knowing they'll have each other after we're gone. But our relationship with our only child will also be different than it would have been if we'd chosen to have another. The road we're on we might not have taken, and so far it's a beautiful road.

The full version of this article is available at www.alicebellreeves.com