One child is enough: The social pressure to have a bigger family can be intense, but overcome

Now I squirm when someone asks if I have "just" one child. The question implies that something — or rather, someone — is missing.
Illustration of two parents' shoes and one child shoes on floor.
Americans are increasingly seeing threesomes as an ideal family size, thankfully.Daniel Fishel / for NBC News
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By Jessica Runberg

Fueled by sugar and curiosity at a cookie exchange several Christmases ago, one of the moms in attendance asked a trio of us new mothers a question we had become accustomed to hearing: “When are you planning on having another?”

Though the three of us had given birth to our firstborns mere months apart, we were on different trajectories for baby No. 2. One of my friends had gotten pregnant but had a miscarriage, the other was waiting until after the holidays and I myself had been trying for the better part of the year but, not wanting to tip my hand, gave a vague response about wanting another “sometime soon.”

I thought I wanted two kids before I had one. I also thought I was going to use cloth diapers.

Silence punctuated our conversation as twinkling lights danced across our pupils like little beacons of baby hope. “Doesn’t it feel like we’re failing an intelligence test?” I quipped. “I mean, we know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into.” We all had a good laugh and went on our merry baby-making ways.

Although my question was in jest, there was a lot of truth to it. It’s not that the labor pains, sleepless nights, toddler tantrums and clogged milk ducts aren’t worth it. Toothless smiles indeed make up for diaper blowouts. It’s not that I didn’t want to put myself through that again. I did.

But there was a but.

When I saw that familiar streak of blood on my toilet paper during those first few months of trying — during a challenging time when my daughter was learning precisely how to push my buttons — my first thought was, "Phew, I really dodged that one." With more time, more spacing between siblings, I’d surely be ready to be a mother of multiples.

Time marched on and my friends got pregnant, while phantom due dates that I had calculated on BabyCenter.com came and went. Each month was like anxiously awaiting an acceptance letter from a college I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend.

After nearly two years of trying and a battery of tests, fertility drugs and scheduled “date nights” — as our fertility clinic cloyingly called them — I was diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve, also known as premature ovarian aging, and given a 5 percent chance of conceiving another child. I was 33.

I thought I’d be relieved to have a diagnosis; something had to be wrong. But it provided little comfort given my reproductive endocrinologist couldn’t wave a magic wand and make my AWOL eggs reappear. There would likely never be a positive pregnancy test. There was no cure.

I felt betrayed by my body. I was one of those weird people who loved being pregnant and breastfed my daughter well past the recommended 12 months. Now I would probably never do those things again. I never wavered in wanting to see a plus sign when I peed on a stick, even when I questioned the bigger picture.

I turned to Google to reconcile my feelings and came across a series of blogs written by women who were devastated that they couldn’t easily conceive that second, third or fourth child. I sympathized — but I realized I couldn’t relate.

While we didn’t set out to be a family of three, the benefits of being a threesome had begun to exert a magnetic pull: not having to divide our attention between multiple children. More money for college, perhaps an early retirement and family vacations to locales more exotic than Grandma’s. The close bond we three musketeers would share, not to mention the powerful one-on-one relationships we’d cultivate. And, as the gap between our first and theoretical second child widened, not having to start over again.

I thought I wanted two kids before I had one. I also thought I was going to use cloth diapers — ha.

Would another be nice? Of course. A sibling for our daughter to play with and reminisce about family lore. Another baby to love. Feeling like we checked the socially acceptable box of having two kids to replace us. Someone for her to share the responsibilities of aging parents with. (At least she won’t have to fight over who gets the good china.) Yet each time I left the fertility clinic, a little voice inside me whispered: She is enough.

The Runberg family at Disneyland in 2018.Courtesy Jessica Runberg

Our daughter made us parents, a family. I could birth a litter of children and she would always be the one who made me a mom. She is the oldest and the youngest wrapped up together, forging ahead into big-kid territory while simultaneously being our baby. My heart feels full; our family, complete. There may still be an empty seat at the dinner table, but that table is full of love, laughter and joy — and more fart jokes than I thought possible with a girl.

We are not alone, and it’s a good thing that Americans are increasingly seeing threesomes as an ideal family size. Families are smaller now and there is no longer one dominant family form in the United States for reasons that are as varied as the families they represent.

Infertility is on the rise in the United States, particularly as people have kids later in life. Finances are a determinant for many, including how to pay for increasing child care costs. Some question whether having additional children is even moral in the age of climate change. Too often, the clock runs out. I wasn’t even aware that mine was ticking. Advances in assisted reproductive technologies have given some mothers false hope that they could have babies on their timelines.

All of this is just more reason — not that any was needed — to ditch the only-child stereotypes. Singletons are perceived as spoiled, selfish and lonely, but recent studies show there isn’t validity to these claims. It certainly hasn’t been my experience raising an only child or observing other one-and-done families.

My daughter makes friends easily on the playground because she doesn’t have a built-in playmate and has forged a strong bond with the other only children in our neighborhood. These sweet kids don’t seem to have any more trouble getting along with each other than those with siblings.

I squirm a little when someone asks if I have “only” or “just” one child. Only? Just? How can someone who means the world to me be referred to in such limited terms? These words not only imply that something — or rather, someone — is missing, but also that my daughter isn’t enough. But she is everything.

Singletons are perceived as spoiled, selfish and lonely, but recent studies show that there isn’t validity to these claims.

It wasn’t until she started kindergarten last year that I figured out how to answer the question when phrased that way: “She is one of a kind.” It’d be true even if she was one of many. I can think of no more apt way to describe our redheaded daughter: a freethinking, strong-willed, wildflower of a child who is paving her way in this world. A shining example of an only child if ever there was one.

It’s not that I never have doubts. Like that day at the park when talk turned to siblings and my daughter announced loudly for the first time, “I don’t have a sister.” My heart sank. But then she said, “I have a mommy, daddy and — an orange cat!” She grinned proudly and continued playing with her friends.

It may not be the biggest family, but it’s more than enough.