The last of a three-part series on why families should not have more than one child.
And the most important reason not to have more than one child: Raising a child is hard—and it gets harder as the kid gets older.
My dad wrote a book about raising kids, called A Child to Change Your Life. In the introduction, he wrote, "It is terribly easy to create and to love a little child. But it is a terribly difficult and consuming job to mold one into a good human being. I think those of us who have been through the whole experience owe it to those who haven't to tell them what it's really like. And maybe to acknowledge that both the people who decide they can do it and those who decide they can't make equal contributions to the world of happy, helpful human beings."
The degree of difficulty and complication in raising a child increases as the kid gets older. You begin to see the size of the challenge when you ask her, picking her up at pre-school, "How was your day?" She says, "Good." And when you try to get more than that, she looks at you like a soldier who's been asked, "How was the war?" It was fucking complicated, Dad.
So you ask a few questions—what was the best thing that happened? what was the worst?—and then you talk about what's for dinner and what time Mom's coming home and how many days until Santa comes. And then, three hours later while the two of you are molding meatballs, your kid says, "J.R. has a crush on me and I have a crush on him and Amelia told everybody."
Or he says, "Uncle Larry paid me five bucks to rub his feet."
Or she says, "You know what, Dad? I don't like dreams. Because they're bad if they're scary, and if they're good, you're mad when you wake up."
That happens every single day. And after awhile, you get to know your kid—or at least begin to, if you concentrate and listen and question and keep yourself from stifling the kid's candor, which you will often want to do.
Now how are you going to make yourself available like that if you have two or three kids? The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But every wheel needs the grease.
Look, in the end, I'm not saying that you shouldn't have more than one kid. I have seen many happy and healthy families with multiple kids. "I'm happy with my three boys, actually," says Chicago speechwriter Dan Conley. "I was born for this role." I never argue with a happy man, I told him.
And meanwhile, my three-part family ain't no picture of perfection. Ask Scout in 10 years; I'm sure she'll give you chapter and verse.
I'm just saying that, to my great surprise, I increasingly find myself wondering, not whether Cristie and I have made a mistake with our personal one-child policy, but whether conventional wisdom has driven other parents to overcrowd my dad's optimistic "world of happy, helpful human beings."
I figure however many you end up with is however many you can handle, and to each their own – which I know you agree with. The funny thing is that I always find when you ask parents who have more kids than you do how they manage it, the common answer is something like “I don’t know, you just do.” And that’s kind of it. We adapt to whatever our reality is I suppose.
But I think you’re right on today’s point too. You hear a lot of people say it gets easier as the kids get older. And that’s true in the sense that it’s not as hard in the same ways. When they are babies and toddlers it is physically demanding in ways that start to mess with your head. The lack of sleep starts to drive you slightly insane at some point in that first year. The stink and the mess sap your will to live some days. The noise and the screaming and the crying break you down. And then you get through that. You just do.
But, while it may get less demanding in that way, I can see how it gets more demanding in a deeper intellectual and emotional sense as we need to grasp the kind of stuff you’re talking about today. And you’re right – paying attention to that on multiple fronts is just naturally harder and something probably has to give. I was the third of four kids, and I think it’s fair to say that by the time my parents got to me, there wasn’t much left many days. Fortunately (or is it as a result?) I was the kind of kid who was pretty low maintenance so I didn’t feel like I missed out on much.
And I wonder how much of our feelings about this is as parents is shaped by our own experience as kids. Coming from a family of four kids, I feel like having two of my own is plenty. My wife has just one brother and seems to think more kids would be better. But for now we’re holding at two. And the oldest is already starting to ask tough questions and get harder in whole new ways…
Yossi Mandel says
Every child is a blessing. Every person is a blessing. Therefore, I reject anything that posits children as a threat. People should only be thought of as a threat based on their own behavior. Global resources, global warming, whatever is presented as a reason to perceive children as a threat should be ignored. While your concerns are legitimate (and many other concerns presented may be legitimate) we should overrule them because they present children as a threat. Let’s deal with the problems as they come. Logic doesn’t overrule a truth – whether evident truth or philosophical truth.
It may be possible to go further and say that this approach of thinking of children as a threat is similar to thinking of people as a threat, in the sense of immigrants or foreign nations or religions. A Muslim who wants freedom is no threat and is a blessing, a Muslim who incites violence and hatred is a threat. A Mexican who wants to come to America for honest work is a blessing and no threat, a Mexican who wants to come to American for arms running and drug dealing is a threat.
You really only need one kid to fetch a beer from the fridge.
I knew a guy who had trained his dog to fetch beer from the fridge for him. He could have had his kids do it, but the dog never rolled its eyes and mumbled under its breath about how unfair life was. It also never even thought of drinking the beer itself.
David Murray says
@Rueben, thanks for your thoughtfulness on this subject; every one of your words makes this a more complete discussion.
Yossi, I do not understand this business about positing children as a threat. It’s a little absolutist: “If a middle-class couple came to you and said, we’re torn between having two children, and 27. What do you think?” You’d say, “I’d go with two.” Not because you despise the 25 unborn children, but because your hunch is that the couple will probably do a better job all around with two, than with 27, and will be happier themselves.
You’re not seriously arguing that you’d advise them to have 27 children on account of they’d be offering the world 27 times more of a “blessing.”
Davina K. Brewer says
Don’t have kids so I not sure what to comment David – except to say that as I was once a kid and agree. Everyone has to figure out their own way to make it work. As to the line (and tweet) that grabbed me: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But every wheel needs the grease.” – I’m filing that one away b/c it’s very true, and very much the same in business. FWIW.
Yossi Mandel says
Straw man argument. The answer is, don’t think about amount, not 2, not 27. Just think about the next one. Can you handle one more? Do you feel competent enough for one more? (In fact, competence grows with each child.) The great thing about having children is that they don’t all come at once… No need to decide amount beforehand, just the next one.
In your case, let’s say once the legitimacy of your concern passes when Scout goes off to college, and it’s biologically feasible, would you have another child?
David Murray says
Yossi, the way my instruments read right now, I would not, no.
But my father thought that way when he was 43 and had teenagers and getting divorced. Then my younger mother gave him an ultimatum: no kids, no marriage.
Which is the decision that brought me here, and my younger sister. (And clearly I am and continue to be a threat.)
But I’m not getting divorced, I don’t want to try to stretch my finances across two college tuitions (and who in the hell would these days) and no, I don’t expect to have another child.
Not because another child would be a threat. But I think you have to justify bringing more lives into a crowded world, and you almost seem to think you have to justify NOT doing so.
Yossi Mandel says
I do. I absolutely think you have to justify not doing so. And I think others would be more fearful of positing that “you have to justify bringing more lives into a crowded world” if a line can be drawn from child-planning policies to immigration policies to eugenics policies. I don’t know if it can be drawn, and fear is anyways a poor motivator and at best a foundation for building positive reasons.
David Murray says
Yossi, I do not recognize the relationship between open discussion about when and why we have babies–a discussion you actually seem to wish we weren’t having–and policies about how we deal with living human beings, who of course are all precious, because they are human beings.
It’s almost as if you’re accusing me of threatening the future lives of potential human beings by having this discussion.
I think that’s weird.
What I like about your whole argument this week, David, is that it’s really about recognizing what having kids (or more kids) means to us as the parents and to our families. It’s not about broader forces such as religion or economics or immigration or any of that. Because the truth is that the people affected most by the personal choice we make as couples (or as individuals) to become parents (or a parent) are the parents and any other kids in the family.
Sure, it also has ripple effects throughout our communities. But a family’s ability to socially, emotionally, intellectually and economically support another child affects that child and its siblings and parents first and foremost. So, in my opinion, those are really the only people who need to understand whatever justification we choose to offer – or even need a justification at all.
Yossi Mandel says
I’m definitely not making any accusations.
I do see a relationship (not between all the particulars of the discussion but) between discussing having babies and how we deal with living human beings. I’m just framing the argument as, if living human beings are precious, then we should make more of them – continue from there.
Your argument can be made before birth of the first child as well, as spouses might want to deepen their relationship, and a child interferes with that. You describe something similar to that argument – essentially, waiting until the romance ends to have a child.
I’d rather participate in a discussion that I wish I wasn’t having and gain something by it than not have that discussion at all.