“Can I Have It All?” is the Wrong Question

having one child

When I speak to groups of young women and men, more and more frequently the question I get isn’t “Can I have it all?” it’s “Should I have kids at all?”

Young women and couples watch as friends have children, and see new mothers and fathers completely stressed out juggling work and family, marriages unraveling, bank accounts strained, careers derailed, and hobbies and exercise and sleep and friends pushed aside. They wonder if they really want to sign up for that.

Couples that already have one small child ask me a different question, “Can we afford to have another child at all?”  They know from experience what having a child means, and they are thoughtfully and fretfully adding up the childcare, the bigger house, the college education, and the possibility that a second child will be the straw that breaks the back of at least one of their careers and thinking the math just doesn’t make sense. They want me to double check their calculations.

In a big sisterly way, I tell these women and men to consider an option they probably haven’t.

Have one child.

I say this to them because someone once said it to me and I learned two important lessons from it.
In October 2001, days after our daughter’s first birthday, I went to Chicago for a conference for mothers. As I sat waiting for the keynote speaker the first morning, I chatted with another mom at my table. “How old are your kids?” I asked.
“I have five ranging from 2 to 11 years old,” she gushed. “How about you?”
“Oh, mine just turned one.” I said. She immediately asked, “So when are you having another?”
I said I didn’t know. “Having a baby has changed so much; I’m not sure we’ll have another.”

She responded, with a knowing grin. “Of course you’ll have more! Children need siblings. I can’t imagine it any other way. You’ll come around.”

At that moment, Joan Williams, our keynote speaker and the author of Unbending Gender, approached. We had met the night before so I introduced her to my seatmate who quickly tried to engage Joan in her cause. “I was just telling Kristin that of course she’ll have more kids!”

Joan, thoughtful and considered as always, didn’t smile and agree as most would have. She instead turned to me and said quite deliberately, “Having one child is a perfectly legitimate option. Especially given how hard society makes it for women – and men – to combine work and family. For some women and families, one is the best option. You should do what’s right for you. Not what anyone else thinks you should do. ”

I felt a wave of relief – and gratitude. Joan had just made it okay to consider being a one child family. She helped me release a bunch of cultural baggage that had been gumming up my thinking – wanting just one child didn’t make me a bad mother and it didn’t make us less of a family. Plus, I wasn’t crazy for thinking that combining our careers and a family was turning out to be much harder than I thought it would be.

I’m not advocating that couples should have one child. I am hoping – as Joan did for me – to break through through the cultural expectations, help couples see reality more clearly, and make it okay to consider one or none as options.
This was my first lesson, forget “Can I have it all?” Ask instead, what kind of life do we want to create?  Identify and set aside the subconscious cultural assumptions about women, men, mothers, fathers and families. Be realistic about the expense of and the lack of support for family life today. Then decide.

For us, deciding to have one child has meant having more options to create the life we wanted –  a life where my husband and I have time to enjoy our daughter and share caring for her; time for our careers, for ourselves and for each other; and financial security for our family. Here are a few of the things that decision made possible.

  • My husband quit his high-pressure, long-hours job to start a business.
  • I started my own business and wrote a book.
  • We stayed in a smaller, more affordable house near a good school and saved more money.
  • By middle school, we could afford to consider a private school.
  • The three of us enjoy and can afford time and money to travel, eat out, and entertain.
  • My husband and I don’t have to divide and conquer all the time, so we each get time to ourselves and time together. Every invitation she gets to a sleepover translates directly into a date night!
  • When she heads to college, we’ll still be young(ish) enough to pursue our careers further – so we can pay for college – and to travel and enjoy life as a couple again.

We don’t “have it all.” We do have a life that fits us pretty well.

But I also share with couples the second lesson I took away from my interaction with Joan. In so many ways it is patently absurd for me to be suggesting couples consider “have one child” or for someone else to advise “be careful who you marry” or for someone else to recommend “have kids after you start your career but before 35 or freeze your eggs.” These are all just personal workarounds for living in a country that makes it cost too much – in terms of time, money, career and quality of life – to have children.

So I suggest that men and women consider another option they probably haven’t – that they become advocates for more support for families whether they decide to have none, one or five.
~ Kristin


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