Why I’m Choosing to Have Only One Child

Abby Byrd essays

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Yesterday, after we’d left the children’s museum, we shared an order of S’mores French Toast at the bistro next door. I held my glass up to your chocolate-smeared mouth so you could have a drink of juice. Then I kissed your head and snuggled you close to me, and right then, I knew.

That you’d be my only child, that is.

I never set out to have an only child. I always imagined that I’d have two, two boys. My children would have the one thing I lacked—the irreplaceable sibling.

But having another child doesn’t feel right. For one thing, your father and I don’t have the energy. Yesterday while I was home alone with you, in the space of five minutes, you narrowly missed crushing your father’s eyeglasses, wrenched the cap off a bottle of nicotine solution for his e-cigarette, and pulverized a large piece of Styrofoam into a sea of swirling little white balls. When I left you, I returned to find that you’d pulled a “vibrating massager” out of my night table drawer. You pointed it at me like a weapon and intoned, “I’m going to destroy you.”


Your father and I are 40 and 38, with a bad back and bad knees, respectively. We can’t operate without sleep the way we could when we were younger. In short, we’re relieved we all survived your first three years, and we’re too damn old to go through it all again—the sleep deprivation, the breastfeeding, the teething, the chasing, the tantrums. We worry more now than we did three years ago about the probability of a serious birth defect, and we’re ever mindful that another child would have a 50% chance of inheriting my hand and foot deformities. We just don’t know that we’re up for seeing another 8-month-old through plastic surgery.

Maybe that makes us selfish. Or incredibly self-aware. Or something in between.

At this point, having a second child feels much like piecing together some Frankensteinian creation in the garage—a brilliant idea executed with a keen sense of foreboding. We like our lives now. I believe that the only acceptable reason for us to have a child is an earnest desire to create and nurture another human being. Not because we feel we owe you a sibling. You don’t need that kind of burden.

Yet being an only child is its own kind of burden. All of our family’s hopes and dreams will rest on you. We won’t say this explicitly, but we won’t have to. Everyone will look to your grades, your accomplishments, your promise. You’ll be the sole carrier of our genetic legacy, which will put undue pressure on you to have your own children. The three of us will form a triangle. Your father and I will start out holding you up, but it will be so easy for the triangle to invert, for you to become the point that struggles to balance us and bear our weight.

Then there is the burden of sheer aloneness. There is something so spare and tenuous about being the only child of two only children. I’ve always idealized the noise and chaos of my friends’ families, maybe because their lives seemed somehow fuller. You won’t have chaotic family Thanksgivings or summer vacations with your favorite cousins, because your father has informed me that we can’t “rent” family. (For the record, I was totally prepared to hire actors to simulate those experiences for you.) And when we’re gone, if you’re unpartnered, you’ll be without family.

I will have to trust in someone else’s child to hold you up.

I want to protect you from being alone by giving you a sibling. But I know such an effort would be futile. Whether or not you’re an only child, you’ll eventually perceive your separateness from everyone around you. You’ll end up at a crowded party or in bed with a lover and still feel unbearably alone.

To be totally honest, I want to protect myself, too. I grasp for another baby as if a second child were an insurance policy against loneliness and grief.

I know better.

Closing the door on new life is hard. Before I had you, death seemed so far away, something that would happen someday. After I had children. Well, this is the “after.” And even though I likely have decades left to live, from an evolutionary standpoint, my work here is finished. Just the idea of it makes me nervous. Putting down in words that I’m finished having children feels a little like savasana, corpse pose. It’s a letting go, a sinking into the earth, an acknowledgment that life, as Wendell Berry put it, is “a patient willing descent into the grass.” I want to bolt upright and scream: I’m being buried alive! This is a mistake! I’m not ready!

But I won’t have a second child out of fear. I won’t bring a life into the world just to stave off the inevitable.

What I will do is be the best mother I can. I will write and teach and strive to love others fully, without reservation, so that my patient willing descent might be an example to you. I will love you so much that losing you could destroy me. But I will try to build my love under you rather than laying it on your shoulders.

So I guess this is an apology. I somehow feel that a multiple-child family is the ideal, that I have to explain my decision to have only one child and promise to make up for it. Maybe I still believe that only children are spoiled and stuck-up and socially maladjusted, or that their parents are selfish. Maybe I still wonder about the brother or sister I might have had. Whatever the reason, I’m asking your forgiveness. I know the tenacity of absence. I need you to forgive me for the siblings you will never have.


About the Author

Abby Byrd

Abby Byrd is a teacher, a grammarian, and the poster mom for existential angst. She blogs at .

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