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Just One Child? Why People’s Family Sizes Are None of Your Business

In a New Year’s quest to declutter, my husband and I decided to sell our piano that had been sitting in our house collecting dust for more than a decade. We posted a Craig’s List ad, which led to a sweet older couple coming over to see it. While standing in our living room, they noticed some family photos of me, my husband, and our daughter. “You have just one child?” the woman probed. Yes, I said, already bristling at her use of the word “just,” because I knew what was coming. “Oh, why just one? Don’t you think she should have a sibling? You’re not that old; you still have time!”

Unfortunately, being questioned about our decision to have “just” one child wasn’t anything new. We’ve fielded the same questions from well-meaning family members and friends, too. People just can’t seem to wrap their heads around a three-person family, even though the typical American family size continues to shrink. According to Statista, the average number of people per family in the United States in 2019 was 3.14 and is predicted to get smaller in 2020. Each family has their own reasons for their particular family size. And even though I have gotten used to the prying questions from strangers like the piano lady, it’s important for us all to be educated on why these inquiries are, at best, out-of-touch, and very often hurtful or just plain offensive.

Surprise! Having my “Just One Child”

I was married to my first husband from the age of 18 to 30. We tried unsuccessfully to have kids those last few years. When he sat me down in our 12th year of marriage and explained that he’d been having an affair for months and the other woman was pregnant, it was a gut punch in so many ways (and that’s another column). Not only was my marriage over, but so were my dreams for a picture-perfect family complete with baby.

I obviously assumed it had been my body that failed at the baby-making in my first marriage. So when I met my now-husband at the age of 31, we weren’t careful in the birth control arena. Imagine my complete surprise and delight when, five months into our relationship, I found myself staring at a positive pregnancy test. After an uneventful pregnancy, we welcomed our daughter in the spring of 2010.

Not all Rainbows and Butterflies

The depression and overwhelm kicked in immediately. We weren’t even out of the delivery room before a litany of people were telling me what to do. I just wanted a minute to breathe and hold her, but the nurses insisted I try to breastfeed. I hated it instantly. That night, as I was struggling to produce anything to feed her (but was not yet ready to try formula), a nurse snidely commented that if I didn’t do the formula, it must be because I wanted my baby to die. I had a clogged milk duct before I even left the hospital. The doctor on call blew it off and said he’d check it again in six weeks when I came in for my follow up appointment. I hadn’t been a mother for more than a day, and I already felt like a failure. 

Being home didn’t help. I was lost. I was scared to dress her, so she lived in a diaper and T-shirt for weeks. No one slept. Feeding was still a nightmare. I didn’t want to be around her, yet I was terrified to leave her side. I was sick of everyone doing everything for me. They thought they were doing me a favor by letting me be with my daughter 100% of the time. But the truth was that being around my daughter 100% of the time was petrifying. My husband went back to work four days after her birth. I was angry and I was jealous.

Talked off the Ledge

I didn’t have a name for what was happening to me then. No one – not my husband or other friends and family who came to visit – saw that I was spiraling deeper by the day into post-partum depression. I just thought I was bad at being a mom. It wasn’t until one day, as I was out taking a drive by myself on a rare time out of the house, that I realized the magnitude of what I was in. I was driving on a windy road in the foothills near my house. As the road climbed higher and started to follow along a cliff with a reservoir hundreds of feet below, a thought popped into my head, “I could just drive off the cliff. Then this would all be over, and my daughter would be better off.”

That thought scared me into driving home and telling a friend what had happened. Speaking it out loud helped me see that I wasn’t dealing with just the normal bumps of new motherhood. It was no longer okay to continue to wait for this phase to pass or keep sweeping my feelings under the rug to save face out of embarrassment.

So I quit breastfeeding. I saw a therapist. We spoke to my daughter’s pediatrician, and she said something I’ll never forget: It’s better to have an alive and healthy mother than a depressed or even dead one because she was too consumed with doing it perfectly. That was all the permission I needed to start taking care of myself like it was my job. One of the ways I could ensure that I became and then stayed an alive and healthy mother for my daughter was to not have any more children.

None of my Damn Business

While my story is not unique, there are just as many reasons for people to choose their family size as there are families. Those could be medical, financial, or emotional reasons, but the basic point is that it’s nobody’s damn business. I admit I’ve made judgments – some in my head, some out loud – about larger families. How can they afford that? How can they possibly provide each child with the love and attention they deserve? The answer is, it’s none of my damn business!

This goes ESPECIALLY for people who don’t have kids. Childless adults deal with the personal and prying questions far more frequently than those with a single child do. We don’t know their story. Maybe they tried for years and couldn’t have kids. Or adoptions fell through or were financially out of reach. Maybe they just don’t want to! It’s not a crazy decision. If I hadn’t been surprised with my daughter remaining childless would have been my choice.

The Shop is Closed

My daughter is almost ten now, and the frequency of the “just one child” questions are slowing down, no doubt because of my, as they say, advanced maternal age. But my daughter overheard the piano lady. And what the piano lady maybe didn’t understand was that her questions insinuated there is something wrong with our family, or at best, that we are weird or different. She spoke about her large family with pride tinged with a bit of arrogance, as though the sheer number of people she gave birth to somehow equaled top-secret knowledge the rest of us aren’t privy to.

Celebrate all Families

I am grateful that we live in a time where we are actively moving toward acceptance of all sorts of families. Whether that’s same-sex parenting couples, single-parent adoptions, flipping traditional male and female parenting roles, using the power of science to create your family, fostering in-need kiddos, ADHD parenting, or having “just one,” one thing I know for sure is this: parents generally experience enough stress, heartache, and guilt getting through a run-of-the-mill day. We don’t need the extra challenge of judgment and comments from strangers (or friends and family) who think they know better and that their way of building a family is the only way. Instead, let’s celebrate the beautiful tapestry of miraculous individuality that comes with all styles of families.

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Marti Bruening

Marti has spent the last 20+ years exploring various forms of personal growth and healing and believes strongly that women supporting other women is essential to restoring balance in our challenging world. Marti is a wife, mother, volunteer, and indoor cycling teacher and works full-time for a research institute. She lives in Fort Collins, Colo.

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