Ethics & Public Policy Center

Zero-Sum Parenting

Published in MercatorNet on June 13, 2013



“Call me a terrible mother. I have an only child.”

So begins Lauren Sandler’s recent New York Times article, “Only Children: Lonely and Selfish?” Daring readers to judge her (one can imagine her eyes flashing, chin thrust forward, and arms defiantly crossed), author Lauren Sandler makes the case for only children—why they are smarter, better (seemingly at everything), and more conducive to parental happiness. Her new bookOne and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, expands on those arguments.

An only child and the mother of an only child, Sandler seems more than a little piqued at the culture’s prevailing judgment that raising an only child is undesirable. (A mere three percent of American women, for example, say it’s ideal to have an only child.)

So Lauren Sandler is a woman on a crusade.

She extols the benefits of raising an only child, piling selected statistics one atop the other, hoping to make the world an emotionally safer place for mothers like her.

Turns out, though, that she’s less than even-handed in her treatment of the research.

For example, Sandler argues that, “Endless research shows that only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else.” Not so, according to a new study. Comparing data from before and after the institution of China’s one-child policy, a 2013 study shows a causal link between being an only child and acquiring certain negative character traits. The study found that ‘onlies’ are “significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.” Ouch, right? Of course no study should be used to pre-judge any individual. But it does cast doubt on Sandler’s sunny conclusions.

Sandler also claims that, “[P]arents who have one child tend to be happier.” Happiness data, however, is not only notoriously subjective but also more complex than the author acknowledges. The real answer to the question of what makes parents happier is, “It depends on when you ask the question.” A large-scale study of global trends related to happiness and fertility offers these conclusions: “The association between number of children and happiness strongly depends on age. In the youngest age groups (less than 30), happiness decreases… with number of children. At ages 30–39, the negative association vanishes, and at older ages (40–49, 50 and above) the association between number of children and happiness becomes positive so that those with three children are happiest.”

In other words, parenting is a lot of work but, generally speaking, it eventually yields much happiness, particularly for the parents of many.

Breeding or mothering?

Sandler’s marshaling of statistics here and anecdotes there in favor of raising an only child, however, is far less troubling than her impoverished view of motherhood.

Motherhood, she believes, reflects our “personal” choices about “breeding,” an experience that must be well-managed lest it threaten one’s identity and “authentic self”. Not long ago, in a Time magazine piece, Sandler displayed her open contempt for women who have three or more children, derisively calling them “champion breeders.”

Allow me to get personal for a moment. Anyone who speaks of motherhood as “breeding” comes from a fundamentally different place than I do. Breeding is what a farmer does with goats and horses, physically managing reproduction for the good of the herd, or his bottom line. My motherhood began with my love for my husband, and our mutual desire to create, through our love, another human being who will live and love forever—a person desired for his or her own sake.

Motherhood, in my book, shouldn’t reflect a selfish desire to “have” a child as the latest, greatest possession at this juncture in life. Nor should it be a calculated decision to enhance overall family happiness or productivity by weighing the pros and cons of a potentially “needy child” versus a potential prodigy-as-source-of-parental-happiness.

Zero-sum parenting

But Sandler lives within the paradigm of zero-sum parenting, comforting herself with the thought that there’s only so much love, money, time, etc to go around, so it makes sense to limit how and when one uses these non-renewable resources. Only children benefit, she believes, because “parents who have just one child are able to devote more resources—time, money and attention—to them than parents who have to divide resources among more children.”

Scarcity is a global thing, too, Sandler notes. “For one thing, one-child families make obvious sense in a time of diminishing resources.” When there’s not enough to go around, better to produce fewer people with whom to share than to produce what’s needed more abundantly. (She ignores the implications of the demographic winter now blanketing much of the developed world.)

By Sandler’s reckoning, any child who might drain more than his or her anticipated fair share of resources is a burden to be avoided. (She’s not alone in her thinking. For a brilliant analysis of the “people are the problem” mindset, read Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Anti-Humanism.)

As a result, Sandler seems fear-driven and miserly, bent on hoarding her precious inner “resources” in a climate of self-imposed scarcity. She observes her friends, diminished as persons, she believes, because of their decisions to have a second child: “I’ve watched most of my friends tread into the tunnel of second children, few of them to emerge as how I remember their former engaged selves.”

But what does it mean to be “engaged” in life? For Sandler, it’s about freedom and pleasure secured by “plentiful travel, the delights of urban living, late night rock shows and dinner parties, and the frequent freedom to binge on a novel over a weekend.”

Not much room in there for giving and nurturing another’s life.  But then again, in Sandler’s world, she who gives the most, loses.

Sandler’s been riding the “One and Only” horse for awhile, swinging her crop wildly to keep ahead of the doubters (or perhaps her own doubts). She justifies her own parents’ decision to limit their child-rearing burden to one: “They wanted the experience of parenting but also their careers, the freedom to travel and the lower cost and urbane excitement of making a home in an apartment rather than a suburban house.”

In summing up her mother’s mindset, Sandler offers a clue to her own: “To have a happy kid, she [Sandler’s mother] figured she needed to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, she needed to be a happy person. To do that, she had to preserve her authentic self, which she could not imagine doing with a second child.”

Sadly, Sandler seems to view a second child as something of a threat. In an article for The Atlantic entitled, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid,” Sandler focuses admiringly on the “brimming” lives of female writers. She observes that they penned their literary and creative masterpieces only by beating back the heavy demands of motherhood, while their peers were “perplexingly shortchanged by domestic concerns.”

Sandler asks, “[H]ow do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?” On her personal website, she offers her own vision of fulfillment: “We envision a liberated existence, one of satisfaction and fulfillment, a life built upon intentionality and individualism rather than obligation and role filling. This liberated adulthood exists at odds with parenting.”

What Sandler doesn’t get is that parenting is not a zero-sum game. Love multiplies. It stretches, deepens, and grows in richness as it is shared. My husband and I have seven children. We don’t serve love from an ever-shrinking pie, where the eldest first anticipates the whole pie, then watches aghast as it’s cut in half, then into thirds, and on down, until his share of the love is reduced to the tiniest sliver—one-seventh—a cruel taste of the abundance he once enjoyed. On the contrary, the love of our original trio—mom, dad, and baby—has expanded exponentially with each new sibling.

I’ll never forget the moment when our oldest son, at three, erupted in the most joyous cascade of laughter I’ve ever heard. He was playing with his one-year-old sister, and her antics touched a funny bone within him that I didn’t even know existed. His many little friends couldn’t trigger it either. But his little sister, whom he loved, drew something new and wonderful out of him. It’s a scenario I’ve seen repeated over and over, in countless different ways, with each of our children. In loving, we expand not only our own capacity to love but also the richness of our own personalities.

Perhaps that’s the saddest thing of all about Sandler’s crusade. She fails to see that human flourishing does not depend on “careers, the freedom to travel… and urbane excitement.” It depends on discovering the meaning in life that comes from love given and love received.

Mary Rice Hasson is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. 

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