Children and families are like fingerprints - no two are alike. Yet it's easy to stereotype only children as maladjusted, spoiled or "weird". Sometimes, parents are seen as selfish for depriving their child of a sibling.
But those myths may dissolve as singletons become more common: in New Zealand: the proportion of families with one child grew from 36.5 per cent in 2006 to 38.1 per cent in 2013. In the US, the number of women who had just one kid by the end of their childbearing years has doubled from 11 per cent to 22 per cent since the mid-1970s. UK Statistics from 2017 showed 40 per cent of married couples had a single child.
Some studies show couples are happier with just one child, while others find two is the magic number.
Bay of Plenty Times Weekend writer Dawn Picken spoke with local parents who say they're happy to be "one and done".
Moore Family - One is Enough
It's early Monday evening when I cross the street to talk with my neighbours, Katrina and Thomas Moore. Their son, Lochlan (Lochy), is slicing banana into a bowl of yoghurt at the kitchen bench. "You got that?" asks Katrina. "Yep, I'm good," says Lochy.
We sit around the kitchen table and I ask about their family's story. Katrina says the couple always knew they'd have one child. "We did change our mind when he was about four, and it just never happened. We're quite happy with just one." Health issues played a major role - Katrina, who's 39 years old, says two early pregnancies ended in miscarriage and she was born with a condition that has so far required three open-heart surgeries. Thomas says, "We weren't in a rush to have any more because of the risk."
"Even my heart doctor was like, 'If you're gonna have more, get cracking on it.' There's a smaller window of opportunity, I think. But we weren't worried that more didn't come along," says Katrina. Still, she says their seven-year-old asks occasionally about siblings, because it seems all his friends have them. "So it would've been nice for him. But the pros are there's always enough for him. There's always enough money for food and things like that and for school. We just know he'll always have what he needs."
The Moores spend weekends together camping and mountain biking in the Redwoods. They organise play dates for Lochy. Thomas says even though he's happy having one child, he does occasionally worry about loneliness. "Like you see him with his friends and think it'd be awesome if it was full-time."
The couple says chance and choice intertwined to provide the family size that's right for them. They both work, and Katrina's heart condition means she tires easily. "People have stopped asking if we're going to be having any more... we were getting that for a few years." They say they try hard "not to be lazy" and let Lochy have his way. "We're quite mindful of that," says Katrina.
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She's also an only child and ponders the possibility of her son looking after her and Thomas on his own. "Because my parents are getting older, I think it's all gonna rest on my shoulders someday because I've got no siblings to share the burden with... there's no backup. When they do pass away, it's gonna be me sorting everything out, and it's gonna be massive."
Thomas laughs, saying, "I've got that as well, and I've got a brother and sister. They just have moved away."
Money, Myths and Milestones
The median age of New Zealand women giving birth was 30 years in 2017, according to Statistics NZ. Many couples are getting married or finding partners later, in addition to focussing on careers and building a nest egg. That leaves less time to grow a family. And raising a child in Aotearoa is expensive. A 2009 study by the Inland Revenue found one child can set parents back $250,000 by the age of 18, a figure that varies with income and doesn't include university fees. A 2016 report by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) found childcare costs here are among the highest in the developed world. The average parent spent $11,500 a year on childcare, according to a 2014 study by the Bank of New Zealand and Plunket.
Tauranga child and adolescent psychotherapist Joanne Bruce says determining family size often causes conflicts. "I meet a lot of parents where that's the case, that they're trying to make a decision about that. But it takes two parents to decide how they want to grow their family."
Psychologically, Bruce says the advantages or disadvantages of having one child are unclear. "...because if you've got a well-equipped, attuned, sensitive parent, it doesn't matter how many children there are in the family, they're still gonna do really well. If you've got great parents, it doesn't matter if you've got siblings, or not." She says families without clear boundaries might allow an only child to get drawn into adult situations and conversations.
On the plus side, children still get exposure and opportunities to learn conflict resolution with cousins, classmates and neighbours. Are only children smarter than those with siblings? I ask Bruce about my neighbour, Lochy, who has confidence and a vocabulary beyond his years. "It's probably not to do with him being a singleton. It's probably to do with him having great parents," she says.
Bruce says only children are on their own during a process in adolescence of separation and individuation. That's where kids push back against mum and dad, when formerly awesome parents become rubbish oldies out to curb the child's fun. "There's no sibling to sort of join forces with, because often there does start to be that 'them and us' and you feel quite supported as an adolescent in your negative feeling towards your parents about how rough they are... they're alone in that pushback."
Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joys of Being One writes the idea only children are somehow deficient started more than 100 years ago with American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall. Hall's 1896 study, "Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children," cast only children as "oddballs" and "permanent misfits." He claimed, "Being an only child is a disease in itself."
Modern research shows otherwise. Brain scans and standard tests of 250 college-age students in China showed no differences in IQ, but only children had higher levels of flexibility — one measure of creativity — and lower levels of agreeableness than kids with siblings.
Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas analysed a group of studies and found, "across all developmental outcomes, only children were indistinguishable from firstborns and people from small families" and did better than children from large families.
One or None - Nicky's Story
Nicky Jury was nearly 45 years old when she had her daughter in 2009. The Maungatapu graphic designer and marketer lost her first husband to cancer in 1998. She says illness, complications and treatments meant the couple missed their window of opportunity to try to conceive.
Nicky met her current partner, Craig in 2005, and took fertility drugs for years before a doctor diagnosed endometriosis and performed surgery to correct it. She fell pregnant naturally within weeks. "It was more like one or none. If I had more time, I would've gone on to have more, maybe two. People do things in different orders. I still had work commitments and things as well. It's all a bit of a juggling act at times." Jury says having one child wasn't a choice. "That's just the way life goes sometimes. I had a child later and it wasn't really the time to carry on and have a big family."
Jury's daughter, Samantha, is 10 years old and sometimes asks for a sibling. She's also had a lifelong love of babies. "Makes an interesting trip to the supermarket when your child insists we use the baby trolley for her baby – and it looks real." Overall, Jury says her daughter is happy in her own space with her own company and enjoys spending time with kids close to her age, too. "That's where there's friends and cousins become very important because they don't have that closeness with a sibling. But I look at siblings and some hardly talk or see each other."
Jury says she allows Samantha to enjoy activities while keeping safety in mind. She feels protective of her child. "All your eggs are in one basket."
Fated Family Size
Like Jury, Megan Vanderwiel says cancer and other medical hurdles played a role in the size of her family. Her husband had a vasectomy reversal and she had ovarian cysts removed so they could get pregnant. In addition, doctors told her chances of carrying a pregnancy to term after gastric bypass surgery were slim. She beat the odds, giving birth to son, Caine, 10 years ago. "We had a little miracle."
Vanderwiel says when Caine was three years old, husband, Colin, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "We had to decide whether to have the one or go for multiple babies. At the time we were too consumed with what we were going through and we didn't. So we were destined to be a one-child family." She says having a one and only means less financial stress and greater ability to travel, plus focus on her son's sport, rugby. "I don't know how some other mothers do it. They've got three games going on Saturday and we've just got the one."
One downside is the lack of built-in playmate.
"He's always wanting to play with someone.
"He's either never home, or there's someone else here."
And Vanderwiel says people are still surprised she has one child. "Immediately he was born and everybody expected we would have another one, and my husband was older, so it wasn't always on the cards. But as soon as the choice was taken away, we regretted it.
"We never know the perfect solution when we go through life."
Nerf Wars, Pirate Battles and Planes
Carrie Brown Davies is preparing for her husband's birthday dinner when I visit. A dining table is laden with gift bags, which Brown Davies explains Billy would've gotten anyways as she's just back from a trip to the US with son, Chase. "He wanted me to pick up some stuff for him, so I thought I'd wrap it for his birthday," she laughs. Nine-year-old Chase shows her a card he has drawn for his dad. "I love it!" Brown Davies exclaims. "What are you gonna write inside?" Chase says he doesn't know yet, and returns to his room to finish the card.
Brown Davies says she and Billy have one child by circumstance, not choice. She'd been given a 2 per cent likelihood of getting pregnant while the couple was engaged.
"At that point, we thought we'll take a chance; we'll see how it goes. We didn't try any infertility drugs and I was pregnant within a month. And the doctors said it was one in a million because I was in early menopause."
The Papamoa mum soon found herself travelling between New Zealand and her native California. "Chase took his first flight home at six weeks because my mum was gravely ill. And that's what he knew for the first five years of his life was going back and forth to the US to take care of her. So for us as a family, we really didn't have the mind space to be able to devote it to any medical type of treatments we could've done and we both kind of decided we're really happy. We have in our mind as all parents think they have - a perfect, wonderful child. And we'll leave it at that."
She says Chase sees his American cousins often, has playdates at home and the couple expect they'll bring one of their son's friends on holiday at some point. When I ask about drawbacks of having one child, Brown Davies reaches for tissues. "This makes me cry a little bit, but it makes me sad. It's sad to me that he doesn't have brothers or sisters. For him, not for me. I think gosh, when we're older, if we're sick or we're not there anymore, who does he have?"
For now, Chase has Mum and Dad in ways many children with siblings don't. Brown Davies describes her family as a "tight-knit team" that does everything together. "People think when you have one, you have it so easy. But what I try to tell my friends, yes, there's less birthday parties, but in that family time, there's no distractions, there's no 'Go play with your brother or sister.' From Day 1, we're all in. We made that conscious decision to play with him all the time, so we do... your time in the afternoon isn't necessarily doing work, it's being with him and doing something with him, so he's not lonely."
She says instead of making Chase rise to adult-level activities, she and her husband migrate to their son's level, holding dance parties in the lounge, having pirate battles and two nights ago, a Nerf war. "This was literally Billy and I hiding behind chairs and nailing each other with Nerf bullets for an hour because that's the game Chase wanted to play."
Brown Davies says the couple makes sure not to gang up on Chase when disciplining him and to recognise him for who he is. "He's a very kind boy and a thoughtful boy and caring. Whether that's his personality or whether he doesn't have someone playing pranks on him and hiding his stuff and getting in battles at home all the time, it just could be a different environment he was raised in, or it could be him."
" We are so happy with the one that we have, and he's our world."
Smaller Families = Healthier Planet
None of the people we interviewed mentioned environmental concerns had contributed to having one child. But a growing movement emphasises the sustainability aspect of smaller families.
UK-based charity Population Matters' website says choosing to have one or two children, or none will "...reduce the pressure on our Earth's resources, protect the natural world and ensure that there will be enough of everything we need for everyone…" They say climate change, poverty and species extinction are just some of the consequences of having more than 7.6 billion people [now 7.7 billion and rising] on the planet.
Researchers from Lund University in Sweden published a study in 2017 stating having one fewer child per family can save "an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year".
Some of the most polluting activities were eating meat, driving a car and travelling by aeroplane.
But the study said having children was the number one polluting activity.
"A US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives."