Thursday, August 18, 2011

One is Enough

Not long ago, a reader requested discussion of the topic of having "only" one child. Apparently, this a a topic of raging discussion in the reader's research group. I was curious about this, and in particular, wondered what is so controversial about the topic.

You might think that I'd have some expertise on the subject, as I have one -- and only one -- child, but if the controversy is related to having one child when you really want to have more than one, then I have no insight into this question. I didn't want more than one child, so I didn't have more than one child. One feels just right for our family; it wasn't a sacrifice or a compromise or a disappointment. We are happy as a family of three.

Also, my daughter has many friends who are "only" children in their families, so being an only child does not seem like a strange situation to her or to us.

The people to ask about one vs. more than one are people like GMP and Prof-Like Substance.

I know there is a common perception that only children are spoiled and/or lonely, but from what I've seen, children with siblings are not obviously better adjusted than siblingless children. This conclusion is based on subjective, anecdotal observations (a.k.a., my life as a parent of one). There are probably awesomely flawless and compelling studies that show that children without siblings are more likely to be axe murderers or politicians or something, but that is not yet apparent in the kids I know who are my daughter's age and younger. I guess we'll see how things turn out later.

Of course we can't read too much into one random query from a reader of a blog, but does a raging debate about one-child vs. more-children indicate that discussions among female scientists in academia have (mostly) moved on from wondering whether they can have even one child (or a career as an FSP) to whether they can have more than one child (and a career as an FSP)? I hope so.

36 comments:

Andrew Ducker said...

Actually, it looks like the science is on your side:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Only_child#Scientific_research

Ianqui said...

In his book "Maybe One", Bill McKibben reviews the research showing that only children are totally socially adjusted and can be better off than peers w/siblings on some measures.

nicoleandmaggie said...

In my social science the norm has moved from no children to one child after tenure to now you're allowed one child before tenure and one after.

A few prominent women have more children.

Since I had my child, it's been really neat seeing more pregnant women at conferences. Our field is becoming more female. We're still pretty behind on minorities, but we're making some headway there too compared to what it was when I started.

mathgirl said...

For me the question is about having the option to have more than one child if you wish to.

I haven't decided whether I want another child or not. As a tenure track with a two-body problem and a toddler, I feel I don't have the option of having another child, even if I wanted that.

Anonymous said...

I think virtually all of us would agree that many other variables are more important in determining how children do--quality of parental care, parental economic status, and even genetics. I imagine that any statistics on outcomes based on family size will have very large error bars, and overlapping distributions. I agree with FSP that each set of parents needs to make decisions on family size that work for them, and then focus on being good parents. Anecdotally, we all know great kids and well adjusted adults from all family sizes, and likewise poorly adjusted children and adults from all family sizes.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

No, Mark P... NOT virtually all of us would agree that other variables have bigger effects. Having a sibling, who interacts with you most every waking moment, might have an enormous effect on your development. Not that it's necessarily a "positive" effect -- but it certainly seems feasible that the presence of siblings influence you as much as your parents' status.

Anonymous said...

Hubby and I wrestled a bit over whether to have an other one. He felt that with two full-time jobs,my traveling etc one was plenty, and he wanted to give N.1 as much attention as possible. I felt that having a sibling was really important: we are both foreigners here and there's no family on one side. He's an only child, I'm the younger of two. I won the argument; our kids are five years apart (one before T, one after T). Turns out we were both right. It is A LOT of work, and has affected my ability to work, travel, etc. And N.1 is missing out on our attention, especially in the sleep deprived first few months. On the other hand, it's a joy to watch them play together. And N.2 is too cute for words.

Cloud said...

Perhaps the current discussion is a reaction to a recent paper published in PLoS surveying academics about their feelings about kids and career? I am too lazy to go find the paper, since I am already settled in with my (two) kids and (non-academic) career.

I think it would be great if the discussion about professors and kids turned from "can you have any?" to "can you have more than one?" since as you point out, that is progress.

Of course, it would be even better if it broadened to recognize the inherent sexism in the discussion, since no one seems to fret about whether or not male professors have kids. But let's not get greedy.

And actually, this nonsense is broader than just academia. Just last week, someone (who knows me, knows what I do for a living, and knows that I have two kids) confidently told me that it is impossible to combine motherhood with a meaningful career in science, leaving me with four options for how to interpret his comment: (1) he doesn't think I exist, (2) he doesn't think I'm actually a mother, (3) he doesn't think my career is "meaningful", or (4) he is a complete jerk, and I don't need to talk to him.

I concluded (4) and walked away.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone think about the big picture? People think that going from one child to two children is going in the "right direction"?? May I point out that the human population is exploding at a completely unsustainable rate? Has anyone considered having ZERO or one child for the greater good of the planet? Or the fate of all those children who will have to face the consequences of global warming + overpopulation? As scientists, we should know better.

Anonymous said...

I threw out this very question to my circle of (both scientist and non-scientist) friends a while ago. Some of the best reasons to have more than one actually have to do with being adult children. My friend who recently lost her mom and is an only child said that it was hard to not have siblings to share that grief with. Another friend who lost her father relied heavily on her bonds with her two sisters to help her cope with the loss. Yet another single friend pointed out that she's going to be the sole supporter of her mother as her mother gets older and that the stress of making decisions with/for elderly parents might be less if it's shared with (compassionate) siblings. (Although, I suppose, you can have siblings who loathe each other as adults and that might make such situations more stressful.)

I would like to have a #2. But I'm half of a dual-career academic couple without a permanent job yet for either of us. I have no idea how we'll find post-docs co-located AND have a #2. I'm being blindly optimistic that it will work somehow and trying not to think about it too much. I do hate the system that makes it all so hard, though.

maepress said...

I find this topic interesting for a few reasons. One, I am the parent of an only child. Two, I am a psychologist, and three I am trying to establish a career as a prof.

So, my decision to have only one child was in large part because of my career and not feeling like I could juggle both. Although, maybe the field of psychology is kinder to women and parents, because I have plenty of successful female friends who have good careers and multiple children. I just didn't feel like it was for me.

As far as psychological research out there, the jury is very much still out on that one. There are studies in China that show one thing, and studies in the US that show something else. Also, all of this research is grounded in personality theory, a field which is a bit shaky scientifically IMHO.

But, I'm always making comparisons of my daughter's behavior to those of children with siblings, and for the most part I think that when she was younger (3-6 years) she did have a bit more trouble sharing and cooperating. She also has a fairly dominant personality and likes to direct the games and take a leadership role. I have no idea if that is just her, or from being an only child and mostly getting to lead the play at home. She's become more easy going as she has gotten older though.

I have older siblings and my husband is a twin, so we never had things that belonged only to us, and are often baffled by her materialism. But, again I think that we encourage positive behaviors in her and are sensitive to the fact that she may be different from us because she's raised as an "only."

I have also had several female friends who were raised as only children, and I think they benefited greatly from it. They were encouraged to succeed, they had great opportunities because their parent's finances went to them, and they seem to have a drive for organization and success.

Actually, I think it would be a really interesting study to see if there's a difference between male and female only children.

Andrew Ducker said...

As scientists I assume that most people know that the growth levels of the planet are dropping steadily, and that in most of the "Western world" it would be below replenishment rate if it wasn't for immigration.

Patchi said...

Have you seen the study published in PLoS ONE called "Scientists Want More Children"?

Here is the link:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022590

My husband and I are scientist and we are happy with our 2 kids. You seem happy with your 1. Apparently we're not in the majority...

Anonymous said...

Like what another commentor said: as adults only children can be at a disadvantage. My husband is an only and his parents are divorced. His mom is not in great health and it's left to him (us) to deal with it- mostly emotionally. It's sad to think that once his parents die he'll have no family left really. I come from a bigger family (4 kids) and yeah, I didn't get as much attention from my parents and we couldn't afford nice vacations, but now that we're all adults it's awesome.

Different family sizes work for different people too, I hope people just consider some of the more long term affects on their kids too. We are having our third soon... and yes, lots of people think we're crazy, but we love kids and want them to have each other. I know that's not the right choice for some people, but there is much more to consider than whether your kid will end up a 'spoiled only child.' (seems to me there are plenty of ways to prevent that besides having another kid that would be easier!!

I am a small college science professor pre-tenure. This will be my second and last baby I have here. No one batted an eye when I told them, but I wasn't apologetic about it at all. My colleague has 4 kids and my chair has 3 (both men) and why should my reproductive decisions be any different than theirs? My generation isn't as likely to buy the $&@! that we have to choose careers or family, I think.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a good idea to have > 1 kids just so that kid isn't alone to deal with eldercare issues later. That's actually kind of weird. I am dealing with aging parents right now with no help from my brother. His lack of help but abundance of criticism and suggestions of what else I should be doing is really stressful and upsetting. But of course, since he's older, if our parents had decided to stop at one, he'd exist and I would not.

Anonymous said...

I am an only child, my parents were not. My wife is an only child, her parents are not. We have two children (both born prior to tenure but after starting TT).

None of my only child friends had an only child parent and none had only one child.

The grass is always greener.

Anonymous said...

I know a female professor in my area with four kids. She is one of the best professors in terms of research. She is also a full-time professor in one of the top 5 engineering schools. Therefore, it is possible to have a couple kids and have a good academic career at the same time. Maybe, the most important question is how many kids someone would like.

Kea said...

I would say that it is now compulsory for women in my field to want, or already have, at least one child. Quite seriously, in this extremely sexist field, where a few young women are now actually getting jobs, they tend to have children. I think the fact that they conform well enough to be Family Oriented is taken by the dudes as a sign that they won't step out of line. And since I can't think of a single exception, there must be something in this. The culture has definitely changed, but most certainly not in a positive direction.

Anonymous said...

May I point out that the human population is exploding at a completely unsustainable rate?

No you may not, because it isn't true. World population is projected to peak by 2050 if not earlier, and start falling thereafter, with dramatic decreases by 2100.

In fact currently too-rapid of a contraction is more frightening concern than overpopulation.

On the one-vs-two children dilemma, it is very much your own call. Even at two children population will fall rapidly since replacement level is 2.1 children. So feel free to choose either option.

Personally I think that either one or two children are a fine choice.

John Vidale said...

anon@8:22

World population is projected to peak by 2050 if not earlier, and start falling thereafter, with dramatic decreases by 2100.

and

too-rapid of a contraction is more frightening concern than overpopulation.

You're not concerned with population growth, and the accompanying pollution and resource and energy depletion because some projections level out in 40 years!?

And you're more afraid of there being too FEW people?

I don't know what to say ...

GMP said...

The senior female professor with 4 kids at a top 5 eng school (the one that Anon at 05:21 mentions) is likely Millie Dresselhaus (MIT). She is 80. If you ask her how she did it, she will tell you that kids came before the career, in fact she didn't even think she would even have a career. And she had the same nanny for some 20 years. (I met her once and chatted briefly; most of these things can be found on the web about her.)

It is still extremely rare to find a woman with more than 2 kids in the physical sciences. Among the people I know personally somewhat well, I don't know any women in the physical sciences other than me with more than 2 kids; I have 3 and know two women in biomed with 3. Several of my male colleagues have 3 children, though, one even had 5 (he's very religious though). All the wives in those cases are stay-at-home.

With increasing number of children, things like travel become really hard (one parent left to round them all up) plus the cost becomes perhaps prohibitive unless one parent stays at home (childcare is very expensive, and then all these kids have to go to college etc).

Having said that, I love kids and am happy with 3 (had one in grad school, one on TT, one post tenure). It is possible to have a career and a family, as for size -- you gotta figure out what works for you in terms of the balance between rewards (many!!) and stress (lots).

Kea said...

But you don't approve of zero children. Hmm. And why is that? You have failed to consider how culture influences birth rates. Overpolpulation is far more of a concern than falling birth rates.

Anonymous said...

I know some women faculty in the physical sciences with 3 or 4 children. Most of these women are now in their 40's and 50's and are at major universities. One was even department chair for many years.

Anonymous said...

I am an only-child. I'm also a FSP by the way. I get offended when people state with such certainty that they need to have more than one child because having only one will ensure that the kid grows up pathological.

I also get very irked when people ask me, "were you lonely as a kid?" Um, no, I had tons of friends and cousins and my parents. I had school to go to, and after-school activities to do as well. I hung out with my BFFs (who are still my BFFs now).

I also get very irked by "what was it like growing up as an only-child?" Um..since I dont' have experience being a siblinged child, how am I supposed to have anything to compare it to? It's like asking "what's it like growing up as a girl?" unless you also have experience growing up as a boy, how can you answer that?

Anonymous said...

if one child isnt' enough for you, adopt. There's plenty of disadvantaged orphans who already exist and are in need love and a home and family to call their own.

Anonymous said...

As already pointed out by several commenters, many parts of the world now have fertility rates below replacement levels, notably including the U.S. and almost all European countries, also of course China due to the one-child policy:

http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?t=0&v=31&l=en

@John Vidale and others:
Population shrinking too rapidly is a serious concern, because it means that there will be a far smaller proportion of young people to support the aging population.

Siblings are among the most influential people in our lives for those of us who have them (whether in a good or a bad way). One things that makes siblings different from any other relationship is that siblings, in the typical ideal case, accompany us through most of our lives, from childhood into old age. Parents, children and friends are there for only part of that journey.

jb said...

Most FSP I know have only 1 kid while quite a number MSP have 2 (by logic, that would mean most FSPs are not married to MSPs?). For me, I decided early on not to have kids, but that might be bec I grew up with 6 siblings.

John Vidale said...

Without being normative about how many kids to have, I have to point out that despite the less-than-replacement birth rate in the US, our population continues to grow about 10% per decade due to immigration.

The population is already over the number sustainable in the long run as resources are depleted - we're sending our kids into a world hoping future technological improvements (miracle fertilizers? cold fusion?) will make up the CURRENT gap. Population will likely double before it MIGHT flatten out.

Worrying about our social security checks seems myopic in the extreme.

Anonymous said...

I am shocked by the denial and complacency that people have about overpopulation. "As scientists", we also know that a decreasing growth rate is merely a decreasing SECOND derivative, and does not mean the total world population is shrinking. We are NOW seeing the results. CURRENT overpopulation is directly responsible for the current immigration issues around the world that are causing the CURRENT political upheavals. That's on top of the famines and energy crisis. Global warming is severely aggravating these, and that situation is going to get a lot worse, very fast. If you want to live green and consider your household energy budget, then fewer kids are definitely a serious option.

Anonymous said...

I'm an FSP, pre tenure, pregant with #2. This week, for instance, daycare is on vacation, babysitters are out of town, husband is working, grant is due next week. Terrifying, and at the same time, profoundly doable (so far). The most stressful part is making the decision.

I do really think that the issue has moved from having children to having more than one.

Mark Rossow (Audrey-Ann) said...

If you have a happy / healthy / not stoopid first child, the law of averages suggests you stop while ahead ... .

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Mark Rossow (Audrey-Ann) said...

"If you have a happy / healthy / not stoopid first child, the law of averages suggests you stop while ahead ... ."

That's traditional magical thinking, unworthy of a reader of FSP. Since the health and intelligence of siblings is positively correlated, not negatively, a successful first child should increase your willingness to have another, not decrease it.

There are many reasons to have zero, one, or more children, and each family must balance for themselves the advantages and disadvantages. We chose to have one child, but if he had been born when we were younger, we might have preferred two.

Anonymous said...

@gasstationwithoutpumps:

Your dismissal of the previous commenter is magical thinking, unworthy of a reader of FSP. Life is a lot more complicated than applying a magic correlation. I have quite a few friends with kids who have weird, exceptional, and debilitating permanent ailments. They are not healthy and they are special needs kids. I'm really surprised at the number of people I know who have such kids -- maybe it's an older parent thing, or something. There are good reasons to quit while you're ahead.

Anonymous said...

We only have one child. In my case, I always thought I wanted two or three...that is, until I actually had a child in my possession. My daughter is now four years old and there hasn't been a nanosecond of her life where I've desired to have any additional children.

Short Geologist said...

Only child here. I was socially awkward and shy growing up. Maybe I wouldn't have been so utterly clueless if I had a brother or sister to help with socialization. I also spent most of my childhood longing for a sibling, although I had plenty of cousins (thinks to my parents NOT being singletons).

I'm not convinced I would have any children, but if I did, I would not have just one.

Anonymous said...

The senior female professor with 4 kids at a top 5 eng school (the one that Anon at 05:21 mentions) is likely Millie Dresselhaus (MIT).

Not necessarily. Since the anon poster mentioned engineering, I immediately thought of Rebecca Richards-Kortum because a) I knew her when I was an undergrad and b) she recently was featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about women faculty with several children.

http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Having-More-Than-2-Child/47015