No, I’m Not Less of a Mom for Having One Child

The other day I saw a woman wearing a shirt that read, “Oops! I forgot to have children!” across the front and I kind of wanted to run up and give her a hug while whispering, “You, madam, are my spirit animal.” Except that would be weird on a lot of levels, so I buried that impulse.

The truth is that I didn’t forget to have children. I just had child. One child. And lean in closer while I make this confession: My husband and I made that decision on purpose.

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It’s not really what I’d planned for myself when I was younger and daydreamed about my future family. In fact, I went through a phase in the mid-80s when I imagined myself with five children that I would name Mandy, Randy, Candy, Sandy and Andy. And now you’re thinking it probably all worked out for the best that I ended up having only one.

I certainly never envisioned myself being any kind of spokesperson for the only-child crowd, but over the last 11 years as I’ve written on my blog, the question I get the most is from other women who want to know if it’s okay if they decide to stop after one child or asking if I have regrets that we never gave my daughter, Caroline, a sibling.

And that’s a hard question, because the number of kids you and your husband decide to have is an extremely personal decision, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that by all the complete strangers who feel free to regularly ask, “So, when are you going to have another one?” or “Don’t you worry about what will happen to her when you die and she’s left all alone in the world?” People are so great. And by that I mean that they can be extremely insensitive and feel like they have the right to get in your business even if you just met them on an airplane or in line at Starbucks.

Melanie with her husband, Perry, and their daughter, Caroline.

Honestly, we didn’t officially arrive at the decision to have an only child until Caroline started kindergarten and, even then, I sometimes second-guessed our decision almost every time someone questioned why we didn’t have more — because what happens if we screw her up and end up being two old people who have to spend holidays with just the dog? I’d Google articles about only children, reassuring myself that they often ended up being higher achievers, leaders and, most importantly, not automatically in therapy over not having a sibling. But then I’d see a picture of Caroline as a squishy toddler and think back nostalgically on those days and wonder if I wanted to do it all over again. Would I regret not doing it again? Would she be okay without a brother or a sister?

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But I began to realize that while some of those concerns were legitimate, the majority of them were based on my perception of what a family was supposed to look like. It’s the American ideal right? Two cars in the garage, at least two kids (preferably a boy and a girl), and a chicken in every pot. I think maybe that was some politician’s campaign slogan in the 1950s. However, when I blocked out the external noise and the well-meaning questions and my own insecurities about people making me feel like I was less of a mom for just having one child and focused on how I felt and what was really best for our family, I found that I felt completely secure in our decision to have one child.

When I blocked out the noise, I found I felt completely secure in our decision.

I believe that instead of it being a selfish decision, it was accepting what we were emotionally and physically prepared for. It really dawned on me one day when Caroline and I visited one of her kindergarten classmates who happened to be the youngest of four kids. As that mom and I sat and attempted to visit, there was a constant stream of yelling, jumping, crashing noises and shrieks as what seemed to be a pack of children ran in and out of the house. This mom wasn’t fazed by it in the least, she kept up her end of the conversation and never skipped a beat. It was like she was having high tea at a fancy resort and I was a frightened dog at a fireworks show. I began to realize that when I saw my fellow moms chasing toddlers all around the neighborhood pool that I had lost my nostalgia for those days and felt nothing but the relief of a prisoner on parole to be able to just sit and watch my independent big kid jump off the diving board.

As we ventured into the world of sports, it was nice that my husband and I were able to attend all of Caroline’s soccer games together instead of resorting to the divide and conquer strategy that families of multiples have to do when schedules inevitably overlap. And we’ve each had plenty of time to cultivate our own unique relationship with Caroline because she has all of our focus. It also helps that Caroline is completely content with her only child status. However, we have worked hard to make sure that she doesn’t live up to the stereotype of the “spoiled only child.” Yes, she probably gets a few more gifts at Christmas because she’s the only one we have to buy gifts for, but we have raised her with character, integrity and a heart that focuses on those around her. There are plenty of kids with lots of siblings who can turn out entitled and selfish because the character of a child is ultimately determined by what is instilled in them by their parents, not how many brothers or sisters they happen to have. We have worked hard to make sure Caroline treats the world around her with kindness and respect and in some ways I think being an only child has helped her focus on her friendships even more because her friends are the closest thing to family that she has outside of us.

These days I’m completely at peace with having an only child, unless I’ve watched an episode of Parenthood on Netflix. How fulfilled can you be in life if you aren’t a Braverman who regularly dines outdoors under twinkly lights with your grown siblings? But as I watch the woman Caroline is becoming, I believe all the more that our decision was the right one for our family. We are a little band of three and that has been the perfect fit for all of us.

And, best of all, I will never have the need to own a minivan.

Melanie Shankle is an author and blogger behind Big Mama. Her latest book, Church of the Small Things, will be published this fall.

How Do I Stay Close With My Friends Who are Getting Married and Having Babies?

Relationships are weird, don’t you agree? Other people are unpredictable, and the endless combination of human interactions leads to some pretty frustrating encounters. In Nicole Knows, Nicole Cliffe helps us navigate all the ridiculousness relationships come with. If you have a question for Nicole, email [email protected]


Dear Nicole,

I give a lot to my friends. I know that I ask a lot of my friends. I really think close friendships can add a lot to long-term emotional health. In recent years I’ve seen a lot of friends get married. Now, for the first time some are starting to have children. I am really trying hard to figure out how to navigate these new friendship dynamics. How can I stay close as my friends go through these big changes that I am neither going through nor party to?

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? – Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

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I must thank you, dear letter-writer, for giving me the opportunity to do two things I have always wanted:

  1. Open an advice column with an aphorism that represents the greatest truth of our lives as humans.
  2. Solve the eternal war between people with children and people without children.

Let me also commend you for trying to get out ahead of this! So frequently when people are fumbling through the intricacies of how to navigate the changes that having kids can bring to a friendship, it’s because those changes have already eroded or complicated an existing relationship, so what they’re looking for is damage control. You, on the other hand, are a good and thoughtful person and want to prevent these issues and move forward briskly, plan in hand. I celebrate you and I sing you.

My first impulse is to wade extravagantly into the child-having issue, because it’s (in my opinion) a much more serious milestone divide between friends than the marriage one, which, honestly, is another example of being a Child Haver and assuming all that comes before is dust and water. Therefore, I will address marriage first, if briefly!

One of the reasons I think the single/dating vs. marriage divide causes less fuss is that if you’ve been with a partner for a while, you can reasonably claim to sort of understand being married. Being partnered, of course, is not just Marriage Lite, and can be a destination and not a waypoint on the road to Really Growing Up and Settling Down, and there’s nothing more aggravating to a partnered-but-unmarried couple who have been together for 40 years than having people who have been married for six months act like they’ve unlocked the next achievement level in a video game and left you behind.

That being said, modern life does not afford many situations where one finds oneself making a binding eternal vow like we’re in a Harry Freaking Potter movie, and there are tangible and intangible changes that come with marriage that can make you feel disconnected from people on the other side. If your married friends say “things are so different now that we’re maaaaaaarried!” I recommend listening supportively and with focus, and if your unmarried friends are prone to insisting you take every three-date romantic arc they encounter with the seriousness you would bring to brain surgery, return the favor.

Okay! Onto Kidgate!

I have two children, and am very pregnant with my third. I was also one of the first people in my friendship group to have kids, while my husband was one of the last people in his friendship group to have kids, so I’ve seen both sides of this situation, and I’d like to think I can help you, at least a little.

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The metaphor I use most frequently to describe crossing the threshold from Not Having Kids to Having Kids is that of Engywook and the Riddle Gate from The Neverending Story (the superb Michael Ende novel as opposed to the subsequent great movie, but you’ll follow along fine.) Engywook has spent his life on the threshold of the Riddle Gate, studying those weird Sphinxes, desperate to know what the experience of being allowed to pass through them is like. And whenever he prepares someone for the task, he’s like please come back and tell me what it’s like and people always promise that they will, but once they’ve been through, they’re not actually able to explain it. Makes him nuts.

Engywook

This is a roundabout way of saying that yes, things change when people have kids, and it’s very difficult to explain, the transformation (whether your children be biological or adopted) being mostly alchemical, but also that promises and assurances made on the threshold of child-having tend to dissolve, like tears in rain. Which is why there are so many jokes about people saying “well, when I have children, I’m not going to…” or “my kids will never” or the perennial favorite: “it’s not going to change our lives, we’re just going to incorporate our children INTO our EXISTING lives.”

(Nelson Muntz laughter noise)

Therefore, you will frequently meet up with your friends who have just passed through the Riddle Gate of Child-Having and find them blinking and vulnerable and sleepy and irrational and frustrating and changed and wonder, as you are currently wondering, how best to be friends with them. They are not quite the same friends you had before!

Now we come to the true pickle, and the reason for my Pride and Prejudice aphorism: despite all your best efforts to bridge this gap via thoughtfulness and casseroles and Skype, you may both become ridiculous to the other. Ideally this will be for a limited time, but you must accept and embrace this. It’s natural and beautiful, and how humans are. New parents are ridiculous in the ways they interact with their friends From Before and people who don’t have kids are ridiculous in the ways they interact with their new-parent-friends, and that’s fine. It adds flavor to life. You get to meet, interact, and then go home separately laughing wryly at each other. As time passes, you will probably find yourselves becoming less ridiculous to each other, though not always.

“Despite all your best efforts to bridge this gap via thoughtfulness and casseroles and Skype, you may both become ridiculous to the other.”

After the Election, I Lost My Sex Drive

Trump-based sexual anxiety has not just struck the partnered of the world, but single people as well. Fatimah, 35, is single, has never had sex and has no interest in having it, but enjoys consuming sexual materials—romance novels, erotic fiction, and porn—and regularly masturbates. But the new regime has cratered her interests in these previously fun solo pursuits. “I went from a pretty okay porn habit to ‘Sex? I don’t know her.'” she said. “It feels like just one more thing this administration and Agent Orange has taken away from me along with my peace of mind.”

“I went from a pretty okay porn habit to ‘Sex? I don’t know her.'”

But not everyone has been tormented by Trump enough to even lose interest in porn. For some, like Maggie, 36, the world’s stresses have driven her to read and write more pornographic fiction as a form of release. “It just seemed… essential and necessary to build time for joy, to just pick the most self-indulgent possible thing and roll around in it,” she said. “If it was harmless and made me happy, why not? What possible reason could I have for denying myself a respite from anxiety and dread?”

Celebrating sex in fictional worlds had its benefit in the real world for Maggie. “One side-effect of massively upping my overall porn interaction is that I spend more time thinking about sex,” she said. “And for me personally, that means I also spend more time in a headspace where I’m interested in having sex.” Maggie still describes herself as anxious and afraid of today’s political climate, but her choice of escapism has lead her to have more and less inhibited sex. What’s there to lose in being a little kinky when the world is on fire?

These different responses to global anxiety are entirely normal, according to NYC-based therapist Abigail Zackin. “Some people are psychologically organized that sex is the furthest thing from their minds during a crisis because they’re too busy regulating their emotions through other means, either internal or external, but some people’s go-to coping tool is sex and sexual pleasure.”

Richard, 26, has felt a sort of liberation and release from shame in the face of so many people in power now emboldened to speak and take action against his way of life. “I’m a gay man in a long-term relationship in the conservative part of my state,” he said. “I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that most of my elected officials and fellow constituents don’t like me, even as a concept. While the thought of our current administration makes my skin crawl, why should I be self-conscious about my horny feelings when literally everything else on a national level is terrible?”

When everything is terrible and the national fear level is high, for some, like Violet, 27, sex serves as a release valve on the horrors of the world. “Basically my sex drive has been kicked into overdrive since the election,” she said. “My partner and I tend to use sex—and talking about sex, and sexting each other, and making sexy art—to get our minds off of our various anxieties.” And in the world that feels confusing and illogical, sex can make sense. “It’s a situation where you can be entirely in control—or entirely out of control—while still spending quality time with someone you care about and trust. And it makes people feel good! It gives you a chance to breathe candid emotions into others that the trappings of casual society are ill-equipped to express.”

And for some queer people, sex is a way of affirming their existence. Ryan, 34, is trans, and for him, sex “is a nice way to feel something good and personal that no one’s about to take away from me. I know this administration doesn’t give a fuck about my rights or personal safety. So much feels out of my control right now, but what I know I can do for myself is get myself off and feel release or relaxation or just something intense. And maybe it’s a bit of a psychic middle finger to people who would be (or publicly pretend to be) shocked or disapproving of what queer/trans/poly people do in the bedroom.”

What’s there to lose in being a little kinky when the world is on fire?

“There’s a big difference between sex as a means of physical pleasure and sex as a means of forming or strengthening our relational bonds,” says Zackin. “Sometimes we need to soothe ourselves and sometimes we need someone else to soothe us. Both are valid and necessary parts of the sexual experience and one is not more important than the other by any means, but I think a big difference here would be that the former provides immediate cessation of pain and the latter provides a sense of hope.”

Violet, who is genderqueer, finds this kind of hope through sex in a nation that is ever more trying to legislate her existence and that of those she loves. “My life expectancy right now is totally uncertain, but inside I feel like a fountain of love that can’t stop flowing,” she said. “It sounds stupid, but I want to make sure I can share as much of that as I can before I go—platonically, romantically, physically, whatever.”

“If I die because some rich white folks can’t stand that I exist,” Violet said, “I want to make sure the people close to me in my life know how important they are to me.” For many of us in the post-Trump world, expressing that love—even self-love—through sex isn’t possible yet. But four years isn’t forever, and there is some spark of hope in the world that yes, we will be horny again.

How I Learned to Masturbate as a Mormon

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No one at Central Middle School wanted to be my friend. Once, a kid with breath so bad I swear he had a gum disease told the teacher he didn’t want to sit by me because I was gross, and she honored his request.

It was a bad time to be a seventh-grader. But it was a great time to be Mormon.

I was in the Plymouth 2nd Ward, and in the Plymouth 2nd Ward, people were nice to me. Tyler Petersen, the hottest guy from another middle school, whose voice had gone deeper faster than anyone at Central Middle School, and who wore soccer jerseys and always smelled like boy, knew my name and sat by me and passed notes with me during movies about eternal families. Ashley Seeley, who wore winged eyeliner and had won a statewide dance competition and knew how to do French braids so tiny you could barely see them, had pictures of me in frames in her room! In the pictures, we looked so happy that you might think we were the photo that came with the frame.

Church was a dream happening in real life, and it happened for three hours every Sunday and for two hours on Wednesday nights. I was hooked.

I prayed and prayed. I kept small rocks under my bedspread so that if I ever forgot to pray before going to sleep, I’d lie down on the rocks and remember. There were three rocks, each about the size of an egg, and I’d written SAY YOUR PRAYERS on them with puff paint. Before I went to sleep at night, I moved the rocks to the floor, so that I’d step on them when I got out of bed in the morning and remember to pray again.

Putting rocks in your bed might seem like a bit much. But Joseph Smith, the church’s founder and first prophet, once said that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” It wasn’t catchy, but I thought it was the most exciting quote in the world. And fourteen was an especially exciting age, because it’s the age Joseph Smith was when he founded the church. Also, the rocks weren’t sharp or anything.

Every time I impressed the other members of the Plymouth 2nd Ward with a memorized scripture or quote, Tyler would whisper, “That was awesome,” and his mouth would be inches from my ear. And all the girls wrote me notes about how they loved my testimony, and I slipped them into my scriptures. I memorized the notes so I could think about them when the gym teacher asked me to sit out this round because I was so bad at softball I was ruining it for the rest of the class.

“You’re embarrassing yourself in front of everyone you know,” my gym teacher said.

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“You’re an inspiration and a true friend,” Becky’s note said.

“You scored a run for the wrong team, twice,” my gym teacher said.

“You have such a big testimony in such a small body,” Emily’s note said. “You’re a spiritual powerhouse.”

I didn’t beat myself up too much over my lack of softball skills. Central Middle School didn’t matter. The only class with power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation was Sunday school.

****

Our Sunday-school teacher was Sister Campbell, a cheerful woman in her late 30s with the biggest bangs I’d ever seen. She loved a good cardigan and a clean joke.

At the beginning of one Sunday school in the middle of seventh grade, she gathered us around and waited until we were completely silent. There were five of us in Mia Maids, the name for girls who are fourteen to fifteen years old.

“Girls, girls,” she said, her voice quieter and quieter.

“This week’s lesson is about masturbation,” she said, in an almost-whisper.

I waited for her to repeat whatever that word had been, but instead of clarifying or explaining, she let out a weird cough.

Then she coughed more.

“I won’t say that word again” was her unfortunate next line.

Starting an hour-long lesson with a whispered word didn’t bode well, but I had faith things would pick up. Whatever she’d just said, maceration, it was probably just another word for eternal life, and if I listened closely it would all start to make sense.

The room was quieter than seemed possible. Half the girls were leaning in and hanging on every word, and the rest were leaning away in discomfort.

I raised my eyebrows in a subtle way that I hoped suggested “Want to say it just one more time? Or give a definition?”

I never talked to anyone about it, but the feeling was complicated and strong and definitely spiritual.

“You won’t hear me say it again,” she repeated. “It doesn’t belong in this room. But it’s everywhere — I even saw an episode all about it on Oprah.”