Am I a Selfish Mother If I Choose Not To Have a Second Child?


It’s impossible not to have regrets in parenting.  I regret not taking away my son’s pacifier when he was much younger. (Now he’s two and loves his binky more than anything — possibly even me — on the planet.)  I regret the hours spent worrying that my son wasn’t walking, or talking, or crawling.  I even regret my choice of car seat.  (The straps always tangle.)

Those are all little regrets.  Tiny blips in the blur of everyday parenting.  They don’t overwhelm me or cause me to stop in my tracks on a particular day when I think about them.

But the decision to have another child, to provide my son with a sibling, feels impossibly huge to me.  I don’t want to have huge regrets about this one.

I do not believe in a “one size fits all” approach to figuring out how big your family should be.  I also know that the long-held cultural stereotypes about only children — as lonely, selfish, and neurotic – are not true.  I don’t think that my son will be lonely or weird or an outcast if he’s an only child.  The deciding factor in whether he’s a productive and happy member of society, able to form meaningful connections and realize his dreams, will not be the presence — or absence — of siblings. As a teacher, I got to know (and adore) lots of delightful, smart, and well-adjusted kids who were only children.

After two years of sleepless nights, colic, and the chaos of infancy and early toddlerhood, I am starting to feel like myself again.  A new “mother self,” but still myself.  As an introvert, I finally get the time and space that I need to carve out professional and personal pursuits.  I love seeing my son turn into a little person and spending my days with him.  I don’t feel like our family is incomplete without more children.  I feel whole and satisfied with one child and don’t really want more, at least not at this time.  But I’ll be 39 this summer and my time for having a decision to make at all may slip away.

I also can’t help but feel that I’ve had personal experience that might trump my present gut feeling to stop at one kid.  My dad was 53 when he passed away from cancer.  I was turning 30.  My brother, sister, and I all lived in the Northeast, but my parents were in Florida, after two happy years of a sort of early retirement.

When I first learned that my dad was sick, five months before he died, it was my sister who told me.  We cried together on the phone and knew that our world had changed forever.

When I waited a few weeks before going to Florida to finish up the school year when he first got sick, I knew my brother was already there, mowing lawns and sitting with my dad on the porch.

When the doctors told us that there was no time left, all three of us flew back down to Florida, holding a sad and confused vigil for weeks.  And on the afternoon that my dad  died — a day whose sounds, sights and smells (the chocolate chip cookies that were inexplicably baked, the warm Florida October sun on the deck, the kind eyes of the hospice nurse) are seared into my memory, it is the touch of my brother’s hands on my head and shoulders, trying to comfort me as I cried, that I remember most vividly.

When a few days later at my father’s funeral, I simply couldn’t stand up in front of all those people and say anything — there were no words, for me, a writer — I felt at peace because I knew that my brother and sister would say all the words that needed to be said.

When my brother and I flew back up north, returning to our lives, we knew that my little sister had moved into my parents’ house when he got sick and would stay behind with our mother for as many weeks and months that it would take for her to find her way.

In short, I can’t imagine my life — everything that has happened between when my brother was born when I was three until these current years of negotiating early parenthood — without my siblings.

So, for me, even though I’ve been trained in research methodology for my doctorate and believe in the power of data-driven decision-making, this choice is ultimately one of the heart.  For me, it feels almost as profound as life and death, love and loss.  I’m afraid of regrets, either way.  I feel comforted by the research evidence that only children are just as happy and healthy as anybody else, but it is only part of the story.

I also know that my present feelings as a mom, wife, and individual — my story — are just part of the equation; the life cycle of a family is long, holding many unforeseen challenges and triumphs.  I don’t want to deny my son the chance to experience those heartaches and joys without the company of siblings.

My rational mind can pore over the research, data, facts about kids’ development, and I can listen to other families’ experiences, but none of these facts and figures can make this decision.  My heart is confused and I’m waiting for its answer.


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  1. 1

    Lee Ann says

    Honestly, let me tell you the only reason I had two children. It wasn’t because it felt like someone was missing, it wasn’t because I had more love for one child than I could imagine having for two. The reason I had two children? Because I loved my only child so deeply and fully that i feared if she ever died, I would never be able to go on without her. But if I had a second child, I would be forced to continue living for her. And that’s the truth.

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  2. 6

    Mama and the City says

    Aww. I hope your heart soon finds the answer.

    I don’t think there is ever a correct decision when it comes to Parenting, other than “if it works for you and your family, so be it”.

    I’m still struggling with the idea of baby #2. I always wanted a big family, but after #1…I just don’t know if I want to put up with the struggle. Maybe adoption? I’m still struggling with this idea too.

    Take a deep breath.

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  3. 7

    MB says

    I’m in the EXACT same state of mind these days. I always thought I would have two children. But now, my daughter is almsot 2, and I feel I don’t want anymore children. We’re enough, and I just got my life back. I love being able to go out with my friends, even though my husband’s away a lot, having no problem finding someone to babysit… But I love being a sister to my sister, and we loved being pregnant at the same time, and I couldn’t imagine my life as an only child. I want my baby to be that lucky too, but I don’t feel like I NEED another child. Also, my husband is still keen on the idea that we’d have 2 kids…
    It’s a complicated decision to make, and I feel your pain…

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  4. 8

    Faye Hartley-Youens says

    My Mom fought Cancer for 10 years, I was only 19 when she was first diagnosed and I cannot imagine going through that or the subsequent difficult years since she died without my brother, the only one who truly understood what I was going through. So I relate to your post with a knowledge I’d rather not have but as well as this I have a million brilliant memories of Christmas Eves and mud pies in the garden and make-shift picnics on kitchen floors. Your first real playmate and if your lucky your longest friendship. I have 3 kids now (one surprise!) and it has been the hardest few years but when I watch them playing, hugging, fighting and laughing as they grow together I’m so happy they have each other and that I have them. Follow your heart…

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  5. 9

    Lucy says

    I’m an only child and, personally, I will have a second child for the sake of my daughter. I’m jealous of people who grew up with siblings and who have close relationships with them now. I feel like I really missed out on something and, honestly, I sort of resent my parents for stopping at one child.

    It was great not having to share things as a child, but now I don’t share well as an adult! It’s ridiculous how I’m a grown woman, yet I consider things mine and don’t want to share with my husband. I also have issues making friends and socialising, which I attribute to being an only child.

    Family vacations were especially unbearable, considering I didn’t have anyone my age to play with. I was forced to do things on my own. It made me an independent adult, which is a good thing, but I hated it. No child wants to spend two weeks on vacation during the summer only hanging out with their parents.

    I can see personality flaws in my husband that I attribute to him having a brother, with whom he was always competitive. Whenever we play a game, he’s hell-bent on winning, and if he loses, he’s a sore loser – but he’s also a sore winner! He turns into a big child. He also has issues doing things alone. He’s very social and outgoing, though, and I envy that. I think the benefits of having a sibling outweigh the negatives, though.

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    • 10

      Kara says

      Lucy, everything you are saying is everything I’m struggling with. I wanted 3 kids back to back! Just like there are 3 kids in my family. After having my son (who my God I adore!) I didn’t realize the struggle that would come with it. We have no help from family here (our families live out of state) and my son was a difficult child. My husband does not want anymore and we both feel like our dynamic is good. But then the guilt sets in and kills me. I struggle with this so much that I thought of talking to a therapist about it. I don’t want my son to be burdened by us. When anything happens in my family, my sisters are the first people I go to. How can I deprive him of that. I love my son so much. He truly is the reason of my existence but had I known the guilt that I would feel because of this I don’t know if I would do it all over again. It’s unbearable :-(

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  6. 11

    Janine Huldie says

    Jessica, loved this article the first time out and so happy to see it being featured here. Some very good food for thought yet again and I have just shared this, too!!

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  7. 12

    Liz says

    If your gut tells you to keep it at one, than do so! I have 7 years between my two children and had it not been for “ahem” a mishap, he would still be an only child, despite his relentless begging for a sibling. Some of us are not cut out for multiples. It doesn’t make us less of a parent, it actually makes us better parents for it. Just because we can have more children, doesn’t mean we should! You go with your instincts. Your son will thank you for it later. Not that I don’t adore my daughter, I do with all of my heart. However, when people ask “when is the third one coming”? I smile and say, “I got a dog”. :)

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  8. 13

    Kp says

    I know you’re not asking for advice, but I’m going to stick my oar in anyway ;)
    Having also struggled with this question we went for adding another one and I’ve never regretted it (at least not in the two years since!). I guess there were a couple of factors that have made this choice so clearly right (apart, of course, from the overwhelming love and getting all those lovely ‘firsts’ again!). One was definitely the sibling thing. That has worked out well for us and we’re now at the stage where I get more time to myself because they play together. Yes there is fighting, but there’s also a LOT of laughter.
    I felt like you do about getting myself back after the craziness of babyhood, but you know, in the scheme of things it such a short period. Also, you get to correct all the mistakes you made on your practice child (huh! If only…)
    Having said all that, you are absolutely right that there is nothing wrong with having one child. You may end up with siblings who can’t stand each other, you just can’t know. Whichever way your heart eventually decides, don’t waste time looking back wondering if you made the right decision.

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  9. 14

    Stephanie says

    I struggled with this decision myself, though at 35 I have a bit more time. I compare my struggle to the same process that Lily goes through on How I Met Your Mother. She had a whole list of reasons why they weren’t ready for a child and on the other side a baby sock her friend left behind “but but sock”. That’s what my decision about a second child has looked like. A whole list of rational reasons (especially since my son was going through a difficult phase) not to have another child, but sock! It makes no rational sense, but my heart wants another child. So it is definitely a decision of the heart and you are not alone in struggling with it.

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  10. 16

    Jenn @ Something Clever 2.0 says

    His friends will be his “adopted” siblings. I know I’m closer to my friends than my actual blood relatives. And my son is closer to his “aunts” and “uncles” than his actual aunt and uncle.

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    • 17

      rye's mommy says

      I love what you say about the adopted siblings! My daughter is the same way, she will make that bond with “adopted” family, and she is closer to her adopted aunts and uncles, than her real family. I think there is a different bond when you make the friends and bring them into the family, instead of just having the friend.

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  11. 18

    Debbie says

    Hi Jessica. Sounds like you are in a bit of a pickle. You can not judge what one baby was like and what a second baby is going to be like. My first one was very easy. The 2 one, spent many of days sick and sleepless nights. Yes, i did have a 3rd and then things felt complete.
    There is nothing wrong with having one child. I to always wanted more than one incase something happen to the first one.

    Go with want your heart is telling you. That gut feeling that we know is right. Good lucky and remember you know yourself, so go with it.

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  12. 19

    Sara Ann says

    I was recently watching a documentary that urged families to only have one child. They sighted that families having multiple children depletes resources and other economic factors.

    Honestly, I had to turn it off because it actually pissed me off.

    I can’t think basing the decision to have a child off anything besides what’s good for you and your family. Having children is definitely a decision you have to make from your heart, wish you and your family the best! :)

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  13. 20

    jennifer says

    I agree with previous posters. After my son, with a really traumatic birth experience, my husband thought we would never have another but in spite of what I went through, i felt strongly that someone was missing. Turned out to be our daughter, who was born 2 1/2 years later in a much better situation. But i do still feel that our family isn’t complete. I can’t explain it but it’s there. we will probably give it time, for financial reasons and because we can’t add another baby to ahouse this small. There is no wrong choice here. There is only a family, filled with love.

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  14. 21

    Mallory says

    I don’t think of it as a selfish decision at all. I myself had the opposite problem. After having my first child, my husband and I fought for custody of my step-son. He had not been allowed to be a part of our lives before going to court. Having full custody of him changed our lives, he is several years older than our youngest. As a child and young adult, I never envisioned myself having 1 child, even less 2 with a third on the way. It is a struggle a lot days. There is soo much extra stress and work that has became a part of our daily lives now. However, having more than one child was right for me and my family. Whatever makes you feel whole and content in your life is surely your path. Embrace it.

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  15. 22

    grownandflown says

    Jessica, It can feel so overwhelming to have a toddler in the midst of trying to build a professional life, too! I’m sure you will make the right decision for your family but I cannot help but see how rich a life you paint with your siblings as adults going through the painful moment of your father’s death and wonder if that experience will tip the balance in favor of having a second child. I had my second at 40 and now, seeing them as 22 and 17 year old friends, I cannot imagine life – for them – without the other. Besides, who better to discuss (complain about? fret over?) their parents with than each other?

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  16. 23

    Meredith says

    I think the decision over how many kids to have and when to have them is entirely personal. You’ve gotta go with what works for you and weigh all the factors, as you are clearly doing. Go you for working to know what is YOUR best decision!

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  17. 24

    Rochelle says

    Thank you for posting this. There are so, so many judgements against moms (breastfeeding vs. formula, diapering, and on and on and on) and choosing to have an only child is another one. Before getting pregnant and then having my first baby 5 months ago, I too judged. “How can that mom only have one? Don’t you want your child to have a playmate? You’re going to have a spoiled, selfish brat on your hands”, I said. Then I got pregnant– and realized how uncomfortable and wretched being pregnant is. You don’t “glow”. That’s bullshit. After 9 long months of hating everything about pregnancy, I have the worst childbirth ever in all of history (ok maybe not but the pain was that bad) including a 16 hour labor, 5 hours pushing, and then an unexpected C-section. Recovery was rough and I am now, 5 months later, finally get some semblance of self back. I now know why some mothers choose to only have one child. Because I now will never get pregnant again. Ever.

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    • 25

      Jessica Smock says

      I too had a difficult birth (emergency c-section) and recovery. My son had colic, reflux, and milk protein allergies, and I wonder sometimes how much of my indecision is actually related to subconscious fear. Either way, I was not a terribly happy pregnancy person, and another c-section would not be something I would look forward to!

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      • 26

        Crystal says

        Growing up I always wanted a big family. I used to say I’d have as many kids as we could afford not wanting wanting to put a cap how many kids we would have. Then I got pregnant with my son and the first few months were great but the last 4 months were horrible for me.. I was a nervous wreck always waiting for something to go wrong, I had medical complications (gestational diabetes) and I was so over being pregnant that I told my husband then that I was done, no more babies. I bartered my delivery date w my OB, based on my dwindling mental health and after 36 in the hospital and no labor starting I begged for a c-section, which was a relief. When my son was born i was excited because I was done being pregnant and because my son was/is perfectly healthy and beautiful. My husband and had this conversation alot during his first year, going back and forth on the idea of more kids. (At one point i thought i had gotten pregnant again and had a panic attack, which only helped me see that my answer was already made). My son just turned 3 years old this week and I finally have time to myself. It has been a hard road for me since becoming a mother and I never dreamed I’d have an only child but I’d rather have an only child who I can give all my love and attention to and who I enjoy more and more everyday as he grows into a very loving little man. I’m excited by all the possibilities of things we can enjoy together as he grows up. My biggest fear is that if we concider adding one more we might end up with two more (twins). Or that I won’t be a good mom to two kids because I’d be miserable without sleep and with two kids to chase after. After putting the conversation on hold for a year and just living our life as a family of 3, my husband and i finally just said we were done. But we gave ourselves the freedom to change our minds later and revisit the topic. But for now I’m enjoying the freedom of having made the decision to stop, knowing that my family will always be complete no matter our number.

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    • 27

      Jennifer says

      I feel the exact same thing! I’m currently pregnant with our first and only child. I struggled for years with infertility and spent thousands of dollars to finally get pregnant. I never would have bothered if I had known how much I would hate being pregnant! It took me until I was 5 weeks along to realize that this would be our only biological child. Down the road we may decide to adopt, but there’s never going to be another life-force-sucking baby coming out of this body. Ever. I don’t feel guilty at all for making this decision.

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  18. 28

    Amy DiLonardo Stott says

    When asked if I was going to give my daughter a sibling from the minute I had her until 5 minutes ago (or so it feels), my response is always, "No. Are you going to have a third?" There's no rule that says you have to have multiple kids. Hell, there's no rule that says you have to have ONE kid. You'll do what's right for you and forget what everyone else says.

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  19. 29

    Sharon says

    My brother was the best mistake my parents ever made. They’d decided, after mom had a miscarriage, that I was to be an only child. But, the universe had other plans.

    What’s meant to be will be. My grandma used to tell me that all the time when I was wrestling with one decision or another. I impart this same wisdom onto you. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.

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  20. 30

    Angie says

    I am almost in the same exact situation right now. I turn 38 in a few weeks, and my daughter is 4 now. I went through 4 miscarriages before we finally had her, and my pregnancy ended at 8 months due to pre-eclampsia that had started to move into eclampsia, and then toxemia. I was almost in kidney failure and it took quite a while for me to bounce back.

    But now we’re in smooth sailing, so to speak, and I look at her and wonder how it would be like with 2. I feel like our family is complete as it is, but I do have that niggling fear of losing her, or missing out on something extraordinary by not having another one. However, I’m not sure could handle another miscarriage, which there is a greater risk for now that I’m older. We looked into adoption after miscarriage number 2, and agreed it was an option if we couldn’t have our own. But now we have her….

    I’m right there with you in the heart struggle. There’s no easy answer to this…

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    • 31

      tina says

      try for another one…… if it happens u’ll be able to pull on. and that means u will have a second one by god’s wish. but if u don’t conceive and get pregnant with in a year of trying then just think that god wants u to have only one.

      also now the whole world is going for a single child only. so don’t think u r the only one. we don’t need siblings and even parents for that matter. there is a god up sitting to bless u with everything u need.

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