A few years ago I had the chance to work on the translation of a documentary film about Haredi (ultra religious) women in Israel and the US who had a dozen or more children. It was fascinating to get this glimpse into a world that I was otherwise quite ignorant to. It showed these women preparing for a huge Passover seder, undertaking the cleaning of the house while juggling the kids and the shopping. The director/producer (whose name I can’t remember) told me that the film was being translated into English so that it could then be translated into Chinese for broadcast on Chinese television. I’m no authority on feminism (as readers of this blog well know) but I immediately made the connection between the family planning policy in China, which restricts urban couples to just one child in stark contrast to the Judeo-Christian Biblical edict of “be fruitful and multiply.” In both cultures the desires of the woman take a backseat to the needs of those (men) in charge.
M. and I decided early on that we didn’t want to have any more children after D. It’s not that we’re fanatical about population control or overly concerned with the dwindling natural resources on our planet or the impending zombie apocalypse. We just admitted to ourselves that we preferred our relationship, our intimacy, our freedom and our own personal creative space to raising a family. As unpopular as it is to confess, we just aren’t those kind of people. We thought we were. We gave it the old college try. But it just wasn’t us. Maybe we are too young and immature. Maybe we just don’t have the patience. Maybe we are selfish. But ultimately it was our decision and since making it we’ve had to constantly defend it both from our family and complete strangers.
The most common responses are that an only child needs siblings because that’s how they learn to function in society or that’s what gives them perspective or that’s what teaches them that they are not the center of the universe. After all, only children are almost always spoiled, selfish and bratty. The most absurd reasoning I’ve heard in favor of having multiple children came from a young woman who begged me to consider what would happen to my only child when M. and I died. Holy shit lady. Really? That’s why I should have another kid? For existential reasons?
All of the research I have done on the subject comes up inconclusive. None of the arguments put forth by those who claim that only children are ultimately at a disadvantage seem to have any scientific backing. Moreover, some of the more successful and well adjusted people I know are only children. There’s my friend I., who is a brilliant playwright and actress, S. is a lawyer in New York with two kids and my good friend from Hong Kong, W., a product of the Chinese family planning policy, is one of the most talented photographers and humble people I have ever met. None of the three display any of the stereotypical attributes of the only child. They are not aggressive, lonely, maladjusted or bossy. They are almost all the complete opposite.
Some say we should have another child so that D. has someone to play with. Let me tell you, I grew up the younger of two boys. While I love my brother dearly (yeah, asshole, I’m talking about you) I spent the lion’s share of my childhood years getting abused, beaten up, noogied, wedgied, ridiculed and ultimately ignored by my older brother. We eventually became good friends thanks to marijuana and a shared interest in dark comedies and stoner movies, but there’s no denying a deep rift, a chasm of unspoken envy that rears its ugly head from time to time. I’m jealous of his beautiful home and family in the Swiss Alps and while he’s probably not too jealous of my run down rental in Ramat Gan I’m sure his heart longs for the sunny beaches, cold Goldstars and Hummus joints that are so easily accessible to me. All that is to say that perhaps both of us would have been better off had the other not shown up.
There are a lot of reasons not to have more than one child in this country, the financial obligation being one of the main ones. We live in a small two bedroom apartment in Ramat Gan with no hope of being able to buy a home in the foreseeable future (unless we move up north or down south, but then where will we work?). The high cost of rent, daycare, swimming lessons, clothes, food etc etc. leaves us, like most middle class Israelis, in the red every month. Who do we expect to foot the bill for our son’s playmate? Who will baby sit him while we work? Our overburdened parents? Our overtaxed friends and colleagues? The government?
M. has it harder than I do. While the argument is theoretical with me, with her it’s much more tangible. M., God bless her, has celiac (an allergy to wheat) and maintains a strict gluten free diet. This often causes her to have a small belly bump because of how thin she is. There isn’t a day that goes by where someone doesn’t put his or her hand on her belly asking her how far along she is. No one believes her when she says she isn’t. They all suspect she is still in the first trimester when it is taboo to discuss it openly. When she insists she is not pregnant the stranger, or family member, usually confides in her that now, now, is the time to have another one. After all, she still has all the accoutrements from the first one and so it makes sense. Financially that is. This has caused her so much grief that she now refrains from wearing her wedding band.
When I was five or six years old my parents moved to a small house in Haddonfield, New Jersey. For the first time in my life I had my own room. It was great but at the same time it was terrifying. At night I got so scared (our babysitter let us watch Poltergeist and Friday the 13th) that I would instinctively run out of my room and into the spare bed in my brother’s room. There was something so safe and comforting about not being alone and at the same time, not being a little baby and sleeping in my parents’ bed. It was a middle ground, a compromise that made me feel protected yet grown up. I woke up most mornings with my underwear pulled up almost to my head and the sound of my brother’s mocking laughter but it was worth it for a good night’s sleep.
I sometimes question if we’re making the right decision for D. and for us.
I sometimes wonder if there is such a thing as a right decision when it comes to something as personal as having children.