So wrote Mike Mosher of Michigan. It was published by the London Review of Books in response to a 10,000-word paper the magazine carried in March entitled Is It OK to have a child?. The paper’s author, Meehan Crist, was interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Radio Four this week. She explained how she and her partner had agonised over whether to have a baby, in the face of doubts about the environmental impact of procreation. Her long piece in the LRB is a thought-provoking and nuanced analysis of the state of play in societies where having a child, is no longer a given.
Crist reminds us that it is now 20 years since her fellow American, Bill McKibben, argued in his influential book Maybe One, that having one child and one child only, should become “a cultural norm”.
Since then it has become a “cultural norm”. In the UK, the birth rate – 1.7 babies per woman – is now at its lowest since records began. Within the last month, America matched that number: a 30-year record low. These figures grab the headlines because they spark debates about demographic destiny, welfare models and cultural worries about immigration. But they may sometimes shroud the stories behind the data. In particular, the changing nature of family composition.
And one of those stories is that the only-child is becoming “the cultural norm”. In the UK, 40% of married couples have only one child. The figure is higher for unmarried couples living together and for single parents. In the US, the proportion of only-children has risen from about a tenth of all families when Bill McKibben wrote his book, to a quarter now.
There is now no difference in birth rates between Catholics and Protestants. What matters is not doctrine, but actually going to church. – Colin Brazier
I took aim at this seemingly unstoppable phenomenon in a documentary for the BBC World Service last year. One of my guests was the brilliant American author Jonathan V. Last. His book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting makes clear that religiosity is now a key indicator of fecundity. Not just religious affiliation, but religious practise. Last, A Catholic journalist, like me, notes that there is now no difference in birth rates between Catholics and Protestants. What matters is not doctrine, but actually going to church.
Last, like me, is careful not to be ad hominem in his criticism of the new one-child cultural norm. I’m sure both of us have had to tip-toe around our theorising in the company of friends who are only-children or, more likely, parents of an only child themselves. This is possible. There are times, I’m sure, when any one of my six children wishes they did not have to share resources with siblings. There are plainly some advantages to being a singleton. But to argue that family size has no impact on physical and emotional resilience is absurd. It is wishful thinking. It is a familial relativism.
I worry that legitimate criticism of family composition may be, if not curbed, then chilled. I worry that the words of Mike Mosher of Michigan might be seen as a kind of hate-speech. I worry that being an only-child could become a protected characteristic. Impossible? Take a look at some of the growing quantity of only-child campaign literature online. The tone is frequently defensive. Claims of persecution abound.
An only-child may be more vulnerable to mental health problems. – Colin Brazier
There was some of this after the BBC broadcast my programme on family size. I also worry that my contention that an only-child may be more vulnerable to mental health problems (a claim supported by a lot of data), might struggle to make itself heard. And, I suspect the reason advanced for this closing down of debate will be that to advance such criticism might be harmful to the mental health of “victimised” singletons.
Again, this might strike you as unlikely. But the wind is certainly blowing in that direction.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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