Melissa and I have a son called Tyler who’s about to turn 8 years old. I’d like to tell you that everything about our decision to have a child in 2003 and then not to have another (at least by this time of writing) was the result of well-considered intention, but that would be too neat an untruth.

In fact during our courtship Melissa and I had settled on the idea of having three children; partly, I recall, as a compromise between her four and my two. My stated preference for a family with two kids was not, I reflect now, because I had spent years of thought on the subject of parenthood, considering arguments and chewing over statistics. Neither my social nor political philosophies had ever been deployed to weigh upon the question, and my religious ideas had nothing to say about it. I didn’t even have a paternal instinct to call upon, a fact which may to this day explain my lack of forethought on the issue.

No, I think the reason I said I wanted two children was because the only idea sufficiently well-developed in my mind to be capable of responding to such an urgent request was environmental. That is, I said I wanted two children simply because most people had children, and most who did had at least two. The name of the 1990’s British sitcom sprang to mind: “Two Point Four Children”, the UK average. (The US average, interestingly, is 3.14, which may explain my American wife’s early preference for a larger family.) It was, therefore, merely a matter of custom, from my years of marinating in social convention, that explain my ‘two-or-three-is-best’ judgment. In doing what everyone else did, we decided three was best.

Life is, of course, is messier than that. A year after Tyler was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, we moved to the United States. For a while after the move, we thought one child was enough to be dealing with. Then, we had a house-building project that took longer than we thought. Don’t they all? We were waiting until we could move into our own house, we reasoned. Then, a miscarriage. Then, we ‘tried’ for a year without pregnancy (I add punctuation only as a nod to the irony of using a word which denotes effort, as though it described something we wouldn’t have been doing anyway for its own benefit).

And before you know it, the gap between Tyler and any potential sibling is at least 8 years wide.

One thing we both agreed upon strongly in those early discussions about family planning was that we wanted to have children early, and close together. It made sense to me that having children meant starting new relationships, and that I would want those relationships, once they began, to last for as long as possible. This is a strong sense for me in general. I hate goodbyes, and endings. Thus, I reasoned at the age of 21, it would be best to have a child as young as possible and enjoy that relationship for many potential decades. Melissa agreed.

Today, with Tyler almost 8 years old and birth control in place, the three of us couldn’t be happier. This pleasant position has me re-evaluating the traditional wisdom based on those years marinating in social convention, which insists that people should have children (plural), leaving those who choose not to have children at all, and those of us who have only one, outside mainstream orthodoxy. Well, now. Being outside mainstream orthodoxy is my comfort zone!

Is it really so obvious that plural children are more desirable than their singular counterparts? What do science and economics suggest? Why do people have such strongly-constituted feelings about how other people choose to live anyway?

I believe there are a few assumptions at work here, one of which is the belief that the purpose of marriage is procreation. Although people are becoming less and less inclined to think this way, I think it’s still a significant factor. It is a common sentiment to suggest that those who choose not to have children are “selfish”, and I assume not having enough children may subject one to the same slur. I’ve always thought the argument rather self-defeating, since those who make it usually claim to love their own children, and hogging more of the world’s resources in order to have more of what you love strikes me as patently selfish itself. Aren’t we all just doing what we think best for ourselves, in the end? Why else would we ask young couples how many children they ‘want‘ in the first place? If pursuing the life I want is selfish, I’m happy to accept the label.

Second is the idea that the only child is worse off than the child with siblings. A recent TIME magazine article by Lauren Sandler, an only child herself who has an only child of her own, takes issue with this idea, which she says is part of a “century-old public relations issue”. In the 1970’s, she reports, a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin called Toni Falbo, conducted some studies on the experience of the only child:

Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren’t measurably different from other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. No one, Falbo says, has published research that can demonstrate any truth behind the stereotype of the only child as lonely, selfish and maladjusted.

So… being an only child not only isn’t detrimental but actually has some advantages? Wow. Why could this be?

The argument Blake makes in Family Size and Achievement as to why onlies are higher achievers across socioeconomic lines can be stated simply: there’s no “dilution of resources,” as she terms it, between siblings. No matter their income or occupation, parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their kid, who gets all the dance classes, piano lessons and prep courses, as well as all their parents’ attention when it comes to helping work out an algebra problem. That attention, researchers have noticed, leads to not just higher SAT scores but also higher self-esteem.

This certainly seems to be holding true for our son Tyler, who is near the top of his class at school and seems confident much of the time, even among adults.

But what about the social aspect? Doesn’t Tyler miss out on the kind of close relationship a sibling can provide? Falbo found no personality defect here either. Presumably the children in the study were involved in public school and the same activities most other children are, so they have the immediate availability of others near their own age with whom to interact socially. Tyler, too, has developed close friendships both with kids in his class and out of it. They have sleep-overs and birthday parties. They play video games and spend summer afternoons in the pool. It’s very… normal.

Back to the ‘selfish’ thing for a second.

It isn’t considered polite to inquire why someone has preference for a particular number of children, and – trust me – you get glares if you dare to ask (it’s received as a challenge, or an invasion of privacy). The upshot of this is that we never really discuss the motivations behind our choices. Do we want ‘X’ number of children because it ‘just feels right’, or because we love the experience of parenting but not more times than that, or because we would have as many as possible if we could, but we feel that number to be our physical and mental limit, or because we feel that number would provide the best balance between ourselves and our children? Something else entirely? How many is too many if one is too few?

I love the parenting experience. But it’s not the only thing I love in life, or the only thing I want to do. Having an only child makes it possible to do a lot of other things with my time besides parenting. This may sound selfish. Good. It should. To quote Sandler’s article:

A 2007 survey found that at a rate of 3 to 1, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the “mutual happiness and fulfillment” of adults rather than the “bearing and raising of children.” There must be some balance between the joy our kids give us and the sacrifices we make to care for them. Social scientists have surmised since the 1970s that singletons offer the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add: all the wonder and giggles and shampoo mohawks but with leftover energy for sex, conversation, reading and so on. The research of Hans-Peter Kohler, a population sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, gives weight to that idea. In his analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler told me, “At face value, you should say that you’ll stop at one child to maximize your subjective well being.”

This rings true for me. I love my life. I have lots going on, and it’s great. In the past week and a half, Melissa and I have spent as much time with our friends as we have with our son, and another third with both friends/family and Tyler at the same time. Many of our friends don’t have any children at all, and those who do sometimes provide good playmates. But, in either case, it’s quite easy to manage time for the benefit of both adult and child with just one.

I’m always glad, when I hear couples talk about their one date night a month, to have only one child that allows us to have much more time together than that. I’m always grateful, when someone we know can’t take a trip or have dinner or go to a movie or to this function or that, to have only one child. I’m always relieved, when I buy groceries or work out the monthly budget or pay bills, to have only one. (The cost is estimated at $286,000 per child by the time they’re 18; it amazes me that anyone can afford it!)

And it appears Melissa and I and Tyler are not alone here. Tough economies, of course, always tend to bring with them changes in how people look at the traditional family. Also, the more secular a society gets, the less religious imperative there is to have a large family (whether it’s because you don’t subscribe to the idea that birth control is evil or because you aren’t part of a more family-centric subculture). But there’s a wider trend:

That trend is what is known as the second demographic transition, a concept Ron Lesthaeghe at the University of Michigan advanced 25 years ago. It refers to the fertility shift that occurred when the industrial world moved from high birth and death rates to low ones. Now postponement of parenthood — or refusal of it — in favor of greater focus on education and career, longer periods of searching for the ideal mate and a more flexible and pleasure-seeking life has given us the second demographic transition. Because of these “rich society” tendencies, Oswald guesses that 50-odd years from now, the U.S. will be worrying about declining population, just like Europe and Japan are today.

The idea that people should have at least two children belongs in the era of getting married by default, having 3.1 babies and a white picket fence, and a steady job with a pension until retirement. Frankly, it belongs in the 1950’s, before people starting kicking off the restraints of societal expectation and began enjoying the freedom to pursue lifestyles limited only by imagination. It’s not hard to see where traditional ideas of family came from: they were compelled by the drive to survive. Back when most of us were agricultural, large families were both necessary and beneficial.

Today, people have the freedom to be married, unmarried, casual, committed, gay, straight, living with friends, living with family, long-term, short-term, family-centric, career-centric, recreation-centric, working to live, living to work, childfree, with multiple children or – like us – with one child. We might describe this surplus of options and lifestyles among Americans today as living out America’s original promise of freedom, and the embodiment of that freedom in real life.

Those of a more old-fashioned persuasion may find these changes uncomfortable. But I find in the particular case of having an only child a great balance, some real benefits for all of us, the sense that we can do a good job of raising Tyler because we can pour our resources and time and effort into him alone, and a sense of being part of a larger movement in this direction.

I won’t rule out eventually having another child, if something in our thinking changes. But nobody should think that there is any net disadvantage in having an only child; in fact, it’s just the opposite, for him and for us.