Young active family of hikers walking in the Autumn forest with the toddler baby and backpacks. The ...
Yana Iskayeva/Moment/Getty Images

If I Only Have One Kid, Am I Even A Real Mom?

And other ways I judge myself.

by Jana Pollack

It was well before I became a mom to an only child that I started judging myself for this choice. Before my husband, Dan, and I were parents — before we even had a timeline for when we’d think about getting pregnant — we agreed that two was a good number of children to have. Walking through a park one snowy day, we recalled how annoying it was to have to wait for our siblings’ activities to end or to be denied something they got to have, and we smugly agreed that these minor hardships had shaped our character for the better. “You just need two to not turn out a monster,” we told each other as we neared our apartment. Satisfied with our solution, we patted our future selves on the back and moved on.

When I look back at that moment from where I stand now, it’s as if I was judging my future self, and it only strengthens my sense that other people are judging me, too.

My son, Lou, was born in October 2020, when I had just turned 35. His birth was a harrowing journey to an emergency C-section, but that wasn’t what traumatized me. Two weeks later, just before Halloween, our pediatrician called to say that based on the thyroid results of Lou’s newborn screens, it was likely that his pituitary gland was not functioning. We had barely heard of the pituitary gland but quickly grasped its importance when a roomful of endocrinologists listed a host of serious health problems our child would have, starting immediately. They were wrong, though, and he was fine. But rather than rendering the panic moot, when the good news showed up in his patient portal, Dan and I almost instantly agreed that we did not want to do this again.

As the years have gone by, each new phase has brought more reasons for us: a small house we love, a 911 call that led to the diagnosis of scary and abundant food allergies, various other good-on-paper reasons for not wanting another kid. But the real one? When I look at my little family — my sweet husband and adorable, kind, fascinating little boy — I feel complete. That alone should be enough.

So why can’t I quiet that small but persistent voice that keeps popping up in my head? The voice that asks, over and over: “With only one kid, are you even a real mom?”

I’m not surprised that I’ve found myself grappling with worries that Lou will be lonely (or worse, weird). I’ve managed those anxieties by reading about how stigma against only children is a proven falsehood, and following social accounts like One and Done Parenting. I’m a frequent lurker in r/oneanddone on Reddit, where members remind each other that a sibling is not a guarantee of a best friend or a source of support when the time comes to care for aging parents; that the only good reason to have a second child is because you actually want one.

There’s the feeling I get when I hear of a friend juggling multiple kids. ... She is definitely mom-ing, and I am, I don’t know, pretending?

But I was less prepared — and have not been able to solve — my feelings of inadequacy, and the sense that people don’t see my family as “real.” Maybe it’s all the media I consume, which almost always features families of four. Or maybe it’s the dwindling of my pack, as all around me, moms with kids Lou’s age and younger announce new pregnancies. (Whenever I think I’ve spotted another only family, the next time I see them, they come with a baby bump.) And then there’s the feeling I get when I hear of a friend juggling multiple kids — complete with overlapping sicknesses, no true down time, and endless lunches to pack. She is definitely mom-ing, and I am, I don’t know, pretending?

Peel back one more layer in my one-track mind, and you’ll get to my fears about how people see my little family. I imagine them thinking Dan and I don’t really like children and stopped at one so that we could avoid even more mess. I imagine them picturing us as the kind of parents who are uninterested in kid stuff like piles of toys and spilled juice. I imagine that they picture a cold, sterile home and pity the kid who lives there. In reality, the opposite is true: We are extremely interested in the life of Lou. Our house is semi-permanently covered in his frozen-blueberry-dyed handprints, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If we could, we’d paper it top to bottom in the artwork he brings home from preschool, and engage exclusively in conversations that gave us openings to talk about how much he loves puzzles and that he recently said, upon pulling into a dark parking garage, “Sometimes, the light gives me eyes.” We’re consumed by our love for him in all his wonderful kid-ness. So why am I so persistently, pointlessly defensive?

I do wish I could banish the term “one and done,” which sounds to me like someone dusting off their hands and putting parenthood behind them.

It’s because of that old self, I think, the one who was so sure that two kids is simply the right thing to do. She’s projecting onto everyone around me, turning all those (probably imaginary) judgments to stone in my mind. Or maybe she’s creating an echo chamber for the disparaging thoughts that people do really have about me — not people who love me, but somebody out there, I’m sure.

A few years back, when a second kid felt more up in the air than it does now, I talked to my dad about it. It was spring, and we were at lunch, sitting on the patio of a seafood place. I dipped a french fry into ketchup as I casually posed the question that was weighing on me all the time: “Do you think it’s OK?”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s just another way to live.”

I can’t change the status quo or globally re-brand only children (though I do wish I could banish the term “one and done,” which sounds to me like someone dusting off their hands and putting parenthood behind them). All I can do is try to accept what’s best for me and Dan, which will end up best for Lou. Our family will have hardships (we’ve already had some), and Lou’s childhood will not be perfect. But it won’t be worse or better than it would be with a sibling. It’s just another way to live.

We often tell kids that families come in all shapes and sizes, and each one of them is beautiful. It’s up to me to believe it.

Jana Pollack is a writer, editor, and creative strategist who has worked at BuzzFeed and theSkimm. She and her little family live in Boston.