Should you have a second child?

First, I want to stress that no matter what anyone says—including me!—this is a decision that only the parents can make.

A One…and a Two? Should You Have a Second Child?
By Denise Daniels

Should you have a second child?My daughter doesn’t often ask for my opinion—I can’t for the life of me imagine why—but this time she did. The question was whether I thought she should have a second child. As a grandmother, this was a tough one for me, since I happen to believe that my granddaughter Hartley is a perfect child, and how can you improve on perfection? But as a child-development expert, I do have many thoughts on this topic.

Melissa asked the questions every young parent asks: Would Hartley be a “lonely only” without siblings to play with? Would she end up spoiled and self-centered? Can we afford to have a second child? Will I have the energy? Would Hartley feel she’s being replaced? Then she said something that touched my heart: What if, God forbid, something happened to Hartley?

First, I want to stress that no matter what anyone says—including me!—this is a decision that only the parents can make. What I can do is provide some research and some questions that shine a light on the key issues as you make that decision.

Your One and Only

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having or being an only child. In our society, we love to be judgmental about other people’s children, and somehow there’s this stigma that only children are spoiled brats. I’ve worked with only children, and I know that’s not true. And the research backs me up.

According to Bill McKibben, author of Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, only children tend to do better in school, especially in math, science, and literature. They tend to have more friends and be more flexible about gender roles. Researchers from the University of Texas say that being an only child strengthens character. An Ohio State study on only children found that they have greater self-esteem. Researchers on marriage and family have even found that some of the happiest couples are those with just one child.

Anecdotally, parents of only children have said they appreciate the closeness you can have with an only child, because your attention is not divided. And of course, it eases the financial burden considerably to pay for only one child’s sports, orthodontia, or college tuition!

The More the Merrier?

All of this only-child data won’t stop couples from engaging in the “What ifs”: Shouldn’t a child have a sibling to play with? Isn’t it unfair for an only child to bear the entire burden of caring for elderly parents? Wouldn’t it just be plain old more fun for a child to grow up in a lively household full of kids?

I often hear parents having this discussion based solely on what’s best for their first-born child. But you have to think about your needs as a couple. Only you know your own relationship, your strengths and weaknesses, your financial situation. You can look at the realities of having a second child by asking yourselves these questions:

What are your plans for the future, and how will having a second child affect them? Are you on a career track, or was one of you planning to go back to school? Do you want to buy a house, and can you afford that with a second child?

What’s your energy level? Having two children is not just twice as much work—it often feels like exponentially more work, especially when you’re operating on very little sleep. Can you physically manage a newborn and a young child?

Do you have help nearby? Having family or a community of friends with children makes an enormous difference.

What’s your work situation? Do you love your job and you don’t want to give it up? Will you be able to manage a fulltime job with two small children at home? If not, could you work part-time or can you arrange a job-share?

Do you have good child care? Can you find someone who can take care of a baby and another sibling? Can you afford it? Or can you afford to live on one income if one of you decides to stay home with the kids?

The Timing

If you’ve made up your mind that you want a second child, the next obvious question is…when? Is there a magic number of years that should separate the two children?

According to child-development experts, it’s best to get pregnant when your firstborn is either under one year of age or over four. The one-year-old is too young to understand they’re being “dethroned,” and so won’t consider the new baby a threat. This also gives you a chance to get the whole children-in-diapers phase over with at one time. Four-year-olds have already had plenty of good one-on-one time and are starting to develop lives of their own with preschool or play dates.

If you’re still recovering from your first pregnancy or , doing it all over again before your child is one may be the last thing you want! Obviously, you need to put your health and well-being above any other considerations.

Many parents space their children two years apart, which has its own challenges and benefits. Two-year-olds are in the parallel-play stage, where sharing is not a concept they’re familiar with; they also are still strongly attached to their parents, and may be more prone to sibling jealousy. Over time, though, the two children close in age are likely to forge a strong relationship.

Of course, nature may have her own timetable for you. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could place an online order for a new child and have FedEx deliver him on Monday morning? But we’re not always in charge—and there’s nothing like the exquisite pain of being asked, “When are you having your next one?” if you’re dealing with infertility or other issues that prevent you from having a child. (Pro tip: Never ask.)

Ideally, a new child arrives when parents and siblings are prepared and excited to welcome her into the fold. And if you remain parents of an only child by choice or circumstance, that’s no less a complete family. Because “family” has never been defined by number, but by love.