When I told my mom that I was only going to have one child, she immediately exclaimed that my daughter was going to be lonely. She then began quizzing my then 1-month old daughter about whether she wanted a sibling.
It’s not always easy for one-child families. In a world full of messages of the ‘only lonely,’ we can be made to feel that we are somehow doing something wrong by making the decision to have an only child. If it is a decision at all. For many of us, our life-circumstances made the choice for us. We had health issues, or a traumatic birth, or just couldn’t afford to bring another child into the world.
Having one child has always felt pretty much right to me. As a writer, I’d questioned whether I should have children in the first place. Would I find the time to write with multiple children to look after? A lot of my favorite writers solved that problem by having only one: Margaret Atwood, Siri Hustvedt, and Joan Didion, to name a few. They were my inspiration that writing and parenting could be combined.
My husband and I were really happy with one child. Yet we live in a world where having at least two children is often considered the norm. Contrary messages are always ready to leap up and make me wobble.
In Facebook parenting groups from time to time, there’ll be a parent of one child who wants to check in and see what people think of her decision. She’ll want to hear from people who didn’t have siblings. Were they lonely? Although there are plenty of only children out there who weren’t lonely, there are always a few who were terribly lonely. They see the lack of siblings as the problem and chose to have multiple children as a result.
These kinds of comments used to send me into a tailspin, until I realized one simple thing: that what we think is the problem isn’t always the problem. When I was a child I can remember having frequent periods of loneliness. I had a sister, but I can imagine if I was an only child I might have thought that all my problems would have been solved if only I had a sibling. Adults with siblings know that having a sibling doesn’t inoculate you against moments of loneliness, or that strong desire to have a friend come over to play.
I found reassurance in my decision by reading “One and Only: The Freedom Of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One” by Lauren Sandler. Sandler, an only child herself, describes how her mom was a strong believer in the idea that a happy mother equals a happy child. Sandler’s mother decided to have only one child so she could continue with her work and live a life of independence in her urban apartment. Sandler chose to do the same; to live a life where she would have time to read, write, travel and still have moments of solitude.
Parents are often described as ‘selfish’ for having an only child. With research supporting the idea that a happy parent equals a happy child, there is nothing selfish about making a choice that’s in our interests. Sandler draws attention to the fact that for many parents, the main reason to have another child is so the first one can have a sibling. She questions if this ‘selfless’ tactic is really a good one.
Research shows that there are many benefits to being an only child. Only children have been found to have a higher sense of aspiration and motivation, and a stronger sense of self-esteem than children with siblings. They also have a higher than average IQ.
No doubt there are different benefits to having a family with multiple children. Each family size has it’s pro’s and cons, and we shouldn’t get caught up in believing that one choice is better than the other. Each family has its own needs, and own path.
Recently I joined a Facebook group for parents of only children. Parents don’t just post about the difficult bits, the endless comments about when baby number two is coming along, or how judged they feel by others. They also post about the positives. They share their family photos from a vacation they just wouldn’t have been able to afford if they had more than one child. They share about lunch dates that are unspoiled by sibling squabbles. They share about exercising with their one child in a stroller. They generally just share about the freedom and joy that comes from having one child.
This group has become my sanctuary, a place where I can let go of all those negative messages about only children, and see our one-child status, as something much more joyful. There’s no doubt that every family size and dynamic comes with positive and negatives, but there’s nothing inherently negative about being a one-child family. It is a different kind of life, but no less full of fun and adventure.