By Ruby Roberts
A few months back, our beloved MamaBake featured a discussion about parents who have chosen to have only one child.
It was a civilised conversation, as MamaBake discussions generally are; multiple perspectives were expressed intelligently and without malice. Nobody lost their marbles or typed torrents of abuse. However, it confirmed something I had always suspected: many people believe that making a conscious decision to have an only child is damaging and unfair.
Often, with this kind of ‘hot button’ topic, people don’t actually come out and SAY what they think. This is the beauty of the Internet, I suppose. Away from face-to-face interactions with ‘flesh and blood’ people, bloggers and commenters alike are freed from the pressure to be polite. Things can get ugly, but at least they get said. Ideas and opinions get pummeled and pushed about, examined and confronted, and maybe we all learn a little from it, too. I was glad to read that thread because it opened the lines of communication on a subject that has often felt taboo.
When my son was younger, and to a lesser degree today, I had the following conversation more times than I care to remember.
OTHER PARENT: So, cute boy you have there! When are you planning to have another one?
ME: I don’t want to have any more children.
OTHER PARENT: *Pause. Excessively polite comment. Perhaps, a carefully worded but probing question about why I had decided to have ‘just’ one child.*
Nothing was actually *said*, but the tension was clearly there for both of us. I could never prove it, but I knew it was there. Sometimes, things felt so awkward, I felt compelled to provide a ‘good enough’ reason for my decision to have one child. And I did have plenty of those.
The transition into parenthood was not easy for me. I was a single parent, my little guy was born sick and I developed a raft of severe health problems that I am still recovering from today.
I knew from the moment he was born that I should not put myself through those early years again, and I have never changed my mind. The toll on my health was simply too great. In fact, I worried that I would actually render myself incapable of caring for either child if I had a second.
However, I don’t want this to be about that. We parents spend enough time and energy defending our choices to people who feel inclined to impose their differing opinions. I don’t want to have to come up with a reason that legitimises my choice. I don’t feel I should even need one.
Instead, I want to share my story; to show people that the decision is not without its sacrifices, but there are plenty of awesome things about having an only child.
In fact… dare I say it? There are some distinct advantages for parent and child alike.
The degree of stigma leveled at parents who choose to have only one offspring is profound and it is directed at the child as much as the adult. In fact, somewhere in the history of dodgy pop psychology, a SYNDROME was coined for ‘onlys’. We’ve all heard of it, no doubt. Those afflicted with ‘only child syndrome’ are said to be self-centred and unable to negotiate. They are spoiled and have an excessive sense of entitlement. Their lack of experience bickering with siblings has created vast deficiencies in their character, which carry on into adulthood.
Only children are aware of this derogatory ailment they are supposed to suffer from; this ‘syndrome’. Yet no proper, longitudinal psychological studies have ever proved definitively that only children will develop in this way, despite what a few dodgy ‘studies’ on various websites might suggest.
The notion of an ‘only child syndrome’ has no scientific basis, is deeply flawed and is, in fact, nothing but groundless prejudice in my view – no better than saying that all Asians are bad at driving, or all men bash women. And I resent the terminology, quite frankly.
Obviously, my son does not have to share my time or attention with another child. Does that mean he spends his life being pandered to? Do I treat him like some kind of deity and come running every time he clicks his fingers? Is there someone at his beck and call, 24/7? Far from it, actually.
Like many only kids, my little guy probably learns better than anyone how to be patient. Often he has no child to play with, so adults are his companions. Unlike siblings, we are not always available to play with him. If he wants someone to play, he has to negotiate with us. He must wait. He pitches in with housework because he is eager to have someone to play Lego with him or take him out on his skateboard. His life certainly not without compromise, negotiation or waiting his turn. He is not indulged. He knows what it is to give and take.
Many people in the comments thread said that solo children didn’t get the chance to practice negotiation skills or learn to compromise.
To them, I reply: who better to learn from than loving adults, who have had years of practice at melding their own conflicting wants and desires? Are siblings necessarily the best people to teach these social skills? I remember attempting to sort things out with my brother: essentially, we squabbled and annoyed the crap out of each other until an adult came along and mediated the whole thing.
The tendency towards rivalry and territorial contests about food and toys is absent in my son. I have never seen him quietly eyeing off two pieces of cake so he can get the biggest one, the way I did with my brother. He has learned to share in a more genteel environment – practicing his skills on adults who are loving but firm; people who have already learned how to give and take. Does this translate to his interactions with peers? Absolutely, it does.
The lack of siblings also gives my son added impetus to become well-liked at school. He regularly has friends over. When they do visit, he delightedly shares his toys and treats because he is so thrilled to have a friend over. When I see him excitedly divvying up his ‘stash’ of Easter chocolate to a visiting friend, I know I need never worry that he will never learn to share. His best friend is also an only child and once again, he is a lovely thoughtful boy who has no problem sharing at all, as far as I can tell.
‘But he has also not had to share your attention with another child,” a detractor might say. The detractor would be right, too. He does get more of my attention than he could possibly get if he had siblings. Has this created a self-centred, ‘star-of-his-own-movie’ who thinks the world revolves around him?
Actually, no. It has created a very secure child who doesn’t need to constantly bring attention upon himself because he has always had plenty of attention anyway.
It has also created a child whose best friend is his mum, and I feel so lucky to have that bond with my child.
Yes, I have had to invest many more hours into being the companion he lacks, and it hasn’t always been easy to play cars on the ground and be a pseudo-child. Yes, there are times when he and I both have despaired at the absence of another child in the house.
There have been times when he has cried and asked me why he can’t have a brother. I can’t claim that it’s always perfect, but I do know that I am raising a wonderful person who lacks some things, but also gains other things.
What we have is a uniquely close bond that I have observed many times in single parents with only children.
There has been one more ‘plus’ of my choice: the financial benefit. For me, this is something that has affected my whole life. It is about time, not money. I knew, for health and lifestyle reasons, that I could never have a high-pressure career or a full-time job.
I am okay with this, but it does mean that money will always be something I have to be shrewd with. Choosing time over money isn’t always easy: I may never own my own home, for example.
However, working part time has given my son a mother who always has time and energy for him; who bakes for him and who has the time and energy to take him to the park after school. He might not have a mother who takes him to Target every week to buy toys and clothes, but he has a household where time is not stretched to breaking point for the adults.
One of my favourite poets Michael Leunig once wrote the following prayer for mothers:
“God be with the mother. As she carried her child may she carry her soul. As her child was born, may she give birth and life and form to her own, higher truth. As she nourished and protected her child, may she nourish and protect her inner life and her independence. For her soul shall be her most painful birth, her most difficult child and the dearest sister to her other children. Amen.”
I remember reading this and feeling the hairs on my arms prick up. His words never left me.
I have decided that my intellectual creative life deserve as much attention as my son. In a sense, I guess, my brainchildren are my son’s siblings – the competitors for my attention, energy and time. Due to my own health issues, I knew that I only had a limited amount of myself to go around. I love my son, but darned it I’d be prepared to sacrifice my brainchildren.
Perhaps this sounds self-indulgent. Trust me: I am all for wholehearted parenting, and giving kids as much presence, life and time as possible. However, I am as fiercely nurturing and protective of my creative and intellectual life as I am of my son and I believe this is as it should be. In the end, he wins. He gets a fulfilled mother; someone looking after him who is also a happy person within herself.
I wonder if a second child would have been the financial tipping point, forcing me into a lifestyle I have no interest in pursuing, leaving me desiccated and resentful; a bitter woman, hating the hijacking of my life. I feel sure that my son would pick up on my resentment and guilt – I know I did with my parents. I never want to be the parent who goes into tirades with my adult son about all the ‘sacrifices’ I have made. He should not have to carry that guilt.
Perhaps I sound judgmental towards ‘double income’ parents now. One has to be so careful. I don’t mean to do that either. My lifestyle comes with plenty of sacrifices. It works for us, though, and it has been a huge bonus of having one child.
I’d be lying if I said that having an only child was all peaches and cream. Of course, my son will go through his life without siblings. He will never have that other adult who has shared that history with him. He does have phases where he longs to have a brother or sister, and I do feel a certain amount of guilt that I couldn’t provide that. But life is imperfect, and there are no flawless decisions. My choices are no better or worse than anyone else’s, but they’re mine, and they’re right for me.
I know I am raising a kind, intelligent, thoughtful human being. I am proud of who he is becoming, and of the special bond we share. I am not denying there are things in life he might miss out on, but he has a good life, and we’re doing just fine.
BIO: Ruby Roberts is a long-time fan of Mamabake, a mother of one, and a part time personal carer. She is a compulsive reader, writer and Facebooker who is prepared to weather the occasional online squabble if it means she gets to enjoy genuine discussions with deep thinkers. She thinks all folk are uniquely gifted – some are just more open-minded about what intelligence constitutes than others. Ruby is in the process of renovating her cooking, craft and philosophy blog and it looks like a dog’s breakfast at the moment – one day it will be presentable enough to share. WATCH THIS SPACE. She has about a zillion projects on the go, each in varying stages of completion. Some might sit there for decades. She likes long distance hiking and camping, conversation and correspondence, cooking, eating and creating very amateur-looking craft. Her latest hobby is fermenting stuff and making alcoholic beverages, which is really rather funny because she’s practically a wowser. Ruby is finding it very difficult to encapsulate herself in 100 words or less while writing in the third person. However, she is always looking for new pals, so go ahead and talk to her! She won’t bite. Much.