My Decision to have One Child.

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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.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this article, I agree with what Ruby said. An only child is not a bad thing for the child. We only have one child as I had severe post natal depression and didn’t want to risk it again. Yes there are times we wish we had a sibling for our son but like Ruby I doubt we could have afforded the extra financial cost. Our son still gets to play with other kids and has learnt to share his toys which he will do on most occasions. About a year after deciding not to have any more children we found out he has various health issues which require alot of our time so in hindsight having only one child has been the best thing as we wouldn’t have had enough time or energy to devote to a second child.

    And yes, I get the ‘look’ after I say we only have one child.

  2. Steffi O'Brien says:

    ….and, at the end of the day, Ruby, your boy knows only his life, this life, the one you have made for him. He can wish, fantasise,dream, but in the end, like us all, he knows that THIS is his life, and you are his mum. And he has and will always have love.
    From one of a family of 5 who married into one of a family of 9, and had 3 children,( all who have wished fervently to be an ONLY CHILD.)

  3. Kendall Oliver says:

    I am standing and giving you a huge ovation Ruby!!! I am in complete agreement with you! I have an only child, will never have another, nor do I want one! Through my health issues since birth and her social/emotion issues, I feel that I have enough! I am enough! I am complete! I love my child whole heatedly and know that a second child would’ve have been difficult health wise, work wise and financially! I am happily married, and my hobby works permanent night shift! Therefore I do most of the child centered work, cooking, cleaning and entertaining! I also work part time as a teacher!
    I am so sick and tired of people questioning our decision to have one child! Then questioning my patenting ability because of this choice! It’s nobody business by our own!
    We made the right choice for us and our little family!!! Cx

  4. My Son is also an only Child. We have, however, the great blessing of 8 cousins with whom he is very close. It is almost akin to him having 7 Brothers and a Sister, so he really does want for nothing in that sense. Those naysayers who point the accusatory finger at Parents who are happy with their “only” need to realise that it doesn’t mean the Child grows up alone, lonely or unsocialised.
    My decision to not have another is based on the fact that I actually planned to never have Kids and that the decision even to have one was made for me unexpectedly. Mind you I would never in a million years change that, but that’s not to say that I wish to put myself nor my Child/ren through the rigour and pain of another “surprise” Child.
    If I had another, it would really and honestly be a half-assed effort to just get it over with.

    I love having Kids but I just can’t go through all those early years again.

  5. Oh the ‘look’, I’m so familiar with that. And you know everyone giving the look thinks “I guess they’ve been having some trouble conceiving” rather than that you might have made a choice that suits your family. Infuriating. I’m actually expecting my second just now, but I never longed for more than one, couldnt afford it before now anyway, and would have happily stayed as we were (careless fools!). And now, one of those people who kept being rude about my daughter’s single child status (even saying it was a shame she’d probably grow up to be weird. nice huh? Being one of 4 didn’t do much for her!) now she tells me that it doesn’t count if there’s six years between them, they’re both still going to be “officially” only children! Cheeky mare! Can’t win with some people 😛
    Seriously though, I hold no truck with this only syndrome nonsense, and applaud your well-written piece. X

  6. I read your thoughts on having only one child with great interest. I too have only one child and it was very much a conscious decision. I now live in a country where having only one child is considered akin to an illness (for the child and for the parents). I live in Argentina where just about everyone aspires to having 2, 3, 4 or more children. We are looked upon with pity and great curiosity. But in other countries, we would be well within what’s considered normal. Whether or not to have children, and how many children, is a personal decision, however cultural and societal pressures abound. My son, who is now 12 and a real global nomad (having lived in 4 different countries in his short life) is a very sociable child. He is comfortable with adult company because he has often had only adults around him. He has sometimes asked whether he could have a sibling, but his idea of a sibling is to have a brother of the exact same age to play soccer with! That’s what friends are for.
    Anyway, I love the Mamabake website and follow it with great pleasure. I wish that when I was a younger mother with a small child, that there were groups like this around. It’s a great project. Congratulations.

  7. The reasons for having only one child are different for all those with ‘onlys’. Some from choice, others family and external circumstances and yet others who’s choice has been taken away from them. What is the same is the judgements and stigma placed on those who have one child. Thank you for putting into words the overwhelming positives I have always believed about the way I am raising my child. I hope one day I will not feel the need to constantly justify our family make-up as a result of real or perceived disapproval from others, and it will just ‘be’.

  8. Ruby, your article resonates with me incredibly deeply. I am in two minds on having another child, my reasons are my own. You know what I think when I have to enter into another discussion about whether I’m having another child? What then? If I bow to societal pressure or fear of stigmatising my only son, will my community rise up to meet me and offer me the support I need? Will mothering suddenly enter this Nirvana of ‘rightness’ because I’ve done what I’m supposed to? Mothering one can be hard enough in a world where we as mothers are completely undervalued and judged at every step. I lament that there even needs to be a discussion on what is, after all, a personal decision that has absolutely zero flow on effect on others on their journeys. Now excuse me, I must go and pretend I am a giant rhinoceros and run around the kitchen table in my pyjamas with a toilet roll horn attached to my head. Much love Ruby and thank you. Karen

  9. Ruby, reading your article was enlightening. I must admit that sometimes I am the parent asking the mother if she will have another, although I do not mean it in a derogatory manner. Just curiosity really, as I would probably ask a parent of multiples the same question.
    I have three children, who are all very different. They do bicker and squabble sometimes, but can be very loving at other times. It is definitely a choice that some parents make, and one which other parents aren’t able to make. A friend of mine had IVF 22 years ago. Fell pregnant the first try and successfully had a baby boy. Followed that up by approx 10 more tries of IVF but was never successful again. I suppose that would have been very awkward for her, as she had an only, got the stare and questions, and yet it was beyond her control. Having that many failed attempts would have been heartbreaking. Your article has made me think more about how she would have suffered. Not so much now, as he is 22, but certainly when he was younger.
    I strongly believe that the choice should be made by the parents, and nobody else. My husband and I both come from families of two children, and I believed that I only wanted two also. However when my 2nd child was about one, I felt unfinished. It was just eating away at me, and the feeling didn’t go away. I approached my hubby about it, and we agreed to have a 3rd child. We now have three healthy children, who I adore. After my third I was conclusively finished, and still feel like that today. He is now five, so that descision has stayed with me for five years now.
    Therefore I strongly believe that the descision should be about what a woman feels on the inside, and the descision should wholly be hers, and hers only. Ruby, it sounds like that finished feeling for you came after one child, for both physical and emotional reasons. Good for you, I never imagined ere would be pressure to have a second child, but obviously there was and you were strong enough to follow your own beliefs. You sound like a fantastic parent to your son, with a great relationship, and that is something we should all aspire to be, no matter the number of children we have. 🙂

  10. Bravo, Ruby! After years on the infertility roundabout and having to face the reality that I may never be a mama, I consider our family of three (DH, bubba and me) to be perfect. It sounds like you feel the same about your family! Thanks for your story

  11. Great article, Ruby.
    I am an only child myself, raised by my young mother. She and were very close. I also played with the neighbours, mum’s friends kids and my school friends. I don’t feel I lacked anything.
    I now have a daughter, turning 13 tomorrow, who is my only child. She has 1/2 and step siblings at her dad’s house, where she lives half the time. She gets to have the “benefits” of having siblings when she is there and then comes home to the peace and quiet. Best of both worlds perhaps?

  12. Thank you Ruby, and all blogger for an inspiring read! Judgements made by others’ on the number of children we do or don’t have, are just like all the other judgements we seem to attract as parents (before I had children i never cared what i wore to the supermarket in case I ran into some ‘school mums’!!). Families and parenting in general seems to be an area where people feel they have the right to ask and comment about seemingly ‘private’ topics; I’ve always been amused by the strangers who ask in the supermarket checkout aisle ‘are you having another baby?’ – and I’ve been tempted to respond, ‘No, we thought we’d have a puppy this time!’. Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I applaud those who by choice or circumstance acknowledge and appreciate the value of their own situation (whether it be 1 or 13 children). I have 3 good friends who have ‘only’ children and 3 good couple friends who’ve chosen to not have any children at all; all have reported feeling discrimination and ‘less than…’ based on judgements (prejudices) by others; however all are completely happy with their carefully-thought family ‘decision’ -isn’t it a shame we live in society where such important decisions are public property!! (BTW having a 3rd baby in my 40’s attracts some interesting judgement comments also – to which my usual comment is, ‘Yes, she was planned’)

  13. Rebecca Rushbrook says:

    Great article Ruby! I think the sibling thing brings guilt no matter which way we go. I felt so guilty when I saw the anxiety that the birth of my 2nd child brought to my first and I feel quite a bit of concern for my clingy little 2nd born as the birth of my 3rd approaches. I love that they love each other so much, hate when they torture each other and couldn’t live without any of them. But I also remember how much easier and less angst-filled things were with 1- for her and for me.

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