Mom Talk: In Praise Of The Only (Not Lonely) Child

Written by

Vanessa Correa

10:00 am
05/19/17

PHOTOGRAPHED BY TESSA NEUSTADT 

We’re back with another round of  “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Vanessa Correa talks about her choice to raise an only child. -JKM

In a lecture in 1907, Granville Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association said, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” Is it any wonder that parents of singletons are viewed with suspicion, and their offspring looked upon with pity even now? It’s hard to come back from an opening salvo like that.

Full disclosure: I’m one of three, and extremely close to both of my younger siblings. I’ve relied on them as friends and allies, confidants and co-conspirators. My husband also had a happy childhood with his younger brother, digging holes in the yard and canoeing through Florida wetlands. So, when my husband and I decided to stop our family after our daughter Lucie was born, our collective families were surprised and a little disappointed.

Before our decision, acquaintances would ask when I would have my second. My mother gently prodded me during my daughter’s toddler years to determine whether Lucie would be a big sister. And, when I evinced ambivalence about more children, everyone from my dental hygienist to my father said, “You’ll want another.” But, after one of my closest friends argued that it was cruel (yes, cruel) to have just one child—She’ll be lonely! Who will commiserate with her about your crazy parenting? She’ll never learn how to get along with her peers! And, (rather morbidly), what will happen if you both die?—I realized I had a major PR problem on my hands.

My husband and I realized that what we wanted—what we needed—was a small family unit. We were happy with one and our family felt complete. But, beyond that there were practicalities that reinforced our decision. We live in the Bay Area, and it’s expensive. Breathtakingly expensive. One child here was what we felt comfortable affording, despite the fact that it’s fairly unromantic to admit that family choices can be driven by economics. I have a career that I have nurtured since my mid-twenties, my husband is similarly motivated by academic work he began at 19. More children would have derailed us both, and to be frank, the brunt of the parenting would have landed on my husband. I also hated being pregnant. Like, really hated it. It didn’t occur to either of us that the choice to stop at one could be controversial. All of this seemed rational to us. Logical. And, we were content.

Despite the commentary during Lucie’s very young years, the shift from being a young family to being parents of an only child happened quietly and without our little unit thinking much more about it. But, as I met and spoke to other parents in one-child families—and there are a lot of them, particularly in cities, with numbers growing beyond 20% of all families—I noticed a special strain of parental insecurity appearing in response to the cultural current we had experienced when Lucie was younger.

Parents who chose to have one child often felt that they were letting their offspring down by not “giving” them a sibling. Will parents be a burden to their child as they age? If parents couldn’t have more, they found themselves wracked with guilt for their biological or economic limitations. All were worried that their singletons would be maladjusted, unable to form strong attachments with their peers and, of course, be selfish, with no evidence in the children right in front of them for such grievous character failings except his or her stature as an only child, as if Dr. Hall was right, and being an only child truly was “a disease in itself.”

Any age-appropriate tantrum could be a sign that “my child will never learn to share,” and any expression of introversion meant “she’ll never make friends.” Everyone felt the stigma of being a parent who had “just” one child. We’re barely parents at all, right? It certainly meant we were self-involved adults, and most likely it meant we’d be rearing a self-involved child. It was, as my friend pointed out, cruel.

Out of a burgeoning sense of anger and paranoia, I dug into the question. Perhaps my blithe assumption that having one child was a legitimate choice was, in fact, an error from which my daughter would never recover. What if I was creating another Veruca Salt?

What I discovered was a growing body of research that not only finds no basis in reality for most of the stereotypes and assumptions, but, surprisingly, argues that only children are sometimes better off than their siblinged counterparts. Only children aren’t any more self-involved than anyone else, it turns out. Small people don’t need siblings to help them learn interpersonal skills— friends and other peers do the job. As Lauren Sandler notes in her wonderful book, One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, “Their findings suggest that solitude is not synonymous with loneliness and often strengthens character. As one psychotherapist explained to me, only children tend to have stronger primary relationships with themselves. An Ohio State survey of more than 13,000 children found that only children had as many friends as anyone else.”

Even more heartening, onlies are confident and high achievers. Sandler points out that “the differences between only children and those raised with siblings tend to be positive ones. Hundreds of studies in the 1980s found that only children had demonstrably higher intelligence and achievement; only children have also been found to have more self-esteem.”

Ultimately, like every parent, I want my daughter to fulfill her potential, embrace her independence and autonomy, and accept herself. I want our family to be a source of security and love—a gift that isn’t limited by the size of our tribe.

So, in the spirit of including her voice, as the only child of this story, I asked Lucie to share with me her three most and least favorite things about being a singleton. Here is her  list:

Good:
You can’t fight with your siblings because you have none
You get all the love from your parents
You don’t need to share a room
Bad:
You have to do all the chores, but if you had siblings you could split them up so you each have less chores
Sometimes you get bored and you want to play with someone
When you are sad and your parents are both busy

Ultimately, I’ve had very little regret about our small family. Our daughter is loved, and we, like all families, have joys and struggles. We travel, and are able to send her to a bilingual school because we are only footing the bill for one. My husband and I have kept our career (mostly, kind of) on track. So, other parents of singletons: Let’s not beat ourselves up for not giving our lovely children some idealized version of a family, and let us instead celebrate families of every size and kind.

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8 comments

Jahaila @ Girl Nesting

Beautiful post! I am an only child and loved it. It was a huge decision if my hubby and I should try for a second child…part of my hesitation was that I loved my childhood, being the only. But we decided to go for it and have one more – I’m really glad we did. Even so, I’m still happy I was raised an only. It worked for me! My oldest though, she needed a sibling. It was meant to be, and she’s a fantastic big sister :)

xo
Jahaila @ Girl Nesting
http://www.girlnesting.com

Jennifer

As an only child, and the mom of an only child, I absolutely love this. We’ve experienced similar pressure to have another child with the reasoning that we owe it to our child to not leave him alone, he needs a built-in companion, etc. The only legitimate reason I can see for having a second child is because we legitimately want a second child and we’ve decided we don’t. Like you, we live in the very pricey Bay Area and struggle to navigate that. Having one child means that we’ll be able to travel more extensively with him, one of our major goals. And we like our little unit of three. In addition, every close friend or family member I know who has siblings seems to have a stressful relationship with them. It certainly doesn’t make me believe that just because there are two, they will get along. Thank you for voicing something that I’ve been thinking for quite some time.

Lindsay

Thanks for this perspective. My husband and I have a 2 year old and have been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for the past year so the pros/cons of being/having a single child have been on my mind.

Love this series!

Amanda

Wonderful article! Thanks so much. I am the proud mama of an only child and while I love having an only child and our family of three (plus a “cat brother”), our culture seems to really place a premium on having two kids. I’ll never forget when I left the hospital with my tiny baby and one of the nurses said “see you in a couple of years when you have your next baby!” I started crying — ha!
Our son has gone to daycare/preschool since he was 1 year old and is surrounded by kids all day! In fact, he is rarely alone, poor guy.
Thanks SO much for this article. Keep it up!
xoxo

Sarah

We have an only and after years of infertility, I’m at peace with our family of three. That said, I often find myself justifying our decision to friends with more than one child. “I only schedule for one child, I can’t imagine what you face” …. blah, blah. But this article helped me realize I have nothing to justify. We all have our unique issues to navigate.

Katie

I completely understand where the author is coming from. As an only child myself, I always enjoyed my special relationship with my parents, and still do. I think though, sometimes choosing to have one child can be a bit short sided. As my parents grow older and I confront the idea of their mortality, the massive loneliness I feel can be overwhelming. Even though I am married with two children of my own, I am my parent’s only child. When my parents become older, I will be their sole caretaker. When they die, I will be alone in my grief. That’s enough to give me pause.

    Malia

    I completely agree with everything you say, Katie.

    I’m an only child, and as a kid I thought it was great. I knew I had more opportunities than if I’d had a sibling (lessons, visits to see family across the country, etc.). Plus, friends’ siblings were all super annoying and I was happy to never have to share my toys and risk them getting damaged.

    That said, as an adult I really wish I had a sibling or two. I have cousins I adore, but they’ve always lived too far away and it’s not the same. I never felt lonely as a kid, but do as an adult. I often wonder if having a sibling would lessen that feeling. I dread having to care for my parents alone as they get older.

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