When we criticize only-child families, we fail to recognize parents as people with wants and needs outside of parenting.
“You’re not a real family unless you have more than one child.”
This was news to my mom, who had decided not long after my birth that I would be her first and last. My parents had both always wanted a baby girl, and once I arrived after five long years, they were satisfied. It was also the most practical decision for everyone in our family, given that my dad was working on his doctorate in another state and only returned on the weekends. Without the financial burden another child would have placed on my parents, Mom was able to stay home during my early years as she wished, raising me with the invaluable help of her Aunt Helen.
The comments leveled at parents of only children can be very different—in my experience, anyway—from the ones leveled at the only children themselves. The above opinion came from one of my mom’s former co-workers who, with two children of her own, felt qualified to tell another mother what does and does not constitute a “real family.” And thanks to the information age, parents around the world are able to critique one another’s choices through a multitude of outlets. Breastfeeding is best. Staying home is better than daycare. Your life won’t be complete without a child. Your life won’t be complete without more than one child.
But when I disclose that I am an only child, the reaction is most always one of pity. Oh, you poor thing. That must have been so lonely. Don’t you feel like you’ve missed out?
The short answer: …no?
I get it, I really do. The ideal family modeled in our country is a white-skinned, white-collared, devout, multiple-child household run by two opposite-sex parents. A large part of our fondness for shows and movies like Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, Full House, A Christmas Story, and Home Alone is tied to the sibling dynamics they illustrate. For those of us with brothers and sisters, the richness of knock-down, drag-out fights soothed by apologies and unconditional love is something we can’t imagine having lived without.
For those of us without siblings, socialization was never absent from our lives. It was just structured in an unconventional way. Because peer relationships are not accessible within the household, only children grow up relating differently to both peers and adults, choosing and cultivating relationships more deliberately.
“Anchored by friendship to herself, [the only child] is not desperate for social friends at any cost, but tends to be socially selective…often making friends who share a capacity for self-sufficiency,” notes child psychologist Carl Pickhardt. “She is usually proof against peer pressure, unwilling to sacrifice personal integrity for the sake of social belonging…Her identity depends less on the friends she has than the person she feels she is.”
They are also more inclined to build intimate, mature bonds with their parents. “In the only child family,” Pickhardt writes, “the child [is treated as] an integral part of the parental relationship, with an expectation that they are all meant to socialize together.”
As with any family dynamic, there are pros and cons to this closeness. My induction into adult social circles at a young age gave me an intrinsic desire for achievement, as well as a desire to befriend older teacher and mentor figures. On the other hand, I experienced a frustrating lack of privacy at times, and when my parents divorced, it was more difficult for all of us to extract me from their separate marital issues.
Aside from these variations in our socialization, more recent studies that overrule the “spoiled and peculiar” trope “show that singletons aren’t measurably different from other kids—except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement.” Valuing time alone and investing highly in their relationships, only children do not lack in social need and generally don’t suffer in other areas.
So why the continued backlash? As Huffington Post contributor Lorraine Devon Wilke points out, “large families…for reasons of religious and ethnic tradition, cultural norms, and of course, to provide staff for family farms” are antiquated. The advent of the birth control pill has allowed women to exercise greater control over their own bodies, often choosing to delay or reject motherhood altogether. State-funded or employer-granted daycare programs have given mothers more flexibility to work outside of the home. The times have been a-changin’ for quite a while now.
When we criticize only-child families, we fail to recognize parents as people with wants and needs outside of parenting. The negative effects of this disapproval are manifold: pressure to practice “helicopter parenting,” reduction of government child-care funding, and zealous legislation of birth control and abortion rights. Parents of only children enjoy more freedom and flexibility and less financial strain, benefits which account for the recent dramatic increase of only-child families. My mom regards her life as having been more balanced because she wasn’t continuously raising a succession of kids. She had more time and energy for hobbies like renovating the house and working in the yard, and could develop a full-time career once I became a teenager.
By having just one child, my mother was also able to take better care of her health. Diagnosed with endometriosis, she struggled to conceive and miscarried before her successful pregnancy with me. It was her prerogative not to go through that effort again, just as it was to avoid another bout of post-partum depression that was brought on by my birth coinciding with the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death. I’ve been asked if I would have preferred a life with siblings too many times to count, and I don’t believe that my perceived “need” for a brother or sister should have ever trumped my mom’s need for physical and emotional wellness.
Wendy Thomas Russell, mother to one daughter, stresses “the focus of quality—not quantity” in singleton families. “It wasn’t about having kids,” she suggests telling only children, “it was about having you.” Russell’s message is valuable outside of an only-child context as well. It is sage advice to for all of us to avoid defining ourselves relationally. You are a whole, complete person in and of yourself. You are enough, and you lack nothing. So don’t pity only children as if they live their lives on a lonely island. Odds are that we’ve adjusted to the world just fine. We are enough, and we lack nothing.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.