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Only Child vs. Sibling: How many kids make the perfect family size?

How many kids is best?

By Thalia A-M Bruehl |

I was a 13-year-old only child when the director of my dance studio pulled me aside and asked if I thought my family might have room to house another student, Lydia, while she worked out some issues at home. Lydia was 19 at the time, and though she wasn’t quite ready to move out on her own, she was very ready to move on from her own family.

The first few weeks she slept in my bed next to me, ate macaroni and cheese with me, watched bad movies beside me and occasionally drove me to school. Things became slightly more permanent within six months; Lydia was given the downstairs guest room and joined us on a family vacation. At 22, she asked to take our last name, and just after Lydia turned 23, my father put on a suit, my mother a dress, and we took an afternoon trip to court and legally carved out a place for her in our family. Yes, there is such a thing as adult adoption.

Living my first 13 years of life as an only child, then becoming a younger sister has provided me with an unusual perspective on the only child debate. In the days that it was just me, I was privy to adult nights out with my mother, a little mini-me dressed up and taken to drag bars in Manhattan, and special father-daughter bonding moments – a scratchy cheek against my head, catching hail in red plastic cups on our old wooden porch. I have fond memories of those times when I was all that held their attention, the days when it was only my hand in my father’s. But we were three, and as I experienced daily until my early teens, groups of three are difficult – someone can easily be left out.

I have told my husband multiple times that it was Lydia who completed my family, that we didn’t feel quite whole until she arrived. Suddenly I had a playmate. When my mother was with my father I could be with Lydia. When my mom and I made dinner, Lydia and my dad watched golf. It was a perfect math problem, a human game of pairs, and everyone had a dance partner. And maybe best of all, I no longer had to sleep on a cot in my parents’ hotel room when we traveled; Lydia and I got our own room, and our own large room service bill. (Note: Getting in trouble is also more fun when you have a partner in crime.)

My husband and I weren’t together for more than a few weeks before the topic of children came up. Though we’re not yet ready to start expanding our brood beyond our dear dog, kids are very much on our minds; I have written more than 8,000 words on bathing babies. I teach children when I’m not writing, and I make videos with my husband for our future child, whom we call “Lovie.”

When I think about our theoretical Lovie, this child who I am so excited to meet, it occurs to me that as much as I will want to be there to support him or her, hear the juicy secrets and witness the important moments, Lovie may not necessarily want to share all of it with Mom or Dad. Oh, how I loved calling my sister to tell her about new boyfriends, my first tattoo, a cockroach in the kitchen, new shoes, etc., etc! I want that for Lovie, the ease of talking with family without the pressure of talking to a parent.

I am also clear on this: I want time with my husband. He is in every sense of the word my partner, and I plan on keeping him as such for the rest of my life. I never want any child feeling like the third-wheel, but I also don’t plan to give up my relationship with my husband for my children. To me, the greatest gift a child can receive is a loving family in which the parents have a healthy and thriving partnership.

What I hope for is what Lydia gave my parents and me, a family of four. I want to be in the kitchen with one child while my husband is out in the garden with the other. I want to have date nights without feeling like I’m leaving a child behind alone. I want eight arms and eight legs all wrapped around one another on the couch in front of a fire at Christmas. I want each member of my family to know they’ll always have a partner.

When I’ve finished the great American novel and my husband has written a Broadway-worthy play, we’ll see if we’re lucky enough to realize our dream. We’ll see if all the parenting conversations we’ve shared will hold any weight, if we’ll be able to maintain the laughter we engage in so frequently, if Lovie will have his eyes or mine, and what Lovie will want to name our fourth.

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About Thalia A-M Bruehl

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Thalia A-M Bruehl

Thalia A-M Bruehl is a fiction writer and freelancer. She writes about everything from dating to green construction and is working on her second novel. Thalia and her devastatingly handsome husband currently live in Chicago with their little love, Finnegan the dog.

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23 thoughts on “Only Child vs. Sibling: How many kids make the perfect family size?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this article. I have one little one and feel the same way about number two for the same reasons you pointed out.

  2. fluttorby says:

    What a fascinating story- an angle rarely given voice or space. And how the adult adoption of your sister sheds light on your personal decision to have more than one child is really interesting. My husband and I have had many similar conversations, and your voice and article is right in line with our thinking. Thank you for sharing your personal life and voice- what a helpful story for the rest of us in this connundrm!

  3. Thalia AM Bruehl says:

    Thanks for the comments. My sister is truly one of the great joys of my life and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share our rare relationship.

  4. Catherine says:

    I love this, and how poignant that your sister came into your life through adoption. My older brother is adopted as well. When we had our son, I was sure that another child was needed, not so much for us, but for him, as well. Seeing my son and daughter together is truly joyful. While I know not all sibling relationships are perfect, I like knowing that they have each other.

  5. Neomi says:

    Hi, Thanks for this lovely story it touched my heart and convinced me now more that we should have another child so thank you

  6. mom of one says:

    Wow, what a heart warming story! I am a mom of one child and have been unsure about when we should add a second. While reading this story I found myself feeling excited about the possibility of giving my daughter that sibling relationship. I love the line: “everyone had a dance partner”.
    Beautiful!

  7. Anonymous says:

    My husband and I have a wonderful preschooler and are a very happy family of three. Like others, we’ve agonized over whether or not to have another baby. We finally decided to give it a try, and I’m now (barely) pregnant with our second. We’re both excited but also kind of freaking out. Reading this made me feel even better about our decision. Maybe it’s the hormones, but it even made me a tiny bit teary-eyed. A lovely essay.

  8. Jood says:

    I never imagined how happy and loving our 5-year-old daughter could be now that her baby brother is here. And he, at six months, thinks she hung the moon. No one else makes him laugh like she can. No matter how hard it was to have two, I’m glad we kept trying.

  9. Amy F says:

    This was a great read – thank you. If you want another point of view, I recently wrote a blog post about deciding to stop at one. I won’t say I haven’t spent time second-guessing that decision, but I keep coming back to it, so that must mean something.

    Here’s the blog if you want to read it: http://thenextfamily.com/2010/09/a-magic-number/#comments

  10. Meagan Francis says:

    This was lovely! I have five kids and truly couldn’t imagine life without any of them–but I always tell people that there are tradeoffs no matter what family size you wind up with. One child is easier in a lot of ways–but harder in others. An only child will get more of Mom and Dad’s attention but may not benefit from the kind of automatic extended family siblings bring. One thing I always tell people though is to remember that children are a resource just as much as a drain. Each member you add to the family gives back more than he or she takes away.

  11. VicT says:

    Um…you pretty much got a FRIEND when you were both teenagers. Which is different than growing up with an annoying little sister like I did! I was always at my best friend’s house (or she at mine)starting at age 10, not moping around because my parents weren’t catering to me every second. Siblings aren’t some magical answer to all childhood issues.

  12. anonmomof1 says:

    I am so happy that you found a sister and friend to lean on as a teenager. But I disagree that a family has to have an even number to be a happy family. Everyone needs alone time, and in a functional family, no one feels left out. And while some people have close, friend-like relationships with their siblings, many, many others have difficult or antagonistic relationships with them. Friends do just fine for companions and confidants, as well. To say that everyone in a family needs a “partner” is a little strange, and not true at all. My family of 3 functions as a team, and when a member gets a little alone time, they enjoy it.

  13. Maraika says:

    lovely article! I think four is an excellent number :) I’m so happy to have a brother, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like as an only child.

  14. Maddy V says:

    I truly love my family of four ( 2 parents, 2 kids…. + 3 furry critters), and remember feeling desperate to conceive our 4th immediately after marrying my 2nd husband. Actually, I had always imagined three children, but it wasn’t meant to be (my daughter’s twin stopped developing at 12 weeks gestation). I love reading your perspective and all the comments & other POV’s. The truth is none of this can be planned. I had a friend lose her baby yesterday and her grief is beyond compare. This was not part of her plan. But it is now her experience, and one she will no doubt grow in through her pain. She may have another baby, or zero, two or five. Whatever it is, there is perfection in it, if we choose it.

  15. MamaofOne says:

    A nice, warm essay, but I respectfully disagree that a family needs even numbers in order to be healthy and whole. You don’t always need a dance partner, sometimes you need to learn to dance by yourself to the music. My husband has an older sister. They talk maybe ten times per year and she lives 15 minutes from us. My mom has two older sisters she hasn’t spoken to in over 20 years. My father merely enudres his two sisters on holidays. My best friend spent years in therapy over the abuse she suffered at the hands of her older sister. Not all is giggling and wild room service ordering with a sibling.
    Those that have siblings cannot imagine what it would be or have been like without them, but those of us who never had them don’t miss them.
    My parents had plenty of alone time and I am an only child. They didn’t need to have another child to pair me up with so they could be by themselves. They are still married after 41 years.
    If you have an only child, please don’t have another one just to give your first one a playmate.

  16. Catherine says:

    MamaofOne, I respectfully disagree that “those who are only children don’t miss having a sibling”. I know PLENTY of only sibs who do. And, for the record, my older, adopted brother (adopted at birth before I was even born) and I were never close, not until our thirties. I don’t wish him away even though through much of my childhood years I felt quite like an only child, as he was considerably older and we barely shared a roof, growing up. BUT, he shares with me, something that no one else ever will, and that is a life growing up with my parents, many shared experiences. It’s not, either/or, one is better than another. Some people love being an only child, or having just one child, why is that contestable? Why would having more than one child be viewed by those who either chose to have only one, or faced difficulty conceiving again, be seen as anything other than a wonderful choice and a decidedly beneficial family addition? Even though I sometimes miss the ease of when it was just my son and us, I would NEVER EVER in a million years think that having my daughter is anything but the most amazing experience in the world. She is a star unto herself, not someone’s companion, not a toy for my eldest, not a fanciful whim on our part, but an amazing person unto herself who was meant to be here. Gah, I keep hearing this anti-multiple children sentiment whenever someone mentions happiness over having more than one child and it really blows my mind. I never comment negatively when someone discusses with pleasure their choice to have one child, I just don’t see where these sentiments even figure in an essay like this.

  17. MamaofOne says:

    Well, I have to say that on the other side, there is an “anti-only” sentiment. Like if you choose to stop at one, you’re somehow depriving your child of something. I wasn’t saying that people who have additional children were doing so just to have a playmate for their child. However, it seemed to be the point of the author’s essay that she was glad not to be the “third wheel” any longer when her older sister arrived.
    I don’t begrudge people for wanting to have more than one child. I don’t understand it, but I’m thrilled that they are happy in their families of four, five or whatever.
    So no, it’s not one is better than the other. I have my own theories about why people have multiple children, but that doesn’t make having more than one kid somehow “wrong”. Do what you want. Just don’t tell me or my child that we’ve missed out on some magical experience just because the procreation didn’t continue.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I come from a large family (4 children) and all I can say is “I have no response to that”

  19. Thalia AM Bruehl says:

    The essay above describes what I experienced as a child and how those experiences have shaped the discussion of family size for my husband and me. My husband also has a sister whom he is very close to; our decision to hope for two is based on our personal experiences. We believe two will be right for us, if we are lucky enough to have what we desire. That does not mean that two is right for everyone, and the article above was not meant to imply that either. I loved being an only child, I have two very dear friends that are both only children and wouldn’t have wanted it any other other way. Another friend is one of three boys; for him a large family is ideal. How ever many my husband and I eventually have, we can only hope they will be happy and healthy, and we will know it was the right number for us. Find what’s right for you, one to ten, and be proud of your decision. Don’t judge others for theirs.

  20. simple says:

    just like someone with a sibling can’t imagine life without their brother/sister, an only child can’t imagine life with one. parents with one child cannot imagine more, and parents with mulitples cannot imagine an only.

  21. karouni says:

    I grew up an only child, adopted as my parents couldn’t conceive. My mom was one of five, my dad one of six. The level of closeness people have with their siblings really depends on what their lives have turned out to be and how much they can maintain common ground into adulthood. My dad, the black sheep in the family, has little contact with his siblings. My mom, however, maintains regular phone calls with her two remaining siblings and they meet for lunch or dinner and stick up for each other when times are tough.
    I have one little girl and couldn’t imagine stopping there. Growing up as an only child was lonely. My parents had to work and I had to play by myself. It made me independant, sure, but also made me deeply crave attention and friendship. I won’t go so far as to say being an only child “screwed me up” but I don’t see how it was completely beneficial to be the only little one in a dual-income family.

  22. Anonymous2 says:

    I grew up an only child and I hated it. Now I’m having as many children as God blesses me with! Watch out Mrs. Duggar! ;)

  23. Storianne Tipton says:

    I am the oldest of 6, and only have 1 child so far. But everyday she talks about her future sister like an imaginary friend and I truly feel sad for her that I cannot give her another sibling right now. She waits for friends to call for play dates, or begs for friends to come over or sleep over weekly. I try not to ever say no to friends coming over because I feel so bad that I always had my siblings to play with whenever. I would love to have more children and cannot wait until I get married and have more children. I would love to have 5 or 6 more children and have the big family that I grew up in. She can play for hours alone, but at the same time she has had all these aunts and uncles around her bossing her around and playing with her that she is used to being the first grandchild and getting all this attention. She has younger cousins, and pretends they are her siblings, but she keeps bringing up the fact that she wants her own siblings. I know we didn’t have new clothes all the time and went to a lot of garage sales, didn’t get a lot of alone time with our parents or privacy in our own room, but the values that we have gained, the friendships and love out weights the negative by far. I hope that someday soon I will meet someone that wants a Big family too and we can start giving my daughter siblings right away!

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