Only (not) the lonely

Mama and baby
Photo credit: Flickr/Ducklover Bonnie

I could have written the opening paragraph of the Salon piece The War On Only Children myself. (Fist bump, Mary Elizabeth Williams.)

I was making small talk with a woman I’d just met when the inevitable subject of family came up. “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” she’d asked. “No,” I’d replied. And there it was: the subtle change in her expression, the quick reassessment, the pinched face I’ve seen a thousand times before. “Well, that must have been nice for you,” she replied. “You must have been so spoiled.” [Continue reading — it’s good stuff.]

Like Mary, I find it hard to believe that it’s still normal to assume only children are either spoiled and entitled or pathetically lonely, and then to say so out loud. Prejudice without a trace of awareness or embarrassment.

Why, when we’ve made so many advances toward tolerance, does this stereotype persist? Why, when we’ve become so sensitive (some might say oversensitive) to political correctness, is it acceptable to blithely insult a category of people, often to their faces?

I don’t want to repeat Mary’s conclusions here, nor do my rhetorical questions add much to the conversation. But I do want to go on record about a parent’s choice to have one child, and the experience of being an “only” myself.

Choosing to have one child

There’s not much more to say other than it’s okay. It’s okay to have one child. It’s okay not to want another. It’s okay to factor population, money, and freedom into your choice to have one child. It’s okay not to “give” your child a sibling. It’s okay to question your choice at times. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to feel totally sure you want one kid, and one kid only.

The next time someone tells you your kid must be spoiled or lonely, it’s okay to say, “Wow, I’m surprised you feel comfortable saying something so prejudiced. I’m not sure how I could respond.”

People forget that, for some parents, infertility and/or miscarriage makes the choice. Such was the case for my parents. When I was six, my younger sister was born prematurely and lived for only a few minutes after her birth. Almost 40 years later, my mother cries when she thinks of what she (and I) lost. Imagine how she must feel when ignorant strangers judge their “decision” to have one child.

Being an only child

Again, it’s okay. I wouldn’t call it better or worse than having siblings, just that it’s life as I know it, and I’m generally happy. I’m not sad and lonely now, nor was I growing up. I don’t think of myself as spoiled or entitled, although I guess you’d have to ask those close to me if that’s accurate. I don’t pine for a sibling. It may be because I have two wonderful cousins I consider as close as I would think sisters are, but I’m pretty sure many only children feel as I do even without the cousins.

There are things I fear and am curious about because I’m an only child. I’m envious of big family celebrations and imagine there’s some magic I didn’t experience (I watch the show Parenthood with fascination). I wish there were another person with whom I could swap stories about growing up with my parents, because so much becomes clearer for me in conversation. I truly fear my parents’ death.

But I can just as easily imagine someone with siblings having her own fears and curiosities — especially if her relationship with her siblings is complicated.

* * *

As I have said many times at Parent Hacks, there are many “right” ways to raise a family, including deciding to have one child.

If you happen to be one of those people who mindlessly assumes only children are spoiled or are otherwise disadvantaged, please take a moment to expand your thinking. And bite your tongue.

The 80s musical inspiration for the title of this post. Thank you, Motels.

Article Posted 5 years Ago

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