The joys of life with an only child

by on March 15, 2009

in Articles

‘We love Paddy, he loves us’
Miranda Sawyer, mother of Patrick.
The Observer, Sunday 15 March 2009

The fantastic thing about parenting is that, if you’re so inclined, it gives you yet more things to beat yourself up about. You used to worry about your bad diet? Try considering your toddler’s refusal to eat anything other than white bread, crap sausages and ice cream without bits in. Do you lie awake at 5am unpicking your lack of achievement and general all-round rubbishness? Just wait until the state school lottery system hammers home what a proper failure you are.

Alternatively, you could try not worrying. Really. If having kids teaches you anything, it’s that you are not entirely in control. Not of your life, not of theirs. You can do your best – you’re an Observer-reading liberal, so you will do your best – but the moment you hand over your happiness to the smallest fascist in the world you have to understand that he’ll mess with it. So, start practising acceptance. Get zen. Worry about certain stuff – it’s not good if you send your child into the wider world without clothes, for instance, or unable to poo in the receptacle provided – but try to come to terms with the fact that you cannot live his life for him, you can only facilitate it.

Which brings us to the sibling question. I know many parents who emerge, blinking and distraught, from the first year of their child’s life and vow, “Never again.” Often, this attitude changes. As a general rule, having more than one kid is tough when they’re little (more chaos), but makes life easier when they’re older (they can amuse each other, through fighting). But when your child is small, those older years seem a long way off. So: do you have another kid for your child’s sake?

Our three-year-old son is not an only child: he has a brother and a sister from my husband’s first marriage. But Dylan and Jasmine are in their 20s and, though they love Patrick and see him regularly, they don’t live with us. In his day-to-day life, Patrick is very much an “only”. I’m not sure how much he minds. “We don’t have a cat,” he said yesterday. “Or a baby.” “No,” I said. “But we have a Buzz Lightyear.” “Yes!” he shouted. And that seemed to be that.

Now, we would be glad to have another child, but I’m 42. My husband is 46. It took me a long time to get pregnant with Patrick, so any late maternal flowering à la Cherie Blair seems less than likely. And… so what? We love Paddy, he loves us, we are happy. That’s a pretty good basis for him to start out with. Maybe he’d be happier with a brother or sister – I can imagine that, in the future, family holidays might get a bit dull for him – but, you know, he might not be. I love my brother dearly, but there are plenty of people whose relationship with their siblings is the source of much agony. Plus, he has lots of mates.

In the end, I can’t bring myself to care too much about this situation. I am overjoyed on a daily basis that we have a child and he is healthy and content; whether our family conforms to standard doesn’t bother me. I’m not that much of a perfectionist. If I had never met my husband, if my path had taken a different course, I could have ended up with a couple of kids. Or none at all. Or adopting. Life is haphazard and that’s the fun of it. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, much of your time on earth will not consist of living the dream (whatever that is), or even wrestling the dream to the floor and sitting on it until it stops crying. It will be dealing with whatever situation you find yourself in.

And that’s something that Patrick has to learn, too. Nobody is utterly satisfied with their lot. If you’re an only child, you want brothers and sisters. If you have a sibling, you want to swap it for a hamster, or a Wii. If you’re a parent of boys, you’d like a girl, or, indeed, anything that will let you kiss its cheek without going, “Muuum! That’s disgus-ting.” But despite the seductiveness of contemporary existence, its promise of eternal fulfilment if only we could land the perfect job/home/sex life/children/light fitting, and despite our best efforts to achieve this supposed nirvana, life doesn’t always work out that way. Let’s enjoy it regardless.

Previous post:

Next post: