The one and only

by on March 25, 2009

in Articles

Why more parents are choosing a single-child family
By Damon Syson  25th March 2009 The Daily Mail

Yesterday in the playground I watched a little girl point to a snotty-nosed toddler waddling behind her, puff out her chest with pride and announce: ‘That’s my brother!’ Something lurched in my chest – a pang of guilt, or maybe doubt. Because as things stand, my daughter Ava, who is two-and-a-half, will never be able to say those words. Ava, we have decided, will be raised as an only child.

In the past, only children were rarely the product of an active choice. But today, couples like my partner Bethan and I are making the decision to stick at one. The number of children living in a one-child household in Britain has risen. In 1972, 18 per cent of children grew up without siblings. Now the figure is 26 per cent. Britain is becoming a one-child nation. Experts agree the rise in only children is the result of two factors. First, women are leaving it later to have children, leading to fertility issues. Second, divorce and relationship breakdowns, usually within a year of the birth of a child, have led to an increase in the number of only children brought up by a single parent.  But there’s more to it. I firmly believe there has been a cultural shift, too. In the past, parents of only children were branded as selfish and warned their offspring would end up spoilt and maladjusted, but modern parents are rejecting these judgments.

Bringing up Ava as an only child is not a decision we have taken lightly. There are obvious advantages. We can lavish time, affection and opportunities on Ava. We feel we simply do not have the resources – money, space (we live in a two-bedroom flat), energy or sanity – to do that for two children. I’m not selfish; I’m realistic. Of course, some would argue I’m trying to find excuses for the fact I don’t want to go through another year of nappies, baby vomit and sleepless nights. Possibly so. It’s true that Bethan and I didn’t enjoy the first year of Ava’s life. Colic made our lives a torment.  Now everything is great. Ava is a little person. She’s a joy to us every day. For the first time in two-and-a-half-years, I’m enjoying life -and I’m not prepared to go back to those dark days without a good reason.

Of course, I’d gladly put myself through it all again if I felt it was in the long-term interest of our family, but Bethan and I are not prepared to sign up blindly for a second child simply because society tells us we should.
Bethan and I have discussed this thorny issue with friends. You tend to encounter four main arguments against bringing up an only child: ‘If your child dies, you’ll have no one to look after you when you’re old.’ I’m sorry, but if I was that morbid, I’d never leave the house. Moreover, treating your children like a pension plan is not only wrong, it’s inadvisable. Studies show only children are far more likely to live near and stay in contact with their parents. ‘When you get old, the full responsibility of looking after you will rest on the shoulders of your only child.’ Let’s face it, this routinely happens to people with siblings as well. ‘When you die, your child will be left alone.’ This is true. But it is an issue that will affect an ever-growing swathe of the population as the number of only children grows. ‘Your only child will turn out selfish, alienated and socially maladjusted.’ Simply not true. The long-term negative effects of being an only child are negligible. Only children are happier and more successful than people with siblings.

And yet the experience of growing up an only child is undeniably ‘different’ to growing up with a sibling. Do grown-up only children live with a feeling of loss? Do they feel adversely affected by their lack of a playmate and ally?

To find out more, I went to an expert. Psychotherapist Ann Richardson set up and organised Britain’s first only child conference. ‘Feeling slightly different, an outsider, not quite part of the group, are common “only” experiences,’ says Richardson.  ‘People talk of desperately wanting to avoid confrontation and finding conflict difficult. The need for space is a common issue, especially in relationships.’ But she says there are positive aspects, too. Though only children are prone to shyness, perfectionism and intolerance, they may also have characteristics such as thoughtfulness and ambition.

But if I’m completely honest, the deciding factor is financial. We simply can’t afford to have another child. Bethan used up her savings during maternity leave and, as a writer, I am in no position to support her financially. Our flat (which doubles as my office) already feels cramped. Having two children in nursery would cost us more than our mortgage. At a push, we could scrape together enough to educate Ava privately. With two children, that wouldn’t be possible. Middle class parents are increasingly being priced out of having two children.To make ends meet, Bethan and I need to work. All it takes is for Ava to be ill and everything collapses. As things stand, the three of us are a family unit that functions well. We love Ava more than I imagined possible, and she has a tremendous feeling of security. Most importantly, Bethan and I are happy, and I believe living with happy parents is the most beneficial gift your can give your offspring.
Are we selfish? Maybe. But if you want to look after a child, you also have to look after yourself.

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