What it feels like… to have just one child

by on August 2, 2010

in Articles

An only child, Erica Wagner, reveals her reservations and delight at having just one son
The Sunday Times, 27 June 2010

“How many children do you have?” is an everyday question I’ve come to dread. “One,” I reply, humbly. “Only one?” Eyebrows shoot skyward. Uncomfortable surprise turns to downright horror when it is established that my only child is nine, and therefore I’m unlikely to be planning another baby. “Oh, a lonely only,” one mother commented, with a devastated sigh.

Having only one child works for me, but my decision is obviously hard for some to understand; I seem to defy logic. My husband and I both work from home, we have flexible careers that would accommodate a baker’s dozen, and we both adore our nine-year-old son, Conrad. Yet one is enough for us.

Mothers of more sometimes appear to disapprove of my choice. Besides the “lonely only” comment, complete strangers have felt compelled to tell me my decision is selfish, damaging to my son and — this takes the biscuit — that “being a mum to an only child must be a part-time job”. There’s nothing part-time about my relationship with my son. It’s an overwhelming, all-absorbing experience; everything I ever wanted. I’m a 24-hour parent. We all are, whether we have one child or five.

There’s nothing part-time about my relationship with my son. It’s an overwhelming, all-absorbing experience It’s not only mums who make such comments. Once, at a party, a man to whom my husband and I were chatting told us we were selfish (it transpired he was a father of three, with three different mothers; he didn’t live with any of his children; and yet he still felt he had the right to pronounce on our parenting choice). These remarks are rude, annoying and small-minded. I can only imagine what ill-judged comments are endured by women who choose to remain child-free. Why can’t we live and let live?

Personally, I’m yet to be convinced those children with siblings are necessarily happier. For every adult who adores their brothers and sisters, there’s another who is jealous and bitter. I’ll never have a favourite. Conrad will never have to compete for affection or time at home. I’d never make this comment to a mum who has chosen to have more than one child, because I’d trust she was aware of this; it’s obvious, isn’t it? But I’d also imagine that, as a loving parent, she’d naturally be hoping that her particular brood would grow up to be close and supportive, rather than taking the elder daughters of King Lear as role models. The world needs compassionate networks and families can be just that, but the world also needs diversity, even where family size is concerned.

I’m a working mum, and my belief that I’m entitled to a full and happy career partly informed my decision to have only one child. Not that I put my career before my son — just the opposite. With one child, I can ensure that I give my best to my career (and therefore feel satisfied and fulfilled — a great thing for any parent to be), but still give my son absolutely all the attention he needs and deserves. Conrad is an individual; he’s not the “big one”, the “middle one” or the “little one”. I don’t even think of him as my “only one”. He’s Conrad — a person, not a number.

Crucially, my husband doesn’t want any more children. His view is that the planet is bursting at the seams and recycling alone isn’t going to be enough to halt that. We discussed and established our preferred family size before we married. Agreement on such a fundamental issue is essential for a happy marriage. My heart breaks for couples where one person wants more children than the other — a baby is a difficult thing to deny someone who longs for it; it’s a hard thing to give if you don’t.

While my family and friends understand and respect my decision, the wider social pressure to have more than one child does not go away. I have been asked whether I’d have another baby if I could “guarantee a girl”. And it has been suggested that a girl would be more useful to me when I’m old, because boys desert their families and girls, apparently, spend every Saturday shopping with their mum. I find the idea of having a child to act as some sort of comforter in old age truly shocking and self-centred. When I’m old and frail, I plan to be financially and emotionally independent. I don’t want Conrad to come on Saturday-afternoon shopping trips — he should be doing something much more exciting with at least 90% of his time, because I hope I’ve helped to instil a sense of curiosity and independence. Maybe he’ll use the remaining 10% of his time to visit us.

Sadly, the belief that only children are unsociable and spoilt abounds — a prejudice that’s allowed to remain. For the record, Conrad is great at sharing: his toys, my time, his ideas. One child does make it easier to afford all the necessities and most of the luxuries we desire, but that’s not as important to me as the fact that there is enough time to ensure round-the-clock parental care and to answer those endless “why?” questions enthusiastically.
Naturally, I make sure he sees other kids (I send him to school, don’t I?), and he goes to fencing class and Cubs; not much more than that, because I don’t think he needs a squillion other activities — it’s exhausting (I know, another unfashionable view). The thing is, we like to play board games, make models, chat and watch television together after school. He especially enjoys the TV bit — just like kids with siblings.

Why, when it comes to this deeply personal issue, do people feel they can pass judgment? I don’t know. But I do know that there’s always a story as to why a family ends up the size it does, and that story isn’t owed to every impertinent stranger.

If I had been asked five years ago whether I liked being an only child, my answer would have been unequivocal. “Oh, yes,” I would have said. What’s not to like? You get all the attention, all the toys. You fit, from an early age, seamlessly into adult society, which is, of course, far more interesting than the society of mere children. You are the future personified, the hero of the tale.

I am an only child and I am the daughter of an only child, and my son, now 10, is extremely unlikely to find himself with a brother or sister. (“You’re too old now Mum, aren’t you?”) Actually, I’m not the daughter of an only child: my mother had an older brother she never knew. He died of cot death when he was a year old. She discovered this when she was about my son’s age and was rootling in one of her mother’s drawers; she found her brother’s birth certificate.
I recall her telling me that the baby had blond hair and blue eyes, but I don’t remember whether she told me his name. Now, because I am an only child and my mother has been dead for almost a year, there is no one I can ask.
If I’d had a brother or a sister, would she have told him, or her, that story too? I imagine so. We could ask each other: “What do you think Mum [really felt about that baby? Was she jealous? Was she sad?” And in our conversations our mother would be present again.

But I’m an only child, so that’s not going to happen.

You see where I’m going: I have a different perspective now. My father has gone, too (he died in 2007), and so, at the grand old age of 43, I can laugh, just a little, when I call myself an orphan. But I don’t really think it’s funny at all.
Several recent studies have shown that only children are not the social misfits they have always been painted to be. American research in 2004 appeared to show that five-year-olds had fewer friends than their schoolmates with siblings; but things change in adolescence.

In August, researchers from Ohio State University asked middle and highschoolers to select five friends from among their fellow students: only children were as likely to be selected as those with siblings. So much for Johnny No-Mates, then; but I can’t say that this comes as a surprise.

Any study will result in oversimplification, it seems to me, no matter how carefully or thoroughly it is done. The trouble is that life can’t just be boiled down to a more friends/fewer friends result. More friends? Happy fella. Fewer friends? Loser. We all know, don’t we, that it doesn’t really work that way, whether or not we have siblings.

Perhaps the question to ask myself is: what lessons have I learnt from being an only child now that I have an only child of my own? One of the most remarkable things for me about having a child is gaining an inkling of what it’s like to have a sibling. Theo is like me in a way that no one has ever been; that is amazing. But I try to be aware that the total, focused attention of both his parents might have a downside. He needs his own time, he needs to figure out his own way to be. It’s easy to over-schedule an only child.

He is, no doubt, precocious in the way that I was: perfectly confident in a group conversation in which he is the only participant under 30; a lover of oysters and olives. That said, I think he is better with his own peer group than I ever was.
Growing up in Manhattan, I lived on the West Side and went to school on the East; playdates, when I was a kid, were complicated. Theo goes to the local school and so seeing his mates is simple: they just knock on the door and everyone heads to the playground, which makes his life a lot more sociable than mine was.

I am biased, of course, but I think he’s a good friend to people — I want him to be, because, as he gets older, he’ll need his friends. Without siblings you must forge your closest relationships : this takes work, this takes care: but in the end it might just save your life.

It’s true that when my parents were sick, when they were dying, I was sometimes gratefully, guiltily aware that I was missing out on another kind of sibling relationship, one of conflict and stress. When things have been most difficult in my life — and not just in the past few years, I should say — I have been immensely grateful for the bonds of friendship I have built.

I am working on a book about a bridge, and perhaps my fascination for a structure that spans a great river, that has been made with great industry and inventiveness, stems from my desire to build very different kinds of bridges in my life.
I stand on one shore by myself, it’s true — but it’s easy enough now to walk over to the other side.

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