Bernice continues her discussion of Life Stages from the perspective of the only-child adult.
After the Young adult life -stage, which is concerned with making relationships and settling down, we move into the middle-adult, life-stage. Middle adulthood is the time when we are actively involved in generativity. This is about helping the next generation and could be through raising children or contributing to the welfare of future generations through paid or voluntary work, or even perhaps in some other way. However it is also at this stage that many only children and non onlies, find themselves caring for elderly parents.
My research suggests that this phase of caring for elderly parents is particularly challenging for onlies, who often have strong feelings of responsibility toward parents’ and at the same time no siblings to share these feelings with. It also means that for some only-children the projected responsibility of elderly parents has coloured their views about having children, leading them to decide not to have any or in some cases this includes not having a partner either. Only children’s inter-dependence with their parents can mean they are not able to countenance either leaving the parental nest or placing a partners needs above those of a parent. On occasions this leads to the break down of the relationship with the partner and middle adulthood can be a time of divorce and separation.
A common theme from my original website concerning generativity showed that numbers of only children choose not to have children of their own. The reasons varied and included:
- Not experiencing being a child when a child meant they felt alienated towards the idea of being responsible for a child.
- Never really feeling they could relate to children as they had been encouraged to grown up as ‘a little adult’.
- Their own negative experience of growing up an only-child meant they were not happy to reproduce that for a child.
Some others certainly did not want to be to childless and wished to try and create the family they believed they had missed out on. They chose to have several children or even large families. Fortunately some only children really appreciated their only child upbringing and were happy to have one child. However these appeared to be in the minority with my UK co-researchers.
Therefore the stage of middle adulthood, for the only child, can be one of balancing many conflicting demands. This is of course true of people with siblings, but the difference is the extra pressure of duty that many only children feel towards their parent/s as the only person to care for them. This responsibility is often coupled with a strong parental expectation to be looked after in old age. When there are no siblings to discuss or share this responsibility and when one’s partner who has siblings does not really understand, the duty felt by the only child can seem excessive. The following extract is taken from my original research and captures the sense of both responsibility, duty and pressure:
We’re having major alterations done to this house to have my mother come and live here and that wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t an only-child. This actually gives her a proper space to be a disabled old lady.
I’ve been saying I would do this for my mum for a long, long time. There were times where she would have liked it to have happened earlier.
Since I went through that sort of pain barrier of: ‘Oh my god my life is at an end!’ The difficulty (of being an only child) has always been the emotional side of it- feeling pressurized – feeling demanded of – feeling that I’m smothered by everybody else’s needs. (Amy)
The final post in this series of Life Stages will be on Late Adulthood.