One Child or Fifteen (and counting..)?

by on March 4, 2012

in Bernice's Research

When ever there are article’s about only children in the newspapers or programmes about people who have many children; like the recent programme  ‘Fifteen Kids and Counting’ on  Channel 4, it givs rise to a great deal of media coverage e.g. news papers such as the Guardian and Telegraph. I then often get phone calls from journalists writing an article or I am asked to give an opinion on local radio somewhere in the country.  What I find interesting is some of the parallels that arise in the choice of having only one child compared to choosing to have many children.

One of the most common questions I am asked on local radio is why do some people choose to have only one child? Well there are, of course, a number of reasons but for many there was no actual choice. This may be because of fertility issues, death of a partner or divorce, economic restrictions, age, etc. I receive a lot of emails from women who would like another child, but are unable to do so and feel guilty that they cannot provide a sibling.  As I have stated many times, society can be very hard on women/parent’s who have an only child which is very unfair as siblings never guarantee a so called ‘better experience’ – just a different one.

When we look at why people choose to have only one child some interesting themes emerge. It can be that the mother or father was an only child themselves, and either liked the experience or because it is the one most familiar thy choose it. In my research, a reason people with one child gave for choosing to have only one child, was that they could not imagine coping with more than one child at a time. They did not feel there would be enough love, resources, or even enough of themselves to share with more than one child.

From a poll taken in 2004 on a yahoo message board dedicated to ‘being an only child’ it revealed a higher percentage of only children having one child. As this type of statistical information is not very meaningful (even though I did this piece of research myself) lets look instead at why a person may choose the one child option.

In the series: ‘Fifteen Kids and Counting’ at least one mother was an only child. Similarly,  Nadya Suleman, another only child in the US who give birth to octuplets whilst already a single mother of six, said she felt she had missed out on siblings as a child.

My own research revealed that the sense of ‘missing out’ was very common with many of only-child adults, particularly as  young children.  I wrote about this in some detail in my book: “Lack of Connectedness” (Sorensen 2008, p167-70). These pages describe how a birth of a sibling enables a psychological shift that moves the child out of the present and allows her to separate and see herself as the object of her world, as well as the subject. The experience of a sibling birth gives the child an opportunity to re-structure her relations with her human environment. She is able to overcome her jealousy of having been de-throned  by a sibling, and is able to shift her language from the present to the imperfect tense. Why is this significant? It is because the use of the imperfect tense reveals an acceptance of the movement from present to the former present (imperfect). She uses the imperfect tense in connection with the birth of her sibling, he/she is now what she used to be.

She can now see herself as a part of a sibling family. By overcoming jealousy tshe is given the opportunity to both re-structure relations with others she lives with and to simultaneously acquire a new dimension of existence of past, present, and future.  If a child fails to have this opportunity through the birth of a sibling, there is not only a lack in his/her experience, but this lack is an embodied feeling that something is missing.  This may be the reason why some people need to have a large family to fill the gap a lack of siblings has given them.

For many children, up to the age of puberty, it is very common to want a sibling – but this wish usually dissipates in time, although I think the sense of a ‘lack’ continues. This could be to do with another occurrence similar to psychological de-thronement. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, suggests that the human child’s capacity to recognise his own image in the mirror is fundamental for the formation of human subjectivity. Lacan argues that the capacity to recognise one’s ‘specular image’  (literally one’s reflection in the mirror) is the most primary form of identification. The child has a sense of himself as both subject and object.  As an Infant we receive an image of ourselves through the intersubjective interaction with our mother. As we grow, I think siblings also give us this ‘specular image’ of ourselves. They mirror back ourselves as a ‘young child’ not an adult. This helps to build our identity as a separate person but one in relation to another child that at some profound level mirrors our own image. Without this image we continue to feel something missing and may find a variety of ways to try and fill this gap and having a large family could be one way.

After all what ever size family we choose (if we can) there will be some conscious choices and perhaps some less conscious ones!

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