The One Child Solution

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Author Lauren Sandler advocates for the benefits of “only children” in her new book, “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.” Interestingly, she’s coming under fire for this view, saying in a recent interview that the intense scrutiny and blowback she’s received for shattering the stereotypes of only children — that they are selfish, spoiled and lonely — has been “like I’m suggesting that people should have aborted their own children — or that their parents should have aborted their siblings.”

As the mother of an only child, I’ve frequently been the beneficiary of unwitting comments about our choice.  Though it really was not a choice, I believe having one child was best for that child and best for our family.  In this 2010 Editor’s Pick from Open Salon, I discuss our family situation.

We did not make the decision to have only one child.  The decision was made for us, by biology, by chemistry, by the fates.  We were grateful to have a beautiful baby.  When he was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, we stopped trying for more children.

We talked about adopting.  Not knowing the ultimate functional level our child   made the adoption question difficult.  Would any child we adopt feel he or she came to our family to care for his disabled sibling?  Maybe we should adopt two to solve that problem?

Therapy for our son was expensive, in time and treasure. Adoption is expensive. We chose to support the child we had, and so he is an only child.

While that long opening explains why we only have one child, had I to choose all over again I think I would make the same choice.  My husband feels differently, and he probably would have liked a dozen. I was pregnant four times, and only carried full-term once.  I couldn’t keep going through that unspeakable agony.

Because our child is an  “only,” we made a special effort for him to spend time with his cousins.  He has several  cousins  his age.  While nothing replaces a sibling, it was the best we could do.  We took an extra kid, friend or cousin, almost everywhere.  Our neighbors had an only who is our child’s best friend and they are like brothers.

Our child had some opportunities we did not have as children because of his only status.

He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, so he has told me he doesn’t feel he missed out on anything. Other people seem to have much greater difficulty with the concept of the “only child” than I do. I cannot tell you how many people asked me when he was younger, “When are you having another one?”

I grew up in a very small family, two adults and two children and two grandparents.  My father’s family lived far away and we didn’t see them that often.  We cared for each other, but in terms of having a daily relationship, there was just the six of us.  I don’t know what I don’t know.

The happiest day of my life was seven months before our child was born.  Somehow I knew this time was going to be different when we went for the ultrasound.  There in the tiny black and white screen was a blob that looked like a moving hieroglyphic, with the tiny blip-blip-blip of a heartbeat. That was the only thing I needed.

Amy McVay Abbott is the author of “The Luxury of Daydreams” (2011), a collection of essays available on all book sites, and the forthcoming collection of newspaper columns, “A Piece of Her Mind” (2013).  She is a health writer by profession, and writes a bi-weekly newspaper column called “The Raven Lunatic” that runs in multiple Midwestern newspapers.  Her web site is www.amyabbottwrites.com.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Joan Haskins

    I chose to have one child. She has been the joy of our lives. She is not spoiled, or lonely, or selfish. She is quite the opposite. When she was a teenager, I asked her if she ever minded being an only child. She replied, “never.” She said she loved spending all the time she did with her dad and me, and never felt lonely or cheated.
    I don’t know why more isn’t written about the joy of an only child from both sides…

  • Lezlie Bishop

    i only had one miscarriage, but I also never planned to have just one child. I used to think I’d like several, but now that the work is done and the product is so satisfying, I’m glad things turned out the way they did. Like yours, my family was relatively small, but my grandparents live across the street and my mother’s brother and his wife and 3 cousins lived next door. My sister deliberately restricted her baby-making to one. She didn’t want to take a chance of having a second child feel unloved, the way she did. I just feel extra-blessed for getting the one I have. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.

  • Amy, I have only one sister and we are 8 years apart, so it was a bit like being an only child. I did have about 53 cousins, though, and I saw them often. I also was blessed with a great imagination, so the siblings I missed, I invented.
    On the other side, I married a man who was an only child and born to older parents. They gave the ‘darling’ everything he wanted except discipline. He is not a bad person: works hard, ethical, honest, etc. but..and it is a big ‘but’- he never learned to think about others until he thought about himself and how things would affect him, first.

    • Glora, I have one sister, 11 years older, and 50+ cousins, and I am married to an only child! That’s just a lot of coincidence. His dad wasn’t around much, and his mother didn’t remarry until he was in elementary school, but I don’t think that’s why he is so caring. I can’t say whether he was “taught” to think of others, or if that has always come naturally. Our son is eight-months-old, so who’s to say if we will have more than one. I know that all three of us are happy to be a family of three (plus the dog).

      I came across a summary of the research in psychology, anthropology, even economics on only children vs. siblings, and in this area, no one has ever been able to find a significant difference. That’s remarkable, because China has had its one child policy in place for so long. But it all washes out over the course of a lifetime. People have terrible sibling relationships, and they balance out the people who have great ones. Others have neutral sibling relationships. Some only children are not good at relating to others, and some are great at it. The fascinating thing to me is that there is not a single trait that we can attribute, not even statistically, to growing up with or without siblings.

  • Leysa Lowery

    I am a sibling among seven and the mother of four children. Lots of cousins, too. I love my family, but there were so many times I longed for the only child status. I had friends who were singularly blessed in their homes and I envied them. I often wondered what it would be like to wear things not handed down or to have toys I did not have to share. I think we do simply what we’re supposed to do. Some are meant for many children, and some are meant to be part of a mob. Others get to dote on one, and some enjoy the status of being The Only Child. The “stuff” that goes into making a family, whether it be by choice or by the Grace of God, is intimately personal and should not be up for judgement by others. It’s great to get insight into a single child family. Thank you for sharing!

  • Anne Born

    Planning a family is such a random activity. Pregnancies can be very difficult, money gets tight, space is an issue, time weighs against you, your relationship with your partner changes.

    My kids tend to generalize about kids they know who are “onlies,” but I know that when those kids get just a bit older, it will make little difference if they were only or brought up in a crowd, it only matters that someone loved them enough.

  • At first, I thought that your tone was apologetic. By the end of your story, I read that underlying “something” as grief. I think your story says it all–each family is a confluence of individuals with complicated stories. There cannot be an equation to make the perfect family, because there is no equation to make the perfect person or the perfect relationship. We’re all in a big, wonderful mess.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    The difference between the US, where we can have as many children as we are able, and China, where the one-child policy is enforced, is the choice to limit or expand your family. How blessed we are to live in a nation that allows us to make those choices ourselves.

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