I’m an only child. And lately I’ve been fielding some pretty odd questions. Parents considering having only one kid have been approaching me, with questions reminiscent of being on a therapist’s couch: How was my childhood? Was I happy? Was I lonely? Did I ever feel like something — or, rather, someone — was missing? I’ve become a sort of “only child consultant.” As I look into the eyes of these parents, I see anxiety — a need for validation that their only offspring will make it without a comrade sharing his or her DNA. I suppose I should take it as a compliment. Apparently, since I didn’t grow up to be a sociopath or a contestant on The Bachelor, their beloved progeny has a good shot at survival.
I answer these questions carefully. How many children to have is a personal decision, and many factors go into it. Some of these parents can’t have more children. For others it’s a choice. I try to be as honest as possible, and in many ways, the answers are easy. I had a wonderful childhood. I couldn’t imagine any kid being closer to her parents. My father was a teacher and my mother a stay-at-home mom, and every summer we’d pack up the Camry and drive all over the country. I have vivid memories of gazing out the car window at the Grand Tetons of Wyoming or the towering stone arches of Utah, stretched out across the back seat with piles of books at my feet, no siblings to harass me or interrupt my quiet contemplation of the vastness before me. If there was something missing, I suppose I was too absorbed to notice.
Our little family made sense. We were a team, a unit; it was the three of us against the world. Being an only child also suited my disposition; I’ve always been an introvert, and, consciously or not, I’ve always cherished my space — to reflect, to read, to stare at the walls. It’s hard for me to imagine a childhood with commotion, with interruption, with little or no space for contemplative silence. People assume I was lonely. But the truth is that the solitude felt natural to me, and shaped the person I am today.
These are all honest answers. However, they are answers to the wrong questions.
The real question isn’t was I happy as an only child. It’s why I chose not to raise my daughter as one, and why I stand by that choice. I admit it was a difficult decision. I was ambivalent about trying for a second child, imagining that my daughter would be just as content alone as I was. But my husband, the youngest of three, convinced me that having a sibling would be important for our daughter, as it was for him. And in the last few years, a couple of things have happened that have made me inclined to agree with him.
The first has been subtle, a realization that has crept up on me slowly, like a dim, steadily growing shadow. Motherhood has brought a succession of surprising, unexpected moments — from the first kicks of pregnancy to the first tear-filled good-byes at daycare — and I’ve gradually become conscious of my lack of a confidante to share these things with. Yes, my husband is wonderful, but when I was sweating through my pregnancy in July, or staring down my second C-section, it would have been nice to have had a sister to commiserate with, or a brother to distract me with inside jokes and nostalgia. When my daughter was little, I could offer no family trips to the beach with cousins splashing around, battling over shovels and crafting castles in the sand. There were no children irreverently whispering together at Passover, impatiently waiting for the matzo ball soup to make its appearance. No one competed to win Easter egg hunts. For moments like these, we had to travel to see my in-laws, at whose homes I felt an elusive, indefinable longing, a subtle sense of missing something for my daughter that I had never consciously missed for myself.
The second event was more dramatic. Recently, my mother-in-law passed away, after a difficult battle with cancer. As I watched my husband and his siblings draw close together, offering one another unspoken comforts only they could understand, I felt a sense of nagging desperation. It’s an anxiety common to many only children, as we, and the generation above us, begin to age. The idea of facing such a devastating loss alone, without the solidarity of an equally heartbroken companion, is overwhelming. As adjusted as I am to being alone at a given moment, I admit I’m scared of being alone in the world. Because the reality is that, even though I’m blessed with a wonderful husband and children, the foundation of my life will one day erode. There will be no one at the end who was there at the beginning. I will be a ship at sea without an anchor, set sail from a shore that has faded and crumbled away. It’s a daunting prospect.
And so, when I’m faced with parents considering having only one child, I try to say the right things. True things. There’s no guarantee the kids would be close. Siblings move away or drift apart. Friends and other family members fill the gaps. What I don’t say is how uplifted I feel when my son wakes up in the morning and immediately asks for “Sis,” or how proud I am when my daughter runs to her brother’s aid whenever he’s sad or hurt. I don’t say what a relief it is to know that they have each other — that neither of them has to be afraid of facing the unspeakable alone. I don’t say these things because no one asks. They only want to know if I was happy.
And that answer is easy. I was.