Mommy A to Z

Motherhood, Alphabetized.

O is for . . . Only Children (And Why I’m Not Raising One)


Boat pic2I’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.

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  1. Very moving well thought out piece.

  2. That was a lovely read. It is a painful decision for me, because of the issue you mention. I cannot imagine my life without my sister. And yet for so many reasons, having a second child would be quite a challenge for us. I recently read One and Only by Lauren Sandler and she says many of the things you mention here: only children do not turn out to be criminals or selfish or evil. Quite the contrary. And yet…I owuld love for my daughter to have what I have in my sibling. Life is so tricky and companionship is important. One thing I know for sure: whether or not we have another child, I will make sure to guide her toward making close friends with people, guarding and cherishing those friendships and forming bonds early and lasting in life. Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful commentary on this VERY difficult subject!

    • Thanks, Leslie. There aren’t any right answers, of course, with questions like these. I am sure whatever you decide will be the best choice for your family…especially since you’re giving it so much thought. Your daughter is very lucky!

  3. Great article! While I don’t have any kids yet, I have thought of the same thing 1 or 2?? I guess will see in the future.

  4. It’s just my personal opinion, but I know many only children and they never seem to get much of a childhood to me. The ones that my kids are friends with can’t relate to “kid” stuff as well as kids with siblings.

  5. This was very well done. I hope your future will be perfect. You have great friends, aunts, uncles and cousins. Your parents will live forever

  6. This is such a nice post. Very thought provoking. Thank you.

  7. I love the interaction between my daughter and son! Lovely post.

  8. That’s a great share I would say that having siblings doesn’t guarentee a tight family I have five brothers and sisters and unfortunately we are not very close. We all live our own lives and rarely share in family moments. I am closer to my friends siblings than my own so I would say its a luck of the draw and my daughter is an only child and she says she loved being an only child and doesn’t feel she missed anything because she too has had very close friendships growing up. So again I guess it’s just luck of the draw. Again great share.

  9. Very nice post. I can see where raising an only child would be hard.

  10. Great post. I thought I’d only have one for a while, but I am super happy with two now.

  11. This was so beautiful. I love your style of writing. It’s so engaging, so thoughtful. This, I am sure, can be such a difficult subject for so many folks to even personally broach. People sometimes feel like they HAVE to have more than one child or else their child might miss out on something. When really, it’s just a matter of each position having its own benefits. As a person with two sisters, your perspective and description of how you grew up sounds lovely. Haha! Just meaning that you didn’t “miss out” on anything, you experience was simply different. Sounds like you have wonderful parents, and a wonderful family now. :)

    • Thanks, Ashley! I do feel blessed, as I’m sure you feel to have your sisters. We all adjust to our situations, and learn to love what we have (hopefully!). Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

  12. I’m raising an only child. Our decision to not pursue any intervention to have a second child (much would have been necessary) was informed by my own less than enjoyable sibling relationship. The truth is that often people are not close just because they share DNA. Sometimes, we make each other miserable and there are no guarantees that two kids will help each other as they grow. I decided to quit while I was ahead so to speak and when my daughter asked, I told her that God gave me one baby and that was just what I needed. I think it’s important to want what you have in life. And I do.

  13. I love the emotion and rawness in this post. I’m one of four and I would like 4 or 5 myself so I love the idea of siblings. But I also love the experiences that you shared as an only child growing up, the three of you against the world :)

  14. I enjoyed this post and your perspective. I’m the oldest of four and while I never appreciated my siblings much as a child (I always sort of wished I was an only child), I really do now. I have five children and it gives me great joy to see them interact and do things together, too. I know they might not love having siblings now, but I believe they will later! #turnituptuesday

  15. I never thought about having to face aging parents alone. I have five other siblings and we’re going through it now. It’s a daily, labor-intensive thing and I can’t imagine one person handling it alone.

  16. My husband and I have decided to just have one child, and we struggle with that decision daily. Luckily she has many many cousins and they are very close despite us being so far away much of the time. Thank you for your thoughts and honest feelings about being an only child. :)

  17. You did a great job sharing both sides. I’m i be of 4 and I have to say I dint know what I’d do without my brothers, and I’m so grateful my boys will always have each other! Everyone does what’s best for them but I agree with your reasons for having more than one. Beautiful post!

  18. As usual, I love reading your post. I am sorry for your loss and I can feel the vulnerability in your discoveries throughout it. I love my siblings and I love that my daughters have each other. My first two are only one year apart and, even though the baby is so young, I feel at times that I should have another one so she could have a playmate her own age. Thank you for the heartfelt piece.

  19. I never thought of this before, I didn’t realize that an only child would have such a different lifestyle compared to someone who was brought up with having at least one sibling.

  20. Although it took us until we got much older and now get along beautifully, my Mom tells me all the time that it gives her great comfort the bond my brother and I have built and that we will have each other as we grow older.

  21. It’s definitely a tough and personal choice – where in fact it is a choice – and all you say about siblings gone wrong/only children gone right is indeed true.

    But it is nice to have close family, if that family can be supportive. My grandmother has a generous definition of “family” and I can only hope nobody feels lonely within that extension.

  22. the way I see it, have as many kids as you want as long as you can take care of them.

  23. What a moving post! I’m not raising an only child either! My boys have such a strong bond with each other!

  24. I was a mixture, my dad’s only child, and the youngest of my mom’s kids. But, most of my years, I was in the only child category. And, your exact thought process hit when my dad died. I was in the “I’m only having one child” category. Until my dad died, and yes, I felt very alone, and sad. And it was like a flip instantly switched, and I was in baby making mode. So, I have 2 kids, and hopefully, some day, they can lean on each other for support.

    • Thank you for this comment. It’s nice to hear from another (sort of) only child. While parents raising only children have very valid viewpoints, it’s interesting to hear from someone else who’s experienced that feeling of being alone, and who’s made a different choice for her family. Thanks again :)

  25. Lovely post! I always thought I’d only have one but now we have two and I love seeing them grow together!

  26. Great article. My condolences to your extended family for their loss – it’s never easy when a parent passes on. We struggled with having a second and despite a 5 year gap are very happy we did. They are ferocious enemies at times – which can be hard – but there is nothing better then seeing them “rescue” each other on a daily basis. :-)

  27. Great post Meredith. Lately I had the ‘only child’ question in my mind. Your post is very helpful for parents like me. Also I can visualize the reasons you provided here and they are so noteworthy. Thanks for sharing it with such honesty.

  28. This was a fantastic post. Each family needs to decide what they feel is the right size of family, but your thoughts about leaning on each other and supporting one another really hit home with me. Thank you so much!

  29. I think had we only had one child, even with complications and risks, we would have had a hard time not trying for a 2nd. Because we have twins, the decision was easy…we’re done after 2.

  30. What an amazing read! I come from a family with 4 kids, I couldn’t imagine growing up without them.

    Thanks for sharing on bloggy Thursday, hope to see you again!

  31. And sometimes we have to be thankful for one because two isn’t an option. We’d love to give our son a sibling, but it’s not in the cards. Consider yourself blessed to be able to have more than one :)

  32. Pingback: B is for… Blogaversary! | Mommy A to Z

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