The One and Only

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, there weren’t many only children in the neighborhood.  In fact, I was the “only” one on the block.  I was also the “only” one in my classroom for the first five years of school, at which point another “only” entered the scene  – a young man with whom I fell promptly in love.

It seems I was fated to be attracted to only children, for my next two boyfriends were also the centerpiece of their triangular families. As was the one who ultimately became my husband, thirty five years ago this month.  In the early days of our courtship, people half heartedly teased us about the havoc this was likely to wreak on our relationship.  “You’re both so used to getting your own way,” one of my aunts said.  “You’re both so independent,” my best friend told me.  “You’re both so spoiled!” my dad said.

Later, as it appeared that nothing would hold us back from pledging our futures together, friends and relatives pointed out that  someday we would  each have the sole responsibility of caring for elderly parents. “You’ll have no one to help you,” they warned.  And still later, when it became apparent that we would have an only child ourselves, the warnings became even more dire.  “Your poor son will have such a lonely life!  He won’t even have aunts and uncles and cousins!”

Only children have historically been the subject of pity, and have been looked upon as inherently selfish and inordinately spoiled. The myth of the only child dates back to the late 1800s when G. Stanley Hall, known as the founder of child psychology, called being an only child “a disease in itself.”

I’m sorry to inform Mr. Hall that modern research can’t come up with a shred of evidence suggesting only children are more prone to psychological disorders.  In fact, these studies indicate that only children are more intelligent and more highly educated, which isn’t surprising when you consider that an only child is the sole beneficiary of her parents resources in time and money.

A recent poll (reported by ABC News) suggests that only 3% of people think it’s “ideal” to have only one child.  There was a time when I would have placed myself squarely among that 3% – but maybe not so much anymore. I have to admit that it gets lonely here at the apex of the triangle. Until I got older, I didn’t realize how alone I really was. No siblings to share special occasions or tragedies. No extended family to call on for help with moving or garage sales or trips to the airport.

And most obviously, there will be no one to share memories with when my parents are gone. When those two important sides of the triangle are removed, only I will be left teetering precariously on the tip of what was once our solid little family.

Of course, I have my own family now, triangular as it is.  But now that it’s about to grow by one, I feel a stirring of excitement.  I wonder, will the only child syndrome come to an end with this generation?

Only time will tell.

I know several of my regular readers and friends are only children, or have only children.  How about you? What do you think?  Is being an only child “ideal”?  Or is it lonely at the tip of the triangle?

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10 thoughts on “The One and Only

  1. I never really thought much about the issues facing an only child as you describe them. What’s the old saying about not being able to choose your family? This points out how important it is fo have friends that you care about and that will be there for you.

    You get to choose your friends and these are probably the most important choices you will make in life.

    Think about your friends with even more care than you would your family because friends will sustain you so that you will have many triangles.

    • My friends have become a wonderful extended family, Lou. I feel lucky to have them. There’s a part of me that only lets people get so close, though, and I’m not sure if that’s a function of being an only child or just my personality.

  2. I like to be able to phone my sister and share my worries & frustrations about our parents and ask for advice etc.

    the thing is that you can never compare. We are all bound to live in the one experience only and we can only assume what it is like in a different situation.

    • I know people who have siblings to whom they don’t even speak, so just having brothers and sisters is no guarantee that you’ll have a close relationship as adults. One of my friends is caring for elderly parents, and she and her brother are sharing that situation in a very admirable way, though, so sometimes it works after all!

  3. I was an only child, but not by my mom’s choice. Miscarriages and failed marriages caused her a great deal of heartache. I only realized a few years ago that I do sometimes feel lonely not having a sibling. It would be nice on holidays to have a sister to commiserate with. Like Lou said, I’ve created my own family through my network of friends, and I’ve found comfort (and insanity) in raising my own kids. I’ve thought of having another. But with all that said, I don’t believe in having children (one or more) for the sake of fitting some mathematical formula. When it comes to marriage, you can’t help who you love. And you should only have as many kids as you want and can handle. That’s my nickel. 🙂

    • I do think you have to do what feels right for your family and your marriage at the time, and you definitely should not have more than one child unless you really want and are ready to handle it!

      I didn’t realize you were an only child, Angie. Something else we have in common 🙂

  4. As you know, Becca, I’m an only, and from my point of view, it’s a mixed bag. I like hearing the good bits of the research, but you really nailed it at the end when talking about having fewer people to share memories with who were “there.” That’s already happened to me. Because Mom died so young, there are only a handful of very old ladies in town and a couple of my very long-time friends who remember her. A few more remember dad, but not many. Generally, any visit to my cousins ends up with talks about “The Moms.” It saddens us immensely they weren’t around to see our happiness and that there are so few who remember them.

    The wear-and-care issue is a mixed bag. In my case, I was lucky to have good friends here who really liked dad and could help with some of the day to day companionship. But the hard decisions were mine alone, and that was rough. But recently I’ve come to see the other side of the story through a friend whose parents’ illness has divided the family into two irreparable camps, with attorneys and priests and mediators as their parents watch their family fall apart. Made me glad I was an only!

    • You’re exactly right, Jeanie, about it being a “mixed bag.” Like anything in life, you have to be aware of the pros and cons of your particular situation and learn to make the best of them. I think those of us who are “onlies” do have things in common, and it’s good to think on them and reflect on the ways it affects us 🙂

      I’m in good company, I think! xxoo

  5. My mom is an only child, as is my daughter. My mom lamented our choice to not have more children. She’s definitely shouldered a great burden in caring for and grieving her parents alone. I always tell her that having siblings doesn’t necessarily bulwark against those burdens. We only really know our own experiences, and it’s easy to assume that we might feel less pain (or more comfort) with or without a sibling. We considered her argument, though, and weighed it against what having more children would mean for our family in these years we share a home.

    Ultimately, we came to the decision that with our income and lifestyle, we could provide a really full and creative and rich life for the three of us, but that more of us would mean less of everything to go around. Chafe and I have always remained committed to our larger community and our respective creative ventures, with the thought that we offer Ruby so much more if we are creatively fulfilled and able to expose her to the art and music and theatre our community provides. Raising more children would certainly tap our funds and creative energy in ways we just weren’t willing to compromise. It’s my hope that we surround Ruby with a loving and supportive community and she understands, just as we’ve come to, that your family is whomever you deem your family to be.

    • All marvelous reasons and considerations…and we made many of those same decisions in regard to our only son. There are pro’s and con’s to every family size. From what I know of Ruby, she will make a wonderful extended network of friends/family when she’s an adult, just as you have done 🙂 And sometimes friends can indeed fulfill more of a family role than actual family members do.

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