After my son was born, I was asked if I wanted more children. “Sure,” I responded. “Good,” I was told, “because having one is kind of selfish.”
The person proceeded to tell me how sad it would be for a child to grow up not knowing what it would be like to have a sibling. How unfortunate it would be for that child to feel the sole pressure of his parent’s expectations. How cruel it would be for that child to carry the burden of caring for aging parents alone. After listening to all of that, I was glad I answered yes.
Unfortunately, that conversation happened before…
Before I wouldn’t be able to pull up the bed sheets due to excruciating pain in my hands. Before there would be nights my husband would have to use sports tape to support my wrists so I could breastfeed my son. Before I would find out that my exhaustion had nothing to do with a new baby but instead a blood disorder and diagnosis of Lupus. Despite the diagnosis, we still tried for another child. When unsuccessful, I considered it a sign that it wasn’t meant to be. I guess giving up efforts to have more children could be viewed as selfish. But I thought it better to give thanks that I was healthy to enjoy the son I had.
Still, having an only child used to be difficult for me. To others I joked that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle so obviously he knew my limitations. But on the inside, I questioned why I wasn’t trusted with more. There would be nights I camped out at Barnes and Nobles reading about how to care for an only child without suffocating him with concern. I read because I thought it would help me come to terms with my decision to not move forward with infertility treatments. But I also read because I wanted to equip myself with the knowledge and answers I might need to justify my decision to others. I worried about being seen as selfish.
Today I know that perception others may have that parents of only children are selfish couldn’t be farther from the truth. When talking with people who have multiple children I often position myself as “having it easy,” with just one kid. But at the risk of these words being met with eye rolls and sighs of “oh please,” I have to say that being the parents of an only child requires we give a lot of ourselves, just like parents of multiple children. But we also face a lot of unique challenges, including answering these questions that are asked out of unnecessary concern:
1. Does he miss not having other kids around to play with? Yes. Sometimes. Just like all kids who wander into the kitchen whining “there’s nothing to do” when other playmates aren’t around. But more often than not, his dad and I fill in just fine. It’s not ideal. We know. But before you feel sorry for the little boy who has to play with his parents, let’s not forget he has our undivided attention. We don’t have to deal with bickering between children like in larger families. However, (insert sound of violin here) my husband and I also don’t benefit from children having each other to play with, talk to, watch over or keep one another company (stop violin). Now that my son is older, I think there’s mutual enjoyment in being able to play chess, Yahtzee or Candy Crush together. But believe me, those games are a welcome relief, if not a reward, after enduring years of Spongebob’s Operation game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are plenty of parents with multiple children who would welcome the chance to play one-on-one with one of their kids. But being asked to do so day in and day out can be wearing.
2. Does he ever feel left out? I haven’t had to pick teams lately so I’m not sure. But seriously, I know there are times he may feel like a third wheel. Typically it’s because we are dealing with an adult issue and have drawn the line on his involvement. If anything, my husband and I have to work so that neither of us feel left out. Parents of only children can struggle with something called “enmeshment” – a tangling of relationships that may put the child in a position of being more than a child. You see, in families with multiple children, parents often are seen by their kids as a united front. There seems to be an “us vs. them” positioning. But an only child introduces a unique dynamic. As I explained in #1, in addition to being parents, we can also be the only choice around for companionship. And while we often share in the excitement of family adventures like the Three Musketeers, there is a natural tendency for “pairing off.” It can happen because of work schedules – such as my husband coaching golf after school or weekends while I get to be at home with our son. Or it can happen because of shared interests. For instance, my husband and son have a fantasy football team together. It may sound foolish, but in situations like these, my husband and I have to remind ourselves and each other that our son is still our son. We cannot become tangled up or enmeshed with putting him in the position of being a friend or substitution for the company of a spouse. We have to make a conscious effort to keep the relationship of parents and child clearly defined.
3. How do you keep him from being spoiled? We don’t. He’s spoiled whether we like it or not. I can’t help that I don’t want to fight with my son to play MarioKart or that he doesn’t have to wear hand-me-downs. I can’t help that I can make all of his sporting events because I don’t have another child’s game to attend. And I’m not going to argue with him about which children’s movie we’re going to see. Maybe that stuff makes him spoiled. But there’s a big difference between being spoiled and being a spoiled brat. While we may not have as many “teaching moments” as larger families to reinforce the importance of sharing and empathy, it’s often those larger families that provide the lesson anyway. Just by listening to brothers and sisters scream at each other over toys and hurt feelings my son has learned he’s fortunate in many ways.
4. Do you worry he’ll grow up too fast? I think it’s safe to say that all parents worry about that for their children. The truth is, we can’t stop him from what some describe as “maturing too fast.” My son is often privy to conversations between my husband and me for the main reason that there is no one or nothing else to distract him. Of course we’re careful about what we talk about when around him. But while sitting at the dinner table or riding in the car he hears or takes part in our conversations because we’re the only game in town. He’s going to hear us observe situations and make comments like “that’s ridiculous” or “that’s nice” and likely adjust his behavior accordingly. We’re not telling him to “grow up” or mature too fast, but I’m sure he is adopting some adult behaviors just because it’s human nature to pick up traits from people you hang around the most. And if he realizes that constant rambling about Clash of Clans or the latest Minecraft updates aren’t always welcome if he wants to hang around us, all the better.
5. Are you worried about him being alone to shoulder the burden when you grow older? Of course. Shortly before my mother passed away, I sat in a small conference room at the hospital with my dad, my brother and his wife. We were told there was nothing more that could be done other than choose her hospice care. For a while after that happened, I thought often about my son sitting in that room alone facing the same scenario. But then I realized that the likelihood of him being alone is slim to none. I take comfort in the fact that we are very aware of how important efforts are to keep him close with cousins, aunts and uncles so that he can have a strong support network should he need it. Not to mention, I like to think he’ll have a wife whom we’ll consider a daughter anyway, somewhat making his label as an only child irrelevant.
There you have it. Answers to common questions asked to parents of an only child. The reason I note that these are five questions to avoid asking, is because really, you can save your breath. If you read these answers you now know that parents of only children and multiple children have more in common than some might think. Given that ALL parents have their unique family challenges, perhaps the better question to ask is “why should the number of children parents have matter at all?” Parents are parents…and as parents, we all love our children. Rather than compare or judge each other based on just how many children we may have to juggle, let’s just offer one another support.