When my husband and I decided to start a family, we had no idea if we wanted to have one child or more. To be honest, the conversation never went beyond, “Let’s have a baby.” Together, we took a wait-and-see attitude about what it would be like to be parents.
When our son was born, I honestly had no idea how deeply I would love this small little being. I was an experienced aunt to many nieces and nephews, but this was different. As our son grew into toddlerhood, we decided that he would be our one and only child. We gave him all our love and attention, and I was so curious about the person he would become. Now, he’s in middle school—a time when friendships and self-determination are more important than continually hanging out with Mom and Dad.
But during the pandemic, I am reflecting on the pros and cons of having an only child. We three are all together now, all the time. Our son keeps busy with friends playing online games, texting and talking, or taking online classes with other kids. But it’s not the same as sleepovers, trips to the pool, or going out together in person. Since March, we’ve worried about how lonely he might feel without a sibling. Sometimes, it makes us wonder whether we did the right thing by deciding to have only one child.
To keep things in perspective, here are some pros and cons I’ve discovered about having an only child:
The first time our son had a medical issue before he was two years old, I panicked. In the hospital, I cried until I almost passed out. The thought of anything happening to him gutted me. I knew that staying calm and strong would be a real challenge for me. I don’t know how my mother had three kids without being in a persistent, chronic state of worry. Then, I realized that every mother is different. We all possess different thresholds for anxiety and pain, and that’s fine. For me, my highly sensitive nature could handle protecting one child.
My son is an aspiring scientist with deep interests in biology, evolution, physics, and paleontology. I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging those interests and finding ways to support him. From pre-pandemic museum visits, endless documentaries, online lessons, books, trips, and independent research, I’ve become something of a citizen scientist myself. I feel lucky I’ve tapped into previously undiscovered interests and talents of my own. And with one child, I have the time to explore cool subjects with him.
My partner and I have very close friends who are our chosen family. With our son, we’ve always talked about the benefits of forging strong, lifelong friendships. Only children, or kids with siblings who are a few or several years older, tend to find one another. In some families, siblings don’t always get along, so close friends become your tribe. Only children are good at opening up to new friendships and sustaining them.
There’s a specific sort of closeness that comes in a family with an only child. Because there are no siblings, there are no sibling fights! But even more than that, an only child depends on parents to be their confidants, their sounding boards, and who they trust most in the world. Don’t get me wrong. We have our moments. But with an only child, I could adapt my parenting style just for my son without having to change it up for another child with a different disposition.
Everything my partner and I have worked for will one day become our son’s. Legacy building is essential for us, especially during these strange and uncertain economic times. From childcare to saving for college, having an only child allows for more choices both for him and for us.
I’m not bragging (maybe a little), but my son is an incredible human being. He’s bright, funny, loving, and curious. Sometimes I do wonder about the children I could have had. Based on my sisters and me, every child has the potential to be wildly different. There are moments I’m a little curious about what it would have been like to have a little one who loved to draw or play music or dance— someone who was the polar opposite of my son. But, to be honest, that sort of “what if” is very fleeting.
When kids get to be a certain age, they need more than their parents. Sometimes I worry that my son doesn’t have someone in the house to talk to about how awful parents can be, or how weird the world is. And with the pandemic, loneliness has been a big concern. Kids need other kids to practice social skills and expand their ideas and world views. With children now stuck at home, kids without siblings have to be exceptionally creative about connecting with peers. The friends that do fill our house when things are normal are like our own kids. Because this is an “only child” establishment, overnight guests and hours of hangout time without the interruption of siblings was the norm. We are longing for those days again.
When my father began to decline in his 80s, I was grateful that I could depend on my older sister to help make decisions about my father’s welfare. I was glad other people in my life knew and loved him in ways only we could understand as a family. Only children bear the burden of aging parents, and I don’t like the idea that my son will have to face losing us without a sibling for support and comfort. However, I know his independence and ability to forge meaningful relationships will be an asset to him in difficult times.
In the end, having an only child or multiple children both have their pros and cons. The trick is to figure out what sort of family life and future is right for everyone. Kids need parents who are happy, who know themselves, and who have a grip on the kind of day-to-day life that is most meaningful for them. A mom who knows herself is a gift to her children who come with their own wisdom, instincts, and ways of being. Whatever our background as parents, and however many children we choose to have, the kids really will be alright. Isn’t that the point?
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