Can you 'have it all' with one child?


Lauren Smelcher Sams

The author, Lauren Sandler and her daughter.

The author, Lauren Sandler and her daughter.

In her book, The One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, Lauren Sandler makes a strong case for the only child – and their parents. As an only child who has chosen to have only one child, Sandler’s message about ‘onlies’ is simple: we should all calm down about them. That Sandler‘s book is already creating waves suggests that as a society, we’re generally uncomfortable with the idea.  

There are plenty of commonly held misconceptions about only kids. They’re spoiled. Indulged. Selfish. Awkward. But Sandler says these myths are derived from the work of a 19th century psychologist who famously concluded that, “being an only child is a disease in itself”. Yikes. More contemporary research suggests that onlies are not only doing fine, but are often intellectually and socially superior to their sibling-ed counterparts, and “the personalities of only children [are] indistinguishable from their peers with siblings.” So why haven’t these findings altered our Victorian perspective? 

Maybe it’s because they run counter to the belief that siblings are essential to our kids’ development. If Sandler is right and we have our first child for ourselves, and our second for the first, then stopping at one child is certainly – if unfairly – seen as selfish. According to Sandler, all the explanations levelled at her usually end up at that point. She writes, “they don’t like being parents (because they are selfish), or they care more about status – work, money, materialism - than their kid (because they are selfish), or the parents waited too long (because they are selfish)”.

'A 19th century psychologist famously concluded that, “being an only child is a disease in itself”.

'A 19th century psychologist famously concluded that, “being an only child is a disease in itself”. Photo: Adriana Varela Photography

 But Sandler chose to have an only for the same reason her mother did. “To have a happy kid, [my mother] figured she needed to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, she needed to be a happy person. To do that, she had to preserve her authentic self, which she could not imagine doing with a second child”.  


Many of us may be offended by the idea that parenting two or more children is less authentic or self-actualising – but it’s an argument that resonates with Susan. Her little only has just turned one, and while mothers in her social group are already planning their second – and even third – Susan is still very much on the fence. “I really cannot fathom the thought of being pregnant again. I had to put my career on hold [the first time] and I worry if I could do my job with the same amount of effort and time with two kids. How would it affect my relationship with my daughter and my husband? I can’t comprehend loving another child as much as I do my daughter.” Susan says that while she thinks having a relationship with a sibling is important, it’s not one she feels is essential. “There’s six years between my brother and I, so I never grew up playing with him.”

Like many mums contemplating the second child question, Susan prefaced her answers to me with, “This sounds selfish, but…” So maybe it’s natural to worry that onlies are the ultimate parenting sin. In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey wrote that she felt “stricken with guilt and panic” when her daughter asked for a baby sister. But if ambivalence is the strongest emotion you feel about having another child, wouldn’t it be better for all involved if you did stop at one? According to Sandler, having just one child allows us “the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add: all the wonder and giggles and shampoo mohawks but with leftover energy for sex, conversation, reading and so on.” 

This is why she believes that choosing to have an only is the closest we get to ‘having it all’. If we parented less (by spending less time and energy as parents by virtue of having fewer children), could we be better people? A recent study of 35,000 Danes seems to support Sandler’s assertion, showing that parents of only children are happier than those with multiple kids, while a global study showed that countries with lower fertility rates had happier parents. 

It certainly holds true for Joanne, mother of six-year-old Lucy. “I think I’m probably less stressed than parents with two or more children, so in that respect I’m definitely happier.

“I’ve watched overworked, sleep-deprived parents struggle with several children at once and felt a great sense of relief at having only one child.”

She sometimes feels a “twinge of regret” seeing those kids run around with their siblings, “but when I remind myself that I have more time to sleep, the twinge passes.” As for Lucy, she’s also expressed feeling “ganged up on” by her parents when she disagrees with them, and thinks having a sibling on her side would even the score. “Of course,” says Joanne, “she doesn’t realise how much siblings fight.” 

Kate on the other hand is an only child who always wanted multiple children. “Even if they do end up hating each other, at least they have each other to hate,” she says of her two kids. Being an only child gave her a lot of opportunities other kids she knew didn’t have, such as multiple extracurricular activities, but it also left her lonely and frustrated sometimes. “I think being my mum’s only child made her worry so much more about me. Especially as a teenager, it made her overbearing, controlling, suffocating. Because of that, I never really told her anything, and even as an adult, I still don’t confide in her.” 

The pros and cons of the only-child debate may be reignited by Sandler’s book, and if nothing else, her underlying theme that  “you won’t screw up your kid if you don’t want to have more” is a refreshing one. That it might also lead to a more comfortable, liberated and authentic life for parents is perhaps more controversial, but at least you can feel less guilty about being a happy parent with a happy only, who won’t be any more (or less) lonely or maladjusted than one with siblings.