Can you 'have it all' with one child?

Date

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”.  

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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.

 

65 comments

  • Why don't we all stop wondering what other people think (i.e. whether we are being selfish or not) and just have as many kids as 1. you want to have and 2. you can afford to have? As far as I'm concerned, if kids grow up in a loving and nurturing environment that teaches them how to be proper adults in society, and are being provided for to the best of the parents' ability then what does it matter how many siblings they have/don't have? If you can't provide those things to a child (or children), then maybe you shouldn't be having them. I know people who are the only child who are loving, caring, and not selfish or spoiled at all. I also know "onlies" that are. I also know people who have many other siblings who only think about themselves. Basically, you can't predict how someone is going to turn out just by how many other brothers and sisters they have.

    Commenter
    This might help
    Date and time
    July 22, 2013, 10:17AM
    • But you can predict how someone will turn out when their greatest role-models are selfish and self-centered. I see it all the time.

      Kids of the selfish and self-centered are often stuffed in childcare mon-fri 7am to 6pm and then before and after school care. The parents say "but they like it".

      None of these place raise your kids they just mind them for a while. They get no discipline or attention. By the time they hit 10year old they are.... <can't use that word in a public forum>.

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 10:43AM
    • You don't have to wonder what other people think. Other people tell you straight to your face how selfish you are if you only have one. I know. I have been told that more than once.

      Commenter
      Lou
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 10:57AM
    • Me too Lou; from other mums in the playground to waiters insisting on me providing a sibling. My daughter was 9 months old and the waiter was so insistant that I told him that my daughter was an IVF baby who took 7 years to conceive and that her father died of cancer while I was pregnant so he could stick his paternalistic judgement back up his ___ from whence it came. I was allocated another waiter after that. I should have complained to his boss. The truth is that her father moved to another country while I was pregnant but if you tell that story people dig themselves a bigger hole and tell you that Mr Wonderful will come along and we'll have another baby and everything will be fantastic etc etc. Painful and annoying.

      Commenter
      Nicole
      Location
      Darlinghurst
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 11:25AM
    • Dear Cranky: No doubt you are available to mind my kids while my husband and I work. Not for a mortgage & flat screen TV, but to pay our rent & debts from when he was off work sick or a year? Oh, that's right, the mithre should be at home like some 1950s throwback. or you can't ahve kids. Shit hapoens to people, we can't all afford your adydream of domestic bliss

      Commenter
      Carmine
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 11:26AM
    • Most of us can afford it.... but choices are made for flatscreens and bali holidays.
      And, no matter what any says about the 1950's, you will not convince most people that childcare or OOSH care will provide your children with the same upbringing that you will.

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 1:08PM
    • @nicole, haha well done, i think i will use something similar

      Commenter
      markymark
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 2:29PM
  • Pretty much every reason stated to only have one child was about the self indulgence of the parent. Life is supposed to be about family, community and the self. Putting the self first in all aspects is... well doh! Selfish!

    The article is full of it... more sleep, 'oh dear MY career is on hold', the joy or experiencing parenting (without too much work of course) etc etc. These things do not sound like they will make a good parent. I have no doubts you'll never volunteer your time... in the canteen, for school. dances, to coach a saturday team.

    You need a new definition of having it all. You CAN have it all but not all at once. There are times for career, there are times for sleeping in and there are times for family. Attempting to do it all at once is impossible.

    Commenter
    cranky
    Location
    pants
    Date and time
    July 22, 2013, 10:23AM
    • It is not selfish at all, but rather it is responsible behavior. If only every woman thought like her we would be living in a more sustainable and happier world.This woman is self aware and knows she is unable to provide the same amount of attention to another child, therefore why have another child if she knows it will be disadvantaged? This is the problem in our society and why many people are unhappy. The family dynamic is often dictated by ignorance, as opposed to what is right for the individuals involved and what they are able to cope with. I think this woman is smart and knows her limits.

      Commenter
      Melbourne Woman
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 10:36AM
    • So now it's self indulgent to be realistic? Lauren decided that her relationship with her existing family, her career, her way of life were going to be compromised by having another child and that the tradeoff wasn't worth it, therefore she hasn't. Good for her. Other people feel that having more children wouldn't. Happy days for them as well. Have as many or as few (zero is definitely an option) as you can afford, can look after and bring up properly, that don't impact on your life more than you are willing to bear. Calling someone self indulgent for doing so is ridiculous, I wish more people had Lauren's realistic attitude.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      July 22, 2013, 11:31AM

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