As an only child myself, I'm pretty comfortable with the reality of raising a healthy and well-adjusted only child. I grew up playing happily on my own and nurtured invaluable female friendships from as early an age as I can remember. To this day, my tribe of girlfriends is more like a group of sisters than friends. We tease each other, lean on and push each other in ways I could only imagine a loving sibling would. And yet, when it came to my own family planning, I still found myself questioning my choice to only have one child — my daughter, Emerson.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should share the fact that my daughter has two rather grown-up siblings. My step children are in college and no longer live in our home, so Emerson is essentially being raised as an only with occasional visits and phone calls with her brother and sister.)
It took a good few years for me to decide that I was done having babies. When she was around 3 years old, I noticed many of Emerson's preschool classmates were welcoming baby siblings. Handmade banners were frequently posted around school announcing Jack's little sister and Molly's twin baby brothers and I quietly questioned my own family planning, or lack thereof.
I waited for Emerson to request a sibling and wondered when she would notice the different dynamic at our small dinner table compared to that of her friends. I tried to imagine her doting on a swaddled infant, but mostly I tried to picture how I would possibly manage my life with another small person to care for. In theory, I knew it was possible, but in practice and in my heart, I knew it wasn't for me. Today, Emerson is 5 years old and I've moved beyond making peace with my decision to have only one child — now, I'm celebrating it.
Turns out I'm not alone in my thinking. Figures from the 2011 Census Bureau show that 20 million families in the U.S. are raising just one child — and that number doubled in 10 years. Kim Thompson Steel of Mosey Images and Melissa McArdle of Reverie-Daydream are both raising only daughters — by choice. They remind me of the many joys of parenting just one child.
Table for three
Melissa and her husband travel easily and frequently with their small daughter and have never questioned their choice to have only one child.
"I couldn't imagine life with more than one child. She is my everything, and I am honored to share each moment with her and offer all my love and attention," says Melissa. "Siblings are not needed when a close community of friends is always near, providing endless play dates and blossoming social skills. Since day three of her life, she has been introduced as a citizen of the world, and we plan to continue this journey and offer the world as her playground."
"Only" does not equal lonely
Kim confirmed for me my strongest argument for raising an only child, as well as my favorite by-product of having just one little one vying for my attention — alone time — for both of us! Some argue that children need siblings to learn about sharing and getting along in the world. But I can tell you that parents of only children value regular play dates for this very reason, but we also see firsthand the benefit of a child learning to play on their own.
"My favorite aspect is that I can (sometimes) still have my own thoughts and precious moments to myself, which I know my friends and family members with more than one sometimes struggle to find," says Kim. "My daughter has also had to learn to be on her own and play independently since she was tiny. She is social, loves a party and has many friends but is also content to sit and play or read by herself if there are no other diversions."
Quality and quantity time
When I'm out and about with Emerson, she is my only responsibility. I often plan day trips to the city or the beach without much pre-planning or packing. I cherish the ease at which we are able to simply take off for an adventure together. I'm confident I can handle our needs throughout any experience based mostly on the fact that there is only one child to be with at any given moment. And when we are home and she is happily playing with her dollhouse, I guiltlessly retreat to my sewing machine for some creative time. Or the couch for a cat nap.
"Since nothing pleases me more than a lazy Sunday afternoon reading with a cup of tea, I love that she shares that with me," added Kim, who also values her alone time and feels that she and her husband are better parents because of it. "But we feel we are better parents given our own personal needs to only have one child. We definitely feel like a complete family, and our daughter feels the same."
Spoiled with love (and stuff)
And here's where things get complicated for me. Narratives from my own childhood are best saved for another story, but for context, let's just say I grew up with very little in the refrigerator and even less parental attention. As a child of the late '70s and early '80s, I was born with a latchkey in my mouth. Safe to say, I wanted something a little different for my own daughter. Not necessarily a silver spoon, but something more than a microwave dinner and an empty house. But I do worry about raising an entitled child.
For example, Emerson is saving her own money for Cinderella dress up shoes and she will not be getting a coop full of baby chicks just because her best friend's family is raising chickens. She will continue to ask and I will accept her disappointment. But she has visited Disneyland every year of her life and we have a family membership to our local petting zoo. We can afford these indulgences because there are only three of us. Add another child to the mix and we would be making different choices.
However, loving friends, extended family and grandmothers have taken generosity to a level I struggle to reconcile. We are bursting at the seams with clothing, Build-A-Bears, art supplies and sweet treats. And don't even get me started on the excuse for shopping that has become the holidays and birthdays. Having one small child has meant dealing with an abundance of stuff — mostly from well-meaning loved ones. I'm taking a page from Kim's parenting book and starting to exercise my right to say "no thank you" to too many gifts.
"I have never worried about her being spoiled — I think I'm one of the stricter mothers in her school network," adds Kim. "'No' has always been a complete sentence for me to the endless requests for this and that when we are shopping or she sees a friend with something she herself wants. She doesn't listen to music or see movies that some of her friends enjoy, because I am careful about age-appropriateness of what's in the media. I haven't seen a downside socially. She is perhaps more sensitive to social slights than others, but I wouldn't place the blame for that on her being an only, but rather to her own unique personality."
The ancient impulse to create a hearty brood to support the farm or ensure that one member of the generation carries on the family name has long passed. And while my decision to raise just one child reaches beyond the politics of population control or even birth control, I feel good about my decision to just do one thing well. I'm delighting in raising someone who feels special, confident and curious because she's never had to compete for her parents' attention. There's plenty enough to compete for in this world.