The Only One

 Are the stereotypes about only children true?

I’m an only child and the mother of an only child. That wasn’t the plan, but sometimes life has other ideas. When I was 13 weeks pregnant with my son, my heart stopped.

I had a sudden cardiac arrest in the emergency room of the hospital after being admitted for severe morning sickness. After some literally heart-stopping moments, I was resuscitated and spent time in both the intensive care unit and the cardiac ward.

While the cause is thought to be a rare condition known as Takotsubo syndrome, brought on by a combination of dehydration due to severe morning sickness, low magnesium levels and the injection of an anti-nausea drug, the doctors cannot definitively say what caused the incident, or whether it’s likely to happen again.

Miraculously, my son and I survived. However, due to the uncertainty surrounding my diagnosis, my husband and I decided one child is a blessing and to have another would be too risky.

One and Only

Journalist and author Lauren Sandler examines only children, and specifically only children who also have a single child of their own, in her book, One and Only – The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.

Following her Time Magazine cover story in 2010, The Only Child Myth, Sandler, herself an only child, continued her research on only children. She found little evidence supporting the pervasive and often negative perception of single children, notably that they are selfish and self-absorbed.

To the contrary, she uncovered studies by academics, such as the work of Dr Toni Falbo from the University of Texas, that found only children are not measurably different from other children.

The only difference is that only children, along with first-born children, scored higher on rates of intelligence and achievement. Sandler describes herself as “A mother with a one and done approach” who chose to have an only child.

She considers the idea of whether, by choosing to have an only child, she is mortgaging her child’s happiness for her own.

The Myths

In her quest to get to the bottom of whether having an only child is a selfish act, Sandler explores many of these stereotypical only child myths. Happily, she debunks most of them, notably:

  • Only children are not selfish, spoiled brats. Sandler points out that children do not spoil themselves. Parents spoil children and children with siblings can be spoilt as much as an only child. The choice to spoil a child is about mindful parenting, not how many children are in a family. Sandler cites studies that show that only children can be more generous than people with siblings, because they haven’t had to fight for attention or possessions at home with their siblings.
  • Only does not mean lonely. A child having no siblings does not mean the child is doomed to a life of loneliness. To the contrary, Sandler argues that as a result of their single child status, many only children are self-sufficient and crave solitude. She believes this characteristic allows only children to develop strong attachments with friends and others outside of their family unit.
  • Ability to socialise. According to Sandler, a small family unit can be comforting rather than alienating. However, she does concede that it’s important for an only child to have social contact with a wide variety of people to ensure they possess the necessary social skills that children with siblings benefit from.

My son is now four years old. He is self-sufficient, spends hours playing happily in his own company and has a special bond with our dog, Lulu, who he refers to as his “sister”. On the flip side, he sometimes has difficulty coping with large social groups and teasing by other children. He tends to take any criticism, however small, very personally.

For my own part, I enjoyed certain aspects of being an only child. I loved reading and was content in my own company. However, I was also painfully shy. I suspect my only child status combined with minimal extra-curricular activity exacerbated that shyness. It’s something I struggled with into adulthood and occasionally still struggle with now.

The Benefits

Sandler discusses how having an only child allows more time for career fulfilment. Logistically, travel is also much easier with a single child – there’s no need for that extra room and aeroplane tickets are cheaper.

Financially, a private education is more in reach for families with single children. This is something my husband and I are coming to grips with at the moment. With more than one child we’d struggle to send our child to the school of our choice, which happens to be a private school.

My own experience as an only child saw my parents pay my university HECS fees upfront, meaning I could afford to attend university and start my career without a HECS debt. Had I had a sibling, this may not have been possible.

Sandler also holds the view that it’s possible for parents of only children to devote more time to their only child, leading to a more “meaningful engagement”. While this is Sandler’s personal hypothesis, it’s refreshing to associate meaningful engagement and increased educational opportunities with only children, rather than fight the negative tags sometimes allocated to only children.

The benefits above are mostly logistical or parental benefits – but what of the only child? Only children reap the benefits of the meaningful parental engagement Sandler speaks of. With the focussed parental attention, an only child can feel loved and attended to, which in turn can nurture their talents and hobbies.

While it may seem counterintuitive at first blush, only children can also possess excellent social skills, due to the fact their parents are hyperconscious of developing those skills in the absence of siblings.

Speaking as an only child, there’s certainly a sense of peace and independence being raised in an only child household that I have taken with me into adulthood.

The only child family model explored by Sandler may also become more relevant over time. Only child families are on the rise in Australia.

At the last census, there were over one million single child families in Australia.

In Queensland alone, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, couples with an only child increased by over 15 percent between the years 2006 and 2015.

If, like me, you’re raising an only child, consider this:

  1. Your child might sometimes feel different – as Sandler observes, “Being an only child is liberating and powerless in equal measures.”
  2. Nothing is gained when parenting by fear or guilt, whatever the reason you have an only child – whether it be by choice, health reasons or family separation.
  3. Consider what ‘feels like family’ for you – family is the important thing, whatever form or shape it comes in.

One and Only – The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler, Simon & Schuster, RRP$19.99

Words by Emma Heuston Levack