As a young woman, I never wanted to have a baby. Girls I knew would lean over prams gurgling and cooing over infants; meanwhile, people's dogs were more interesting to me. Cue hitting 30. Suddenly, babies were all I thought about. I saw pregnant women everywhere. In my characteristic anal-retentive style, I came off the Pill, cleaned up my diet, sleep and exercise, charted my ovulation cycle and was pregnant within three months.
I was in love with my baby. I revelled in breastfeeding. I lay with her while she napped, luxuriating in the scents and sounds and softness beside me. I was impatient to show her my version of this manifold, incredible world. But at the same time I was disoriented, out of whack, subsumed as completely as an aspirin in water. There was nothing left of me. Of the self I once thought I was. My identity as an individual, a woman, a writer, the thousand and one things I once held dear, were being sucked out of me by this all-consuming whirlpool of unconditional adoration. I was not one any longer; I was a one and a two. And I didn't think I liked it much.
Am I selfish? Am I a bad mother? The subject of only children can be a touchy one, sharp as a hangnail. Since the birth of our daughter in 2005, my husband and I have never once seriously discussed having another. Tacitly, deeply, we both realised one was enough for us. And this begs the question: Why? People decide to stop at one child for many reasons: financial constraints, fertility issues, medical conditions, career focus, starting families later in life. Some are single parents, others point to environmental concerns such as overpopulation and diminishing planetary resources. I do share the worry that our planet can't support more people. I do have a medical condition that makes daily life difficult at times. But I don't think these were my conscious reasons for stopping at one child.
In many ways, I was brought up as if I were an only child. My sister was eight years older, and her life was fundamentally separate to mine. I spent my time reading, writing, drawing, imagining. My consciousness was intertwined with the conversations and concerns of adults; my parents, my aunt and grandmother who lived next door. At the other extreme, my husband is the eldest of five. My ex-husband was the middle child in a tribe of ten siblings. They lived in a kids' world of Darwinian savagery and riotous fun, insulated from their parents. Did their stories of mischief and mayhem somehow scare me off? Maybe. I do know that I crave solitude, viscerally, daily. Time to think (or not think), breathe, create, be. I grew to love that spaciousness as a child; I need it more than ever now.
Couples I know confess they tried for another baby to 'give' their child a sibling. Many cite pressure from well-meaning family and friends. Most of us still believe that children with brothers and sisters are happier, less lonely, more adjusted. This may hold true, on some level. Yet it makes sense that the more children there are in the family, the less time, money, emotional attention and physical and energy can be spent on each child. This is the unacknowledged flipside to the large family. Meanwhile, the number of one-child families throughout the developed world is increasing.
And what of the only child? Conventional wisdom espouses that only children can be overly attached, timid and introverted, or conversely, narcissistic, 'spoilt' and selfish. Regardless of which direction their neuroses take them, it's common knowledge they are dysfunctional, alien. Or is it so common? According to Professor Toni Falbo's multiple global studies conducted since the 1970s, and her meta-analyses of data dating from 1925 onward, only children display higher markers of self-esteem, motivation, resilience and success in worldly terms in comparison with their peers who have siblings. But they are more likely to divorce -- I'm not sure yet if that is a good or a bad thing!
Singletons have higher IQs on average, according to a 20-year tracking study of 3,000 American teens. Richer vocabularies, verbal facility and cognitive ability were recorded; a side effect of conversing equally with adults, not being relegated to the 'kid's table', or of parents 'dumbing down' subjects and tone of conversation in a kid-oriented household. It's important for me to add that this precociousness may have its downsides as well.
But none of this is why I chose – nay, stumbled – into being the mother of a singleton. I did what felt right for me and my family at that time. I cared nothing for truisms, or the ongoing debates among psychologists and social researchers. None of this is a competition. Nor can human beings be reduced to statistics and numbered tallies of complex states like feeling contentment, being loved, experiencing hope and despair. We are all human, all joyously flawed. Whether 'lonely onlies' or hailing from larger-than-life families, we are raising our kids in the best way we can. One thing I do know without a doubt – right now, my tight little unit of three is enough for me.
This post first appeared on June 2, 2016.Suggest a correction