About the Author
Lauren Sandler has written on cultural politics, religion, and inequality for Time, The Atlantic, Slate, and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
One and Only INTRODUCTION
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK
This is not a memoir, but to conform to what’s expected of an only child, let me start with myself.
My mother was deeply devoted to raising me. To have a happy kid, she 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.
“It was all about me,” she freely admits to me one night, in a way that simultaneously makes my chest swell with pride (feminism!) and my shoulders contract with a cringe (selfishness!). My parents are in Brooklyn for a weekend visit. It’s getting close to midnight, and my mother and I are in our nightgowns, tucked under the covers of the sleep couch. My husband, Justin, and my dad are nursing their beers, feet propped up on the foot of the bed.
“When you were three,” she goes on, “I thought I was pregnant. I stayed up all night making a pros and cons list. By morning, it was clear to me I couldn’t have another kid.” She easily recites the “con” litany: she could continue her career uninterrupted, stay in the apartment she loved instead of trading urbanity for a suburban existence, maintain a certain level of independence, and worry less about money.
I interrupt her to ask about the “pro” list. I have no idea what she’s going to say. She’s never so much as suggested that there would be a competing list. Instead of replying, she continues, “I just would have had to be a totally different person with another kid. My life would have utterly changed. Luckily, it turned out I wasn’t pregnant.”
“I get that, Mom. I do. But what about the other list?” She’s silent. My father studies the label on his beer bottle. “Dad, what did you want?” I ask.
My father looks up at me. “I so loved parenting; I always wanted the experience to be varied, to go on,” he says quietly. A vocal strain belies his next words: “But you know me. I’m not a regretful person.” He looks back down at his bottle. “What can I say,” he says. “The years passed. It became the choice. Here we are.” He grins at me. “Where we are isn’t half bad, I might add. It just took me some time to get used to the idea.”
It takes us all some time to get used to the idea. As only children, we have to get used to lacking something that the majority of people have for better or for worse. As parents who choose to stop at one, we have to get used to the nagging feeling that we are choosing for our own children something they can never undo. We’re deciding not to know two kids splashing in the bubble bath, playing in the pile of raked leaves, whispering under the cover of darkness, teasing each other at the dinner table, holding hands at our funerals.
Everyone seems to think they know who we are, both singletons and parents of singletons. We are the selfish ones. I must be doubly so, as an only child myself, and the mother of one. Who else but an only child would have the sense of self-importance to write about being one, much less suggest that other people consider it for themselves? But after investigating the whole matter, let me offer this spoiler: I don’t buy it.
· · ·
Lonely. Selfish. Maladjusted. These are the words that Toni Falbo, the leading researcher in the small field of only child studies, uses to explain our image of only children. Falbo lists these characteristics so often, they tend to run together as a single word: lonelyselfishmaladjusted.
Why did this idea take hold? The academic basis of the miserable singleton specimen was the work of one man, who famously lectured, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” Granville Stanley Hall was a leader of the late-nineteenth-century child-study movement and had a national network of study groups called Hall Clubs that spread his teachings. Not a bad way to disseminate his 1896 study, “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children,” which described only children as permanent misfits. Never mind that Hall also openly fetishized his own agrarian, big-brood upbringing and disdained the smaller-family urbanity that was creeping into a rapidly industrializing country. Just consider that Hall—and every other fledgling psychologist—knew close to nothing about credible research practices.
Yet for decades, academics and advice columnists alike spread his conclusion that an only child could not develop the same capacity for adjustment as children with siblings. “Over-privileged, asocial, royally autonomous . . . self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual,” is the culturally perceived “unchallengeable given” of the only child, as sociologist Judith Blake wrote in her 1989 book Family Size and Achievement, which attempted to scientifically dismantle aspects of the stereotype. Later generations of scholars tried to correct the record, but their findings never filtered into popular parenting discourse. The “peculiar” only child had permeated pop culture, from oddball sidekicks in eighties sitcoms to demon children in horror films. Hellion only children are legendary on screen: The Shining, The Exorcist, Friday the Thirteenth, and The Butcher Boy are all films that rely on a seriously psychotic singleton (yes, even Psycho) to terrorize their innocent costars.
It’s not just fright-fests that traffic in typecasting only children. Name a genre, and there’s a list of characters to give the stereotype narrative heft and form: Tom Ripley, Veruca Salt, Eric Cartman. Even superheroes fit the stereotype, misfit loners incapable of truly connecting with citizens of the real world, suspicious in their overintelligence, often fighting against their privilege. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man—only children all. But this troubled image projected onto the popular consciousness can be complicated by the real-life heroism of some singletons whose ability to connect with others was central to their own superpowers: you might not know it, but Mahatma Gandhi was an only child too.
· · ·
Around the time my mother stayed awake on the couch with her pros and cons list, she met with the administrators of my nursery school to convince them to extend hours until six o’clock in the evening, to accommodate the needs of working parents. The next morning a squadron of mothers cornered her at the door to the school. Wearing pajamas under their trench coats, they allowed her to drop me off before moving in for the attack. “We’ve been waiting for you,” they said. They were fundamentally opposed to her suggestion of an extended day. “We wanted to tell you our children are our only priority.”
During an interview with British psychologist Bernice Sorensen, who wrote a book called The Only-Child Experience & Adulthood, I mention that my mother chose to stop at one and I am considering the same for my family. Her response is to snap, “So, your mother is a narcissist, and you’re one too if you make that choice, and you will probably ensure the same future for your daughter. Isn’t that what you’re telling me?” Let’s just say she’s one singleton who didn’t enjoy the experience.
The majority of parents say they have second children for the sake of their first child, or at least that’s what they’ve told Gallup pollsters for decades. But it’s hard to imagine anything that can be reduced to a simple survey question, much less an issue that layers notions of family, happiness, responsibility, legacy—life and death itself, when you think about it. Still, we all know that there’s truth in this response: first children tend to be a choice parents make to fulfill their own lives and a second child tends to be a choice parents make to fulfill the life of their existing child.
Some people believe that a family with one child isn’t really a family, although I defy anyone to strictly define familial normalcy today. Kids are increasingly—and happily—raised by same-sex parents (in fact, recent studies suggest that lesbian mothers are the best parents of all). Divorce is as common as not. In vitro fertilization has pushed the possible age of conception into the midforties. Siblings are almost as likely stepbrothers and stepsisters as they are the children of their own biological parents.
Such developments in the way we define a family produce questions about how to define an only child. Statisticians tend to use the rule that if you spent your first seven years raised as the sole child in a household, you count as one. But I’ve met plenty of people who consider themselves onlies because they felt estranged from stepsiblings, and others who would never think of themselves as singletons, despite an age gap of a dozen-odd years, because of how close they are to a brother or sister. These definitions are murky at best. Some only-child experiences and tendencies will apply to some situations (e.g., the seven-year rule works well when understanding selfishness or achievement), and not to others (e.g., even if your sister was in college when you were born, confronting the death of a parent would be radically different without her). It’s erroneous to think there is such a thing as “normal”—much less that we should aspire to such a concept.
And still, one of America’s most successful exports has been the cultural assertion that joyful families are big families: from Meet Me in St. Louis to the Cheaper by the Dozen remakes, the Partridges to the Duggars. One young woman in China, who was raised in a rural village populated by a generation of only children, tells me she never knew what a “normal” family looked like until the Chinese television authority permitted reruns of Growing Pains when she was in middle school. “The Seaver family was the first ‘real family’ I had ever seen,” she says, admitting a crush on Kirk Cameron and excitedly telling me that the actor who played Ben Seaver married a gal from Shanghai. “They seemed so happy together—why wouldn’t I want that?”
“Nobody wants that—that’s not what people imagine for their lives,” says sociologist Philip Morgan at the Carolina Population Center when I ask him to discuss the rising number of only children. In surveys that ask young women how many children they’d like to have, ultimately and ideally, no one says they’d choose to stop at one child, he tells me. To me, that’s like asking a tween girl what her perfect wedding looks like. My childhood fantasy was to get married on an island in Boston’s Public Garden in a dress my grandmother would take me shopping for in Paris, with a swing band and guests encircling me and my groom in floating Swan Boats. Instead, my grandmother was confined to a nursing ward, I wore a two-hundred-dollar off-the-rack dress, we got hitched at my parents’ house and danced to a six-hour mix we made that blew out my dad’s speakers. My grandmother’s absence aside, it was grand. We envision one thing; we live with another. Our ideals change in concert with our emerging realities—even more so if, as we develop, we opt to interrogate what we thought we wanted, and why we thought we wanted it.
Here are some things I want: I want to do meaningful work. I want to travel. I want to eat in restaurants and drink in bars. I want to go to movies and concerts. I want to read novels. I want to marinate in solitude. I want to have friendships that regularly sustain and exhilarate me. I want a romantic relationship that involves daily communication beyond interrogatives and imperatives—I want to be known. And I want to snuggle with my daughter for as long as she’ll let me, being as present in her life as I can while giving her all the space she needs to discover life on her own terms. I want full participation: in the world, in my family, in my friendships, and in my own actualization.
In other words, to have a happy kid, I figure I need to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, I need to be a happy person. Like my mother, I feel that I need to make choices within the limits of reality—which means considering work, finances, pleasure—and at the moment I can’t imagine how I could possibly do that with another kid. Someone once asked Alice Walker if women (well, woman artists) should have children. She replied, “They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one.” Why? “Because with one you can move,” she said. “With more than one, you’re a sitting duck.”
Still, I agonize every time I see my daughter doting on a friend’s baby, just as my own heart has a tendency to devour itself whole when I take a new tiny person in my arms, inhaling its sweetness, nuzzling that soft neck, thrilling to every smile and coo. When my daughter was born, after all my anxiety about how I’d never changed a diaper, all my avowing that I prefer living things who can verbally communicate, all my certainty that bonding would be an infinite process, and all my fear that I would never again live life on my own terms—well, I held my girl, just moments old, and I simply knew what to do. My confidence and capability stunned me. Justin’s too—though I always knew he was up to the task. And yet when I try to imagine doing it again, I feel even greater doubt than I did the first time.
There are plenty of parents who deeply want more than one child and are willing to make profound compromises to have the family they want. These are not people beset with ambivalence or fear that they will forever damage their first child by not offering it the gift of a sibling. These are parents who know what they’re in for and know what sacrifices they’re willing to make for it. The last thing we need is another person telling women what they should or should not do with their fallopian tubes, their finances, and their futures. I’m not here to preach the Gospel of the Only Child.
What I’m saying is this: when we obsess about which stroller to buy, or whether to go with cloth or paper diapers, or whether organic produce is a must, or whether Mozart or Mingus will make our babies brilliant, or if we’ve overscheduled or underscheduled or overfed or underfed or overvaccinated or undervaccinated our kids, yet we fail to consider whether we should actually be having another child, it’s time to change the conversation.
We ask when people are having kids—never a kid, never one child at a time, which is how it usually happens. If a kid has no siblings, it’s assumed that there’s a hush-hush reason for it: that parents don’t like parenthood (because they are selfish), or they care about their status—work, money, materialism—more than their kid (because they are selfish), or they waited too long (because they are selfish).
Over the past century, adulthood has come to promise more than just duty, but pleasure. We search for a partner who will satisfy our desires, develop a career that reflects our strengths, build a life that suits not just our needs, but our wants. Despite the fact that it’s no longer possible to have a middle-class life on one income—and often not even on two—we envision a liberated existence, one of satisfaction and fulfillment, a life built upon intentionality and individualism rather than obligation and role filling. This liberated adulthood exists at odds with parenting.
It doesn’t take forced population control to raise the number of a country’s only children—the relative incompatibility of motherhood and modernity has taken care of that. Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Japan, and Korea all have fertility rates of less than 1.4 per woman, about half the number of kids women in those countries were having in the seventies. While family policy that helps to manage the collision between work and parenthood—and particularly motherhood—is nearly nonexistent in the United...
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