There are so many wonderful words written by parents who have more than one child. Some lovingly lament the last of their babies shoving off for Kindergarten or college. Others offer hope for the relative ease of parenting that settles in when child number two or three or even four comes along. War stories of parental exhaustion are swapped around virtual campfires. Revelations about raising sons and daughters are bricks laid in these family foundations, and the intricate and intense relationships that form between those siblings are the mortar that holds it all together.
Yet, as the parent of one child, I can’t write some of those stories.
Sure, I can glean tiny bits from the perspective of being a sister and growing up with a brother myself, but as a parent I am not quite able to walk the full mile. I’m not sad or remorseful about that—those words are too strong—but I am sometimes curious about what differences I might’ve seen, both in myself and within my family as a whole, had we chosen to have more than one. Would patterns in nature versus nurture emerge more clearly? Would I second-guess myself less with each added child? Would I be faced with the question of “whom do you love more?” and, more to the point, would there be an answer I could truthfully utter aloud? Would she have been the amazing older sister I know she wants to be? Would I have found that my well of patience and resilience is actually much deeper than I think it is? I don’t play often here in this treacherous land of unknowable answers because it’s too easy to get lost in shadows of doubt and mystery, but sometimes I do.
Leaving the baby stage and the utter exhaustion during those early years, those I can relate to, but in a different way. For me, saying goodbye to the open mouthed kisses and baby cellulite happened only once, and the fatigue was shorter lived because I didn’t renew my contract with late night feedings and diaper changes. At the time, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the gravity of these things ending, but I certainly had a strong hunch I wouldn’t be going for another round. By the time she was three, we were pretty settled that she would be it. Even our momentary, three-month change of heart when she was almost five was half-baked and half-assed. We knew from very early on that we should pay attention to the milestones because we’d likely see them only once. There would be no reminiscing that started with “Your sister was … when she did that.” Those first several years, I was equal parts “thank goodness we are almost done with this” and “oh no, we are almost done with this!” It’s an odd, unsettling feeling when that is all tied to one child rather than more.
For us parents on this particular path, whether it be by choice or otherwise, I’m guessing some of it really is different, though certainly stitched with the common thread of sorrow that binds all of us parents together. Honestly, I’m not even sure if parents of multiple children can fully understand what it is like to have just one child because, on some level, it forces them to imagine their life without one or more of their children. That’s an impossible exercise. You get only a small taste of what it’s like between the time when your first is born and the second comes along, or perhaps when the last one is still in the house after the others have gone, but I imagine the flavor will never be as robust or nuanced as raising just one with intention.
I often wonder if parents of onlies and parents of multiple children ask themselves what I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, I wonder how could I possibly love anyone else as much as her…how could that possibly fit in my heart? And yet, I feel like parents of more than one might ask how could you stop at just one? because they actually live that intense love that (I’m guessing) doesn’t diminish despite more juice to pour or teeth to brush.
For me, the biggest discovery has been how I straddle the worlds of “firsts” and “lasts” so much of the time. My oldest is also my youngest. Her first day of Kindergarten was the first and last time I will ever have to do that. I won’t know if it gets easier with each child, or whether it grows harder knowing what’s on the horizon. It’s all easy and hard at the same time because I have no idea what to expect nor do I have to endure it again. I do not get that next child to “get it right” or “pay better attention.” This is it.
If we are going to see the twirl of her favorite flowered dress again, it might be on a friend or a niece, but certainly not another daughter (I have saved a few for a maybe granddaughter…you caught me). We will cycle through only one string of teachers in school, and there’s only one set of pencil marks on the wall recording how tall she is each year. She always gets the last cookie in the box, undivided and without elbowing a sibling on the way. In the same vein, we have to make sure she gets other opportunities to learn how to negotiate, respectfully disagree, and work through disappointment in ways that families with multiple children might take for granted with a home-based band of nations.
I don’t have to tend less to anyone for lack of arms or time or energy. There is enough of me to go around. The flip side, of course, is that once she’s too big for my lap, my legs will be cold again forevermore. That’s an inherent liability when you raise one child, but I choose to see it as a reward. There is an intense ability to savor and dwell in many of the moments because I am able to focus, stand upright, and face in only one direction.
Depending on the day, it can look like a sprint or a marathon, but it is certainly not a relay race. She is the only one on the track, and so I can wait patiently for her to cross the finish line in her own time. But this all reveals that being the parent of one child can be intense in a very singular and sometimes uncomfortable way for both her and me. I am sensitive to her life possibly unfolding under a magnifying glass, on center stage, or in a fishbowl.
There are simultaneously too many rules and not enough. There is no brother to blame for broken vases, and there is no sister who will break curfew first in order to soften our position when she does. If I want her to feel confident enough to take risks and make mistakes but without the burden of feeling like she has to please us all on her own, then sometimes I am (and will be) forced to avert my eyes, even though I don’t want to.
As with any first-born child, there are no worn cart paths to follow and guide my way. But the difference with one is that I will only travel down this road once. Any wisdom picked up along the way is nice to know, but not necessary for another time. This is why so much of parenting one child is now or never, and I feel that so deeply sometimes that I’m afraid to blink. I don’t want to miss all the brass rings. I know this wonderful carousel pony is eventually going to slow down and stop. And I know I only have one ticket to ride.
This post was inspired, in part, by some of the words I read here by Dina L. Relles. Do you know her writing? You should.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz