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
Now that she is seven years old, I find myself thinking less and less about her “only-ness” and what it means, if anything, in the larger context of her being in this world. We consciously decided to have one child and no more. Though there are brief moments of doubt (guilt?) about the ramifications of her living a life without siblings, I’ve made peace with it all. No regrets. Incidentally, she seems pretty happy too.
Still, the fact of her being an only child does present itself in unexpected ways from time to time. Things I hadn’t really thought about before. Here are a few recent ones.
Second booster seat in the car. After dropping her off at school one morning, I glanced in the back seat and saw the two booster seats. It dawned on me that anyone looking in our rear windows might think we have two children. And, up until about six months ago, I never even contemplated having to buy a second booster (we only have one car). But then she reached the age where she made her own friends and playing with them does not require their parents’ presence. We had entered the age of pick up/drop off play time. She has friends that come home with us from school occasionally, or that we pick up from their house. I like seeing two car seats back there. It means she is truly liked by someone other than family.
School open house night. Her school open house was this past week. I was really taken aback by how many students in higher grades were popping in and out to say hello to her teacher because their brother or sister was now in M’s class. I also saw families with two or more children gathering in the halls, comparing notes about which classrooms they were in now and in years past. I heard comments about some children feeling a little sad that they did not have whomever their older sibling did the year before. Hearing all of that made me realize we won’t have those kinds of comparisons to make in this house. Being the first born, she would have always had the “first run” on teachers anyway, but her tips and tricks about how to survive Mrs. So-and-So won’t be passed on to a younger sibling.
Lots of people assume you have more than one child. I guess this will always be the case, but I was surprised at how many folks still automatically think she is not our only child. Or, more to the point, that we might not be done. Is it because of her age? I don’t know, really. It doesn’t bother me, but it is interesting. But given that she is only one of two children (out of 21) in her classroom with no siblings, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised because 2+ does seem to be the default.
She’s increasingly the odd girl out. It’s an interesting, though subtle, shift. Many of her friends have younger siblings. And for a time, those younger kiddos were too young to play with/keep up with M and her friends. Not that M and her friends were deliberately excluding these younger sibs, it was more that the younger ones weren’t interested or didn’t engage in play the same way. But now they want to. What’s interesting is that the older sibs (M’s friends) want to include the younger ones more now because they can play at the same interactive level. It’s not so much a problem when they are all playing together in an open ended way, but when other things come up like sharing a seesaw or an amusement park ride, it does. M used to automatically pair up with her friends, but now has to take a pause (or second seat, as it were) if the sibling wants in on the action too. Having an odd number of children in the mix can create some awkwardness. But my guess is that that will change once again once the younger sibling(s) develop their own friendships down the road.
I have to deliberately “notice less” more now. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read about having an only child was from the book, Parenting An Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only, by Susan Newman, Ph.D. After highlighting different takes offered up by two adults who had grown up as onlies, Newman suggests this:
Don’t constantly scrutinize your child; overlook something he does that you may not like but which may not be important in the scheme of development. If he’s been on the phone too long with a friend or stayed up reading too late, pretend you don’t notice every now and again. Give your only a sense of privacy and his own identity, something he would automatically get if you were caring for more than one.
This is such good advice and I remind myself of it daily, particularly because she’s at the age where scrutiny is coming from outside the home now as she navigates friendships, peers, and teachers, all of whom give inputs (even if implicitly). To lighten the load and not make her feel like she is living in a hyper vigilant fishbowl, I back off on mentioning some (minor) things that I do otherwise notice. I remind myself also of how much I likely “got away with” simply because I had a brother in the house. And it’s not just pretending not to notice minor infractions, but also not rushing in to offer help when I can sense she is struggling to master something. If I had another one or two children in tow she’d often have to figure a way herself (or wait), and so I try to make those opportunities happen too.
More room in selfies. It’s silly, yes, and maybe I’m just more surprised that phones have cameras these days, but it’s so easy to get just me and her in the frame.
Do you have an only child? Any surprising revelations or reminders that you’ve noticed?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Having grown up with a sibling (my husband did too), watching the life unfold for the only child I am raising has come with a good dose of doubt and new terrain. When traits start to emerge or new phases shine through, it is hard to know for certain how much of those are because she is the sole child around here, and which ones would have happened even if she had twelve brothers and sisters. Indeed, the comparative basis I am working from is slightly different; I had a younger brother whom I had to fight for room in the back seat of the car and could blame things on, after all!* There were rites and passages that I encountered that she will not simply because it is just her. The flip side to that is that there are equally as many different ones that she will have that I can only marginally relate to (at least from a first-born perspective).
It all got me to thinking more deeply about only children. It’s a fascinating topic for me. I think it’s because I find so much of it intriguing (and sometimes panic-inducing, like when I consider the time after we die and she is left behind). I think it’s also because I still have not encountered that many families like us, though they are purportedly on the rise. I wonder sometimes about the various insights that others who have lived the life of or with an only child might offer. What can I learn from an only child who is raising an only child? What does the only child raising siblings have to say? So, I’ve started asking.
Recently, I asked a very close friend of mine, “BD”, to tell me more about her experience. She is an only child, and she and her husband (who is one of five) are raising an only child (by choice). Here is what she had to say . . .
1. What was your experience like growing up as an only child? (i.e. was it positive for you to be an only, mixed or almost all negative, and why)
Negative. My parents didn’t get along and argued all the time. I hated being an only child because I didn’t feel like my friends knew what it was like for me at home (not that I had friends when I was little).
2. Did you ever want siblings (either all the time or just once in a while)?
I wanted a sibling ALL THE TIME.
3. Do you know why your parents only had you?
I don’t know why my parents had only me, but it may be partly because they were both from LARGE families. My Dad is from a family of 13 kids, my mother from a family of 11 kids. [I] have a [photo] of my mother and me when I was about 4-5 [years old] that I found when I was gathering pics for wake after she died. She looks awfully pregnant. I didn’t ask.
4. Even though you did not have siblings, did you have other children around much of the time or not very much at all (cousins, family friends, neighborhood kids, etc.)?
Nobody around. Cousins in different country. Had a friend that I played with when she visited her grandmother next door (J) like once every month or two, and another where my mother worked that I played with on weekends sometimes (D). Nobody lived near me, until J’s mother bought the house next door to the grandmother when we were in the 5th grade. Oh, and the other kids always made fun of me at school…..more loneliness.
5. Did you ever feel lonely?
Sometimes. Doesn’t everyone?
6. Do you think there are aspects of being raised as an only child that have influenced who you are today?
Yes. I take care of myself and value friendships deeply, especially the older ones. [My] parents’ behavior affected when I got married (later than most of my other friends) and how I raise my child.
7. Now, talking about your own family now, how much, if at all, was the fact that you were an only a factor in your decision just to have one?
[I] never wanted to only have one before I got married, but [we] started late and [I] didn’t like being pregnant enough to intentionally do it again. And didn’t really lose the weight, either.
8. What about your spouse? He has siblings, so did that influence his or your decision at all?
It didn’t….[for the reasons I explained] above.
9. Did or do you ever second guess your choice to have just one? Did you know from very early on that you only wanted one, or was there some ambivalence along the way (either before or after your son was born)?
Nope. Cost [was a factor] and [what I explained in] # 7.
10. What are some of the benefits, in your mind, about having one? (Both for you as parents, as well as for your son)
[My] spouse is [the] oldest of 5 kids. He initially would have liked more (before my son was born), but then he paid for his own braces and culinary school and decided that he no longer wanted to “buy a minivan and fill it with kids”.
11. Are there any downsides? (Both for you as parents, as well as for your son)
Downsides for us? Nope, we have [money] and no diapers. Downsides for [my son]? Sure, [he has] nobody to play with at home.
12. Does your son ever pine for a sibling? I know for M, she has a lot of friends who have siblings, and almost all of them are younger. For a while that definitely led to her telling us she wanted a baby sister.
I think he may have mentioned wanting a brother once.
What advice would you give to someone who’s either considering having one (and is not pregnant yet) or who has one and is not yet sure about whether to add to the family?
Considering having one…..DO IT! An exciting experience that you will grow from as a person and as a couple. Adding….that’s a personal preference. [It’s] just not for me.
Thank you, BD, for sharing a little bit of your story about growing up as an only and now raising an only of your own.
* One book that I have found extremely helpful is Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only, by Susan Newman, Ph.D. There was one passage in particular that has stuck with me, something that I had never considered prior to reading it:
“Don’t constantly scrutinize your child; overlook something he does that you may not like but which may not be important in the scheme of development. If he’s been on the phone too long with a friend or stayed up reading too late, pretend you don’t notice every now and again. Give your only a sense of privacy and his own identity, something he would automatically get if you were caring for more than one.”
I had never really thought about it that way, but it makes so much sense.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I often wonder how much being an only child has on the assertiveness of that child, at least in the early years. Without any siblings to negotiate, squabble or disagree with, these kinds of “stand up for yourself” skills are really only able to be strengthened on the playground or in a school or daycare setting, temporary venues at best. We do our best as parents to make sure that M does not always get what she wants around here, but that really is a different kind of thing altogether. What I’m talking about is her ability to stand her ground with her peers if someone is doing something to her that is not OK, as well as knowing when it is better to try and work it out herself versus getting an adult’s help.
I became keenly aware of this less than honed skill shortly after she started school.
While walking home one afternoon during the third week of Kindergarten, my daughter told me, “Mommy, today Joey* was banging my locker door while I was trying to put my backpack away and it was annoying me. So I told him in a loud voice to stop it. And then Haley said I was being mean.”
I could tell that she was conflicted. His usual antics involved pulling her pigtails or poking her while in line. I think the locker incident was the last straw for her. Sure, she was proud of herself—and so was I—for (finally) standing up to this little guy who had been a pint-sized menace to her since the first day of school. But clearly Haley’s commentary made her uncertain about whether she had done something offensive or was not living up to some kind of expectation.
I suspect that this will not be the last time she feels this way.
I come from a long line of “people pleaser” women in my family. I won’t psychoanalyze the “why” of it all, but suffice it to say that my daughter, who just turned six, seems to be on track to fall in step with the rest of us. She certainly has a “can’t we all just get along” mentality, and her preference, like mine, is to keep the peace and avoid disagreement. When it comes to interacting with her peers during conflict, speaking up for herself is far from innate, and being an only child does not give her many opportunities to practice either.
As far as the range of childhood personality traits that a parent might have to handle, raising a passive people pleaser does not exactly elicit a lot of sympathy. Yes, it’s true that we parents of people pleasers often have the children who will sit quietly and still in class. Rarely, if ever, do they create any kind of conflict with their friends, even if it means that their ideas never get accepted on the playground. These kids are usually pretty great about going to bed and helping out around the house. What is there really to complain or worry about?
But, given my habit of projecting into the future—and, let’s face it, based on some of my own baggage—I know how this people pleaser tendency could potentially play out for her: unquestioned and non-responsive compliance and complacency in professional and personal relationships. Passively giving and receiving whatever it takes, just so someone will like her, no matter how crappy they are otherwise treating her. In other words, acting like a doormat. And though I haven’t done any scientific studies, it certainly feels like girls and women are more prone to this people pleaser tendency than boys and men. Quite simply, the world doesn’t tolerate a “bitch”, even a well-intentioned one.
We caught a faint though brief shimmer of doormat status while she was in pre-Kindergarten. It is unnerving and heartbreaking to see your child in that light. If we don’t take steps now, the glare that could result during elementary school and beyond has the potential to become blinding. So, with this in mind, I’ve been making a conscious effort to help her break this habit of tolerating someone else’s bad behavior with silence or giggles. I think it is important that this message come from me in particular because I am her primary female role model. I don’t want her to shy away from protecting her dignity, individuality and personal space just because she’s worried about what someone might think of her. I know that pattern all too well. Instead, I want her to understand that she is likable—and perhaps even more so—even if she has to use strong words or take action to stand up for herself.
As we finished our walk home that day, I took her little chin in my hand, looked straight into those lake blue eyes and said, in no uncertain terms, “standing up for yourself, even if you have to use a loud voice, is not being mean. Do you understand?”
The smile that immediately came across her partially toothless grin assured me that she does indeed.
* Names have been changed
I wrote this piece at the time of the locker incident and had submitted it for publication in a few places, but it was rejected. While my submission was pending, another blogger, Jessica Halepis, of www.nourished-mom.com, whose words I love to read, wrote a similar kind of piece that resonated with me too. You might want to check it out. I’m also happy to report that M has become more vocal at standing up for herself and the dust has settled a bit at school. It makes me so proud of her because I know it is not easy for her to do this.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
I’ve mentioned a few times here before that M is, and forever will be, an only child. This was our choice, which I know is not true for every singleton family you might meet.
I’ve also mentioned that I grew up with a brother, and may have mentioned that my husband (M’s dad) grew up with a brother and a sister. I think some people find it odd that we have siblings (whom we love!) and yet we chose not to have more than one child. I can see why that’s unusual to some people.
Indeed, the fact that we are two people with siblings raising an only child often makes me curious about the differences between how we grew up versus how she is growing up. It got me to thinking this might be a good (if occasional) series to start, because indeed, there is something about raising, if not being, an only.
The thing that struck me the other day was, while I was in some sort of mood (and not a good one), how M’s perspective of us, as parents, will be the only one out there. In other words, she won’t have someone to temper the memories of the people we were while she was growing up as our child. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just the reality. I had never really thought about that before.
When you have a sibling (or at least it seems to me), you can balance things a bit more because there is at least one other input into the discussion. Yes, we all have our own individual perceptions of other people and circumstances, but having others to share and recount the past (and its truths) gives it all more texture and a certain level of credibility.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I have a “moody” day and am not very fun to be around, I tend to dwell on it and how I’m somehow shortchanging M. I think we all do that as parents, no matter how many kids we have. We tend to be less forgiving with ourselves about the “off” days we have with our children, and forget the 90% of good and great days we generally live in. Add to this that for the past year, I’ve also been suffering with multiple migraines per month, which leaves me out of commission at least a few days a month here and there. So string a few of those moody days together with days where I need to sleep off a migraine for a few hours and I start to feel like I’m a lousy parent all of the time (even though my rational mind reminds me that it’s not actually the truth).
And then I start to question whether M will look back on these days with a sense of “she was always grumpy” because she is, in effect, the only witness to that. No brothers or sisters are around to remind her that no, Mommy was on the couch maybe one or two days a month (and hopefully for only a short while) or that she was only grumpy once in a while.
Or how about a benign example: I could see where M might grow up thinking that we served her Annie’s mac n’ cheese every day for lunch but a wiser/pickier/less pickier sibling would (rightly) point out that we were mean parents and only gave it to her once a week. But she won’t have that benefit of asking, “Do you remember when Mom would…?” Again, not a good or bad thing, just different from my childhood and the ability to do that with my brother.
The level of intimacy that the parent-child relationship has is almost unmatched to any other. The way we raise our children and the people we are around them shapes such a large part of whom they later become. Consciously or otherwise, it also shapes the kind of relationship we will have with them when they are adults, how they interact with us if/when they get married/have kids/choose where to live, and how they relate to us in our last years of life. It’s just interesting (and maybe a little scary) to now realize that only she will hold memories and opinions of us as parents through all of that. Let’s just hope it’s the better ones that outshine the others.
Do you talk about the people your parents were with your siblings? Does their point of view often coincide with yours? Or, if you’re an only, how does having only your perspective shape the way you view your parents?
Stay tuned for the next The Only Thing Is . . . where I will explore how assertiveness and the absence of siblings recently surfaced in an unforeseen way.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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