Friday, March 20, 2009

In Defense of the Only

Here's a scene from my past:

“Time for another one,” my mother-in-law quipped as I strapped my 2-year-old in his carseat to head back to the airport and our home on the opposite coast.

“Oh, no,” I said firmly, disabusing her early of any idea of a swelling brood of new grandbabies populating any nest I was to be in charge of.

She gasped. “He's going to grow up ALL ALONE?”

“All alone,” I confirmed, kissing the wretched island of a boy on the forehead and shutting the door.

There is much talk and even more tacit agreement among parents and non-parents alike that one just isn't enough. They turn out selfish. C'mon, everybody knows that. Spoiled. Not to mention, they'll miss that close relationship with another sibling when they're older. This is just common knowledge. Right? I mean, word on the street is a sibling is the “greatest gift you can give your child.”

Yawn. Sorry. That was just me, tiring of the standard line of thinking, weary from continually pressing my face up against the glass of the Status Quo Shoppe. I'd like to propose something radical – the idea that just maybe, being or having an only child isn't so bad after all.

The duos and trios and foursomes have had their due, and clearly there are many advantages to these tribes. Now let's examine – a little differently – the singleton.

Allow me to first err on the side of sanity. When I got pregnant, my first thought wasn't “Whew! Now I'll have two more hands to help on the farm!” Things moved more along the lines of “I only have two hands and no family close by and how am I going to raise this child without help?” Add subsequent human beings to this daily craze of isolation and death-defying speed? I chose no.
One child means if that child needs to nap, he gets to. And when one child is napping, mama can relax. One child is not hauled off to big sister's field hockey game or little brother's doctor's appointment, spinning along in the car from one thing to the next that's not about him.

I also firmly believe that single-child homes build social skills. You may think this counter-intuitive. However, one child, in the safety net of the home can successfully practice and see reflected back through modeling, manners, sharing, and other basic social interactions since they get to do these things with parents. No, no parent is a perfect model of any of these, but for those of us that are conscious parents, we at least have the chance to present what we want them to see on our better days.

Experimental play has greater possibilities for the only. I can let Isaac do things and carry his imaginative ideas further than I ever could if there were a younger sibling crawling around, for reasons of safety or just chaos control. We don't worry about small pieces, and I know that I can handle one child “cooking” with water, granola, and anything else I'll let him have at the kitchen table, let's say, but if it were two or three? I fear the mob.

There is great value in focused attention and uninterrupted solo play, as well. Celebrated writer John Updike, whom we lost just two months ago, said, "I'm sure that my capacity to fantasize and to make coherent fantasies, to have the patience to sit down day after day and to whittle a fantasy out of paper, all that relates to being an only child."

But I believe the greatest gift – if I can steal a phrase – gleaned from the social puzzle that the only child enjoys is bigger even than those pieces. He/she knows early on the necessity of reaching beyond our own home to people we have to work a little harder to know. Circumstances create the opportunity for them to reach out for connection. What could be a more important a skill for our world today? What could be more basic in terms of human need? Connecting with and appreciating connections with others is one of the most dire needs we have, something we will work toward all our lives. My kid has a jump start.

Remember that “wretched island of a boy?” Since he doesn't have to compete with anyone else for time, attention, food, or toys, our primary work is about hearing each other and connecting with other people.

I'm the first to admit that the young only child is a challenge for the parent who is asked to play on a continual basis – speaking hypothetically, of course (eh-hem...). And it's often at those times – when my boy is begging for a play date that can't happen, or I'm having to decide whether to sit down and play demolition blocks or try to have a moment with my own thoughts – that I question my wisdom. But I also know I'd not do anyone any favors if I went through the infant stage again with another baby. I was not good at it. I did not like it. I'm not supposed to admit that. Too bad. It sucked. And here we're right back in the sanity argument. I think my son deserves a mom who knows her limitations and can stay on the sunny side of them.

Besides, those fabulous siblings? You don't get to choose them. And despite parents' attempts to write a rule book on this, there are surely no guarantees about siblings becoming best buds as adults. All of us can think of multiple examples of siblings we know or we are that don't share this rumored unbendable bond.

I grew up the youngest of four. With eight years separating me and my closest sibling, however, to a large degree I experienced the situation of the only child. There is no doubt that I didn't always prefer it. I have memories of unwelcomed alone time and of times when I pleaded futilely with my oh-so-grown-up sisters and brother to play with me. And I also learned the value of reflection, solo play, and the immensity of inner worlds.

I entered the larger world with a better understanding of my own inner world. To this day, there is nothing I value higher than connecting with others.

Recently, we visited friends who have a single child – a daughter about six months older than my four-year-old. We hadn't seen them in three years and the kids didn't know each other at all. Immediately after walking in their house, our friend's daughter announced, “I have lots of toys!” She waited, wide eyes fixed on my Isaac. The tone of the statement was not gloating, nor was it that kind of arbitrary information that kids frequently offer. It was quite clearly an invitation. During our stay she shared readily, and when we said goodbye, presented Isaac with her largest teddy bear to borrow when he left.

Certainly every child has his or her own personality. Some might even say that this little girl's eagerness was a sign of loneliness. However, I have another take on it. What if even as children we regularly had to reach out to the larger world to find the kind of strong connections that sustain us?

In the end, of course, we deal with whatever we are handed.

But just here, just this once, may we hail the only, who thrives perhaps not despite his circumstances, but because of them.

It's a big world out there.


Sally said...

Thank you for this viewpoint. As a mother to one, I agree.
Have you read Bill McKibben's book
"Maybe One". I started but didn't finish. I was too caught up in the no cry sleep books at the time.

bobbie said...

A very rational and well thought out view which also shows that you know yourself very well. Isaac is fine. He has a great set of parents. He has many friends, both child and adult. I can't believe that he will run into any problems, whether he remains an only child, or whether he acquires another sibling along the way.

As we grow older, siblings can make a difference to us. But I believe it really depends on the personality of the individual how important that may become. And that, you can't control.

If you and Mike agree on only one, he'll do fine.

Barbara said...

Thanks. Have been thinking about this topic lately myself and appreciate your take.

Dianne said...

as the Mom of an only and as the oldest of 4 siblings I have seen both sides and I think you have made a beautiful, thoughtful case for parents doing what they feel they want/need to do

Isaac is a lucky boy and will surely have many many good people in his life

I have to say - as I listen to people ask my DIL when she'll have another while she is still carrying the first - that I find those questions/comments so offensive and intrusive.

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