Back in the winter, after we lost the baby, I read Lauren Sandler’s One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.
In the spring, I ordered it for E’s nursery school (I was the parent librarian) and then read it again. I wrote down a page of quotations that stuck with me, intending to blog about it at some point after the dissertation dust had settled.
If you haven’t read it, Sandler is an only child raising an only child. She set out to explore (and explode) the mythology surrounding only children. She’s done the research. Her book isn’t judgmental- she doesn’t suggest that everyone should have only one child. Instead she sets out the realities of life for onlies (and their parents). She leaves it up to the reader to decide what family is right for him/her, but she wants her readers to make that decision empowered by knowledge, not driven by fear.
Not surprising, this book had a significant impact on me. Enough that I want to unpack a few of her ideas in a series of posts.
I’ll start today with this: this book made me feel better about the prospect of E. being an only child.
Sandler knows the myth of the only child. As she writes on page 3, the only child is always described using the same three adjectives: lonely, selfish, maladjusted. She adds that these adjectives are used so frequently they almost seem to run together lonelyselfishmaladjusted.
When she went and actually looked at the research on onlies, here’s her summary from unpacking the myth (11-12): “On loneliness: as kids, we’re usually fine. As adolescents, we’re often disempowered and isolated. As adults, we face the logistical and existential nightmare of our parents’ aging and death alone. But the good news is we develop our biggest primary relationship with ourselves. On selfishness: as long as we go to school, we’re plenty socialized to play well with others. On maladjustment, we’re fine. Overall, we’re pretty fantastic.”
E. will not be screwed up long-term if it turns out we can’t give him a sibling.
I needed this reassurance. I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of my anxiety and fear about E. being an only child is related to my own understanding of “family”. I’ve written on here before that my two sisters are my best friends. They are my support system, my fashion advisors, my keepers of in-jokes and family lore. They know me better than any one else in the world, even Q. They are the first people I think to tell something (after Q.), and when we are separated by great swathes of geography their absence gnaws away at me like a physical ache.
I cannot imagine a world without them.
And yet, as I keep reminding myself, E.’s relationship with any sibling he might have will not be the same.
He’s not a girl. He’s not going to be the eldest of three girls. He’s not going to have a sister a little bit more than three years younger and another one not quite five years younger. IF he has a sibling, sister or brother, there will be an age gap of more than four years.
It makes me sad when I think about how E. will not get to have the same type of relationship with his sibling that I have with my sisters.
But then again, maybe he won’t need that type of relationship.
E. doesn’t have a father in the military. He won’t move every year of his life for his first ten years. E. still lives in the house where we brought him home from the hospital three hours after he was born. By the time I was his age I’d already moved three times. Sandler does caution about raising an only child in an isolated rural area, much like where I grew up. Q.’s position as a tenured academic in a very large Canadian city means that’s simply not going to happen. There will always be children in the neighbourhood to play with.
E.’s parents didn’t marry when they were much too young. There are no guarantees, of course, but I think it much less likely that E.’s parents will split up when he is ten. I’m one of those children of divorce who end up with a fanatical devotion to the idea of a lifelong marriage, and I also recognize that I would never, EVER, find someone better for me than Q. And I think Q. still thinks I’m a keeper.
E. will never be shuttled back and forth between two households on every major holiday.
I am extremely close to my sisters in no small part because of our upbringing. When you move every year of your life right up until your parents divorce, you very quickly learn that the ONLY people who never go away are your siblings.
I’m not saying our relationship was perfect when we were younger. I bossed them around terribly and we all had our angsty teenage moments. But in our hearts I think we all knew that the only people we could trust were each other.
Before I read Sandler’s book, before I lost the baby, I was reading (because Ask Moxie loves it and I love her) Siblings Without Rivalry. It was an eye-opener. The authors had advice and support for parents dealing with sibling issues that I couldn’t even imagine. It made me realize that lots of people have terrible relationships with their siblings.
There are no guarantees in life. Even if we give E. a sibling that doesn’t mean they’ll end up best friends, or even like each other.
But at least he wouldn’t be alone.
This was one aspect where I felt Sandler’s book skirted around an issue. E. has never asked for a sibling, never wondered about having a brother or another baby in the house. He has, mercifully, forgotten about the baby we lost (or at least he never mentions it any more). He does not know what he is missing. And, to be fair, a new sibling now would probably come as a terrible shock to his sheltered orderly life.
But I’m worried about the endgame. And while Sandler acknowledges throughout her book that the real terror for onlies and parents of onlies is that there will be no support system for the child when the parents age, sicken, die, I felt that she never really came to grips with it. Sandler points out that “A number of studies have found that eldercare tends to be mainly shouldered by one child. No matter how many siblings one might have, the nearest-residing daughter is most likely to do it all alone” (52). This is something I’ve seen in my own family. My mother has three siblings, but because she is the one who lives twenty-five minutes away a disproportionate amount of the care my grandmother now needs has fallen on her, including the miserable job of being the enforcer when Grannie is irrational (as she now frequently is) about just how well she is managing living independently (answer: not).
Still, when we do eventually lose my grandmother, my mother will not be alone. When an only child’s last parent dies, it’s the end of their family.
Q.’s father was an only child. Both of Q’s paternal grandparents died before I met him. His father died in 2003, less than a year after Q. and I started dating. When we travel down under, we see Q.’s maternal aunts and uncles, his cousins, his siblings.
We never see anyone from his father’s side of the family. There’s no one left to visit.