This is the second post in a series unpacking the ideas found in Lauren Sandler’s One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One. For the first post, see here.
In my first post I wrote about how Sandler explodes the myth that only children end up lonelyselfishmaladjusted. Turns out the research shows that most only children are just fine. More than fine. And one reason for this could well be the fact that only children have one huge advantage over their counterparts in larger families: there is no dilution of parental resources. As Sandler puts it, “Such resources can be time, money, attention – everything from money available for college to the number of words spoken directly from a parent to a child. Only children receive at least fifty percent more active care time than kids in two-child families” (74).
I can see this already with E. When he wants to tell me an incredibly long story about the adventures he and his stuffed dog went on during quiet time, there is no one else demanding my attention. When it is his bedtime, I’m not struggling to also get a baby brother or sister to sleep. When E. wants to build an elaborate train track that takes up the entire living room floor, there is no one who will knock it over, or eat the pieces, or pull them apart (although one of our cats does like to roll around on the track, which drives E. crazy). When we’re doing something with E., whether that’s baking, or reading stories, or going for a walk, he has our full attention.
We will be able to fly down under more often if we only have to buy three seats rather than four.
E. will come out of his undergraduate degree (if he choose to go to university) debt free if he’s the only recipient of the RESP we’ve set up.
Many, many years down the road (I hope), E.’s own children (if he has them) will end up with a much stronger financial position if he is the sole beneficiary of Q.’s and my estate.
I am not, for a moment, trying to suggest that having more money beats having a sibling. I’m just setting out the cold truth: if E. is an only, all of our resources go to him.
I know that there are lots of things having a sibling would teach E., like sharing and compromise and listening to other people’s feelings, but I think many of them he’ll learn from his classmates at school. Q. and I are in agreement that if E. stays an only, he needs to go to a school that doesn’t boast about its tiny class sizes. He’s the centre of our world at home. He’ll need to be somewhere where that isn’t the case to provide some balance and a healthy dose of reality. Life isn’t kind to children who grow up to be adults who believe they are special precious snowflakes.
All well and good. But a monopoly on parental resources is a double edged sword. Only children do enjoy all the benefits that come from having undivided parental attention. But they also have no one to hide behind.
Sandler writes that only children “are the sole recipient of the parental gaze, which, as we all know, can be a withering one” (88). She quotes Nicole Campion-Barr, of the University of Missouri’s Family Relationships & Adolescent Development Lab: “Parental authority is especially inescapable for only children. Parents will always win. There’s no one else to appeal to. It’s that simple” (46). Carl Pickhardt: “Only children are scrutinized all the time…What makes it hard is the pressure parents feel because it’s their first and last chance to do it right…That conveys to the child, who then carries it forward” (88). Sandler herself adds, “In the incubator of a small, intense family, parents expect their only child to be like themselves, whether they admit it or not” (88), and quotes what John Hodgman (who has an essay in Only Child: Writers on the Singular joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing up Solo) said to his unborn second child, “You will be freer to fail” (194).
This is what scares the shit out of me.
Q. and I are both capable of intense concentration. You don’t get through a PhD (and, in Q.’s case, become a tenured academic) without this. We are train to analyze and criticize, to see what is written between the lines. We embody focus. I have been prone, ever since I was a child, to bouts of obsession, where I pick up a new interest and devour it, living and breathing it until I have thoroughly worn it out. I can recognize every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first thirty seconds and quote entire Monty Python sketches verbatim because of two such obsessions during high school. Q. has an ability to just sit down and get on with things that I’ve never seen anyone else match. His focus can be ferocious.
Our twin parental gaze could be paralyzing.
We could so easily be Basilisks.
E., our sensitive, introverted son, would wither beneath our glare.
I am conscious that my son cannot become my latest obsession.
I try not to overthink my parenting. I failed at this (miserably) during his first year of life when (as this blog shows) I fretted and worried and obsessed over pretty much every aspect of motherhood. But I’m getting better.
I worry though. I worry about what will happen when school starts, when the big issues start to arise. I worry that I will worry too much, think too much about his life, try too hard and crush him under the weight of my love. I worry that Q. and I together will set standards impossible to meet, or that we will be seen to do so by our son, even if we think we are being fair and equitable and only expecting him to try his best. I worry that our house, with its two PhDs and its twelve overloaded bookshelves, will be suffocating.
I worry that E. will believe he is a disappointment if he does not wander down the same road filled with books and schooling that lured his parents.
Having a second child would not change any of this. I know that. But it would dilute the gaze.
It would make the Basilisks blink occasionally.