This is the third and final post in a series discussing the ideas found in Lauren Sandler’s book One and Only: The Freedom of Being an Only Child and the Joy of Having One. For the other two posts in the series, see here and here.
Sandler makes it clear that one of the reasons why she is an only child and why her daughter is an only child is that both she and her mother wanted to preserve their identities outside of motherhood. They wanted and needed time for themselves, for a career, for self-care, for other interests. Sandler argues that this is particularly common with writers, and gives as an example, “Someone once asked Alice Walker if women (well, women artists) should have children. She replied, ‘They should have children – assuming this is of interest to them – but only one?’ Why? ‘Because with one you can move,’ she said. ‘With more than one, you’re a sitting duck’” (8).
Sandler has come under some criticism for this section of her argument, but it struck a chord with me.
I am a very strong introvert.
I only realized just how strong an introvert I was when I became a mother. I can remember when E. was little, after he’d (finally) gone to bed at night our cats would appear from the corners of the house where they’d been hiding, and they would be desperate to sit on my lap and have some attention. And while I felt bad for them, it made me want to scream. I just wanted to be left alone.
Now that E. is so much older, I don’t have the same issues with physical overload, and my cats spend quite a lot of time perched on me (the ultra clingy one is glued to my legs as I type this on the couch).
But I still find E. exhausting. I’m still utterly worn out after a full day with him (which is most days this year given I’m without a job).
It’s not that I don’t like being at home with him. I do. We’re having a lot of fun together. He is, quite honestly, delightful. But at the end of the day, my inner introvert wants nothing more than to just sit quietly on a couch somewhere with a good book. E. has a quiet time most days that we’re home together where he plays in his room by himself for an hour. I’m the one who needs it. He could hang out with me all day.
It is hard to take care of myself when my most important element of self-care (time alone) is very hard to come by when I’m a SAHM. I even miss the commute to the university, especially the twenty minute walk to the station from our house through our neighbourhood. Getting up early three mornings a week to run is helping, but it’s not enough.
I will be honest- I look at the prospect of another baby with a great deal of anxiety and some genuine horror. I worry about how I would carve out time for myself, time that I need in order to be a good mother, but time that will be harder to come by if I have two who need me.
I know my faults. I am not good with chaos. I am not good with mess. I am not good (so very not good) with running late. I sense that having two children would make all of things happen more often.
There is a flip side to this, of course. Two children means someone for E. to play with, someone who can capture his attention who isn’t me. E. isn’t bad at playing by himself, but I can see how I might actually sneak more time if he had a playmate. But it will be a long time before any sibling of his is a playmate, if ever. The age gap between them will keep them at different stages in their development for years. The wider family isn’t much help either. E. has three cousins at the moment, but geography means he’s unlikely to see them more than once every couple of years. There will be no raucous Sunday gatherings, no cousins chasing each other around the backyard. I am hopeful, oh so hopeful, that my sister, who is trying so hard, will get to be a mother soon, but her baby will be more than four years behind E. My youngest sister is nowhere near the stage in her life where she’d be thinking about children.
When we were at the cottage this summer there were numerous entries in the guestbook from families who had been there many years in a row. Most of them had two children (or more). There was one family with an only child. When their son was younger, they went to the cottage with their friends who had kids the same age. As their son grew up, they started going to to the cottage and bringing one of his friends along. I can see us doing that. I would rather be at the cottage with my two children, but if that’s not going to work out, I would love for E. to have a best friend whose parents trusted us and let us borrow him (or her) occasionally.
When I take the long view, when I imagine my dining room table in ten years, then two children always wins out. But when I look at the next few years, I can see where only having one would be easier. If we are done, then our child is in full-time school as of next September and I have more time available to carve out a niche for myself in the world of work. If we are done, then we are under less financial pressure and it will be easier for us to rationalize my having a job that allows for school pick ups and drop offs and therefore is not full-time. I need to work- for Q., so he doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about being the only provider, for E., so his mother has something to focus on that isn’t him, and for myself, so I can be happy and fulfilled.
Whatever work I end up doing, I think it will be easier to do with only one child.
And yet, I know it, and I believe it, and I cannot reconcile myself to it. And this is, most of all, where I felt Sandler’s book let me down. She writes, “It follows that only children are likely to repeat their parents’ choices, especially when it comes to family size. In 1981 Denise Polit published a paper on the life choices of adult singletons. Their fertility intentions, she found, tended towards having only children themselves” (176).
I don’t know if this research still holds true, but I found there was almost no discussion in Sandler’s book of parents who found themselves with only one child NOT by choice. She glosses over it at points, but I couldn’t escape feeling that it was easy for her to accept her life with her only child because she herself was an only child. She had very little in her book that was helpful for those of us who have ended up in a situation that we so desperately tried to avoid. As I said in my first post, she does do a good job of highlighting the research that shows that those of us with unintentional onlies haven’t fucked them up royally as a result, but that’s small consolation when you’re trying to revise the image of the family you always thought you were going to have.
I wish she had spoken to more of us. I wish she had included more information about how parents processed their grief. I wish she had written more about how you come to terms with a small, quiet family when you grew up with loud and silly.
I know E. will be all right if he is an only child.
I know we, as a family, will be awesome.
But it’s not what I want.
And it is hard, really really hard, to accept that I might end up with it anyway.