The title of Lauren Sandler‘s new book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One says it all.
Sandler herself is an only child; she also has an only child. Will she ever have another? The process of deciding whether to have more than one child, she notes, can be anxiety-ridden for many. But why is there so much societal judgment about having only one? Why are such parents often deemed to be selfish?
For that matter, say I, why is there similar judgment for those of us who’ve chosen to remain childless or child-free? (Though not nearly as much pressure on us lesbians due to other kinds of biases.) The “only” dilemma seems on that same continuum, but different.
Let’s look at the two parts of Sandler’s title separately:
I. “The freedom of having an only child.”
Words that rankle some. But here’s what Sandler reports regarding parents of more than one child: “I’ve watched most of my friends tread into the tunnel of second children, few of them to emerge as how I remember their former engaged selves. They tell me there’s hardly the time to even consider maintaining a self. ‘You don’t have any idea how hard it is—it’s more than twice as hard,’ many of them say repeatedly, impatient and dazed….”
A couple review excerpts that speak to the freedom of having an only child:
Publishers Weekly: “…(T)he point is to ‘live the life you want,’ making choices based on individual desires and what is best for one’s particular family.”
Jessica Grose, The New Republic: “There is a welcome strain of argument undergirding this well-researched and lively book: Looking out for your own happiness is not inconsistent with being a good mother. This is a vital part of the conversation that’s not being discussed in the chatter surrounding middle-class parenting.”
II. “The joy of being one.”
Sandler combs through the research. Turns out, contrary to many myths, only kids are often well adjusted kids.
Lonely. Selfish. Maladjusted. These are the words that Toni Falbo, the leading researcher in the tiny field of only child studies, uses to explain our image of, and anxiety about, only children. I’ll unpack the myth at length, but here’s a teaser. 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 the strongest primary relationships 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. In fact, we’re pretty fantastic.
Below Sandler goes over a list of the top myths with more specificity and in person:
The following review snippet by Jessica Grose, The New Republic, also gets to the “it’s okay to be an only” premise:
Sandler musters a great deal of data to refute the persistent lonelyselfishmaladjusted drumbeat. On the loneliness front, onlies score no higher on measurements of loneliness than children with siblings; when it comes to selfishness, onlies are more generous than kids with brothers and sisters—perhaps because they take social cues from their parents, instead of their grabby, immature sibs; in terms of maladjustment, only children have higher educational and occupational achievement.