One and Only; One and Everything? (Or, Parenting after Infertility)

First there was Frank Bruni’s NYT essay on the gift of siblings, which was quoted, linked to and shared all over social media. It’s a lovely piece, and one that made me pause and really consider how much of my life experiences were and are shaped by having siblings, in my case, older brothers.

Bruno quotes writer Jeffrey Kluger, who observed that ““Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life.” That shared history and familiarity can be a tremendous gift, and source of comfort.

Next came Lauren Sandler’s Op-Ed on being an only child and being the parent of an only child, a precursor to the release of her new book, One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. (It’s next up on my reading list.) In her article, Sandler takes on the misconceptions attributed to only children—that they are spoiled, selfish loners—as well as their parents, who must also be selfish, or care more about money or material goods than parents who have several children. She uses research to beat back these assumptions, and urges readers to consider the numbers:

“In hundreds of studies during the past decades exploring 16 character traits — including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment — only children scored just as well as children with siblings….only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else. It turns out brutal sibling rivalry isn’t necessary to beat the ego out of us; peers and classmates do the job.”

Lately, it seems like conversations about family dynamics and the decisions we make regarding family size are everywhere, and I find them cropping up all over the place in my own life, too. At two and half, my daughter is at the age where many of her classmates and friends now have younger siblings. All her cousins have siblings. Sweetly and innocently, she’s already asked me why she doesn’t have brothers or sisters. “Some families and bigger, and some are smaller,” I tell her. “What matters is that families love each other.”

When we’re in line at grocery stores, when I’m pushing her on the swings at the playground, or chatting with other moms, people ask me if she’s my first, if we’re going to have more. It’s a totally natural question, but if you’re parenting after infertility (and high-risk pregnancies) and/or parenting with chronic illness, it isn’t an easy or automatic question. It’s one I’ve been fielding since I was still pregnant with her. My response then was that I was focused on bringing this baby into the world safely, not future babies.

My response now echoes a similar sentiment. “We’re enjoying where we are right now.” After the long journey to get here, the fact that we have this happy, healthy little girl still blows our minds. Everyone responds to parenting after infertility in different ways. We never thought we’d be here, and some days it feels almost greedy or presumptuous or lacking in gratitude to assume lightning would strike twice like this. That might sound strange, but I wonder if some of you out there can relate.

What is a normal conversation for many other families, what is a natural progression in size for many families, is anything but for families with infertility or chronic illness (not that these are the only variables that make this complicated, of course—these are merely the ones that shape my perspective.) I wish this conversation was different for us, but that isn’t our reality. A few years ago, I wrote that the responsibility involved in making a decision like this—to embark on this high-risk road—was staggering. But really, the responsibility of being a parent in general is staggering, the competing considerations don’t get easier: We owe her the best of us, emotionally and physically. Siblings can be so enriching and wonderful. So are healthy (relatively speaking) parents.

It’s not an either-or situation, clearly, but what our responsibilities are to her as a toddler and young child and what she might want or need later are sometimes hard to navigate.

If she is an only child, I admit I sometimes worry about the misguided assumptions about only children as being spoiled or expecting the world to go their way, but I also know that her friends, relatives, and her experiences being in school, existing in groups, and generally learning to be social and empathetic. We’ve worked consciously to find a community, and communities within that larger community, where she will be supported and where she will feel connected to people beyond just the two of us. She calls her extended family and her gaggle of cousins “my people” and those bonds are incredibly important, and will be her shared history, too.

As I read Sandler’s essay and some related interviews with her, one thing that really struck me were all the negative labels attached to parents with only children—that their choices reflect selfishness or materialism, that they chose a small family so they wouldn’t have to deal with the chaos and inconveniences of more children, etc.

Maybe their choices reflect what is best for their individual family unit, and what allows everyone to thrive. Maybe it has always been their plan, their ideal social, economic, and philosophical situation. Maybe it isn’t their ideal choice, and the inability to have more children is a source of immense sadness. Whatever the reason, I don’t understand or appreciate the instinct to judge this choice, to assume negative motivations behind it, or to question the decisions parents make in terms of limiting their family size.

I know firsthand the many benefits of siblings. As a parent in a potential only-child family, I’m hopeful the benefits and opportunities of this path are enriching, too. I appreciate Sandler’s work and that she’s using research to speak back to these stereotypes—I wish she didn’t have to, though.

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5 thoughts on “One and Only; One and Everything? (Or, Parenting after Infertility)

  1. Can I just say that I absolutely hate the fact that people think it’s polite to ask why we have an only child and whether we want or are trying or have tried to have more? Even when done by well-meaning people, it’s incredibly intrusive, especially when they ask follow up questions. Way more times than I’d like, I’ve found myself explaining my series of miscarriages when trying to conceive a second child, followed by my getting sick and eventually learning that I had anti-Phospholipid Antibody Syndrome, which made it unlikely I’d ever have been able to keep a second pregnancy. (My OB says I was lucky to have had a first child, although I likely hadn’t developed that autoimmune disease yet before I had Ellie.)

    Life is complicated. And having siblings doesn’t guarantee that one will grow up and have close relationships with those siblings. And I cherish my one and only (even on the days I wish I could throttle her like Homer Simpson throttles Bart!). :)

    I’ve put Sandler’s book on my to-read list and look forward to enjoying it in the not-too-distant future.

  2. Thanks for the note, Aviva. I totally agree–it can be intrusive and can put people in awkward situations.

    I just got Sandler’s book–hoping to steal some time to read it soon!

  3. Wow, Laurie.
    I just came across your blog and I really needed to read this post (I know it’s been a while since you wrote it!). Right now I’m listening to my almost 3 year old girl sing herself to sleep at naptime, and while I should be just blissfully happy about her existence in my life, instead I’m spending time on the internet trying to decide whether we should try to have another baby. Our first (only) was an amazing unexpected natural conception after three losses and being told we needed to try egg donation. If we try again, it will be with egg donation and with all the infertility exhaustion (emotional and physical) that those procedures entail. Add to that my sjogren’s syndrome (diagnosed late 20s), propensity to fatigue, and the likelihood of an autoimmune flare after delivery; I worry about being a bad parent to my daughter and potential sibling. We live in a community where only children are rare, and she has just started asking about baby brothers and sisters (as do strangers and acquaintances). I read Lauren Sandler’s book as soon as it came out last summer and agree with her about positive outcomes (as an only myself) but then I heard Kluger’s Ted Talk on sibling bonds yesterday and that made me feel like maybe trying to have another isn’t just us being selfish, but that a sibling would be a gift to her. This is such a hard decision! Thank you for your perspective. You’ve got another blog follower and I’ll be checking out your books.

    • Hi Caroline,
      Thanks so much for the comment and the follow. I am so glad to hear the post resonated, since I know all too well how hard a choice it is when infertility/chronic illness is part of the equation. My daughter asks for siblings constantly and we don’t know many families with only one child. It’s so hard to weigh the short-term and potential what-ifs with the longer term benefits and drawbacks. It’s such a personal decision, and I wish you luck as you navigate it. PS–Please let me know how you find the books!

      • Exactly – there are so many variables between short-term/long-term and potential unknowns. Sometimes I think flipping a coin is the most rational decision. :) Thank you for the good luck wishes!

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