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.