You have/are an only child — selfish, lonely, spoiled. Really?

By Caitlin Kelly

If you really want to see, or provoke yet another hair-pulling catfight, write a book about any aspect of American motherhood.

I dare you!

Sibling! (Photo credit: Gus Dahlberg)

The latest entry in the spittle-flecked self-righteous-fest known as The Mommy Wars, (wouldn’t Mummy Wars be so much more…Egyptian? But I digress) is this new book, One and Only, about being an only child and choosing to have only one child.

(She also tosses in a fairly astonishing to me — and unattributed statement — that mothers are the women most likely to have an abortion.)

Here’s some thoughts from its author, Lauren Sandler:

If you only have one child, you’re inevitably asked, “Another one
coming soon?” Despite the overwhelming evidence that only children are
no different than those with siblings—not to mention it’s better
environmentally and fiscally—I’ve found that a lot of people only want
to have a second child for the sake of their first child. There’s a
notion that you’re not a good mother if you don’t give your child a
sibling. Why can we debate ad nauseam about tiny minuscule things like
diapers, schools, and organic T-shirts, but not about the number of kids
we have?

To me, U.S. family policy is a failure. We are one of the only
countries on earth that does not have structural family-support system.
This failure is due to our ideological individualism, our lack of a
labor movement addressing parents’ rights as workers’ rights, and the
fact that we’ve never had a population crisis. It’s completely different
in Europe and Asia. In Italy, you can’t even Google “family time”—the
term doesn’t exist. Instead they have an integrated way of living, with
parents and their children mingling with family and friends as a
community—and adults are actually allowed to focus on themselves.

Here’s a radio interview with her.

I grew up as an only child, so this is familiar territory. Onlies are told, all the goddamned time, how spoiled we are. How lonely we must be. How selfishly we behave — everywhere!

I call bullshit.

Here’s some of what was true for me, and still is, as someone raised as an only, (and now with no kids):

You often spend a lot more time around adults than kids with siblings. You get used to actually being listened to attentively, (a nice start in life for little girls, especially), and feeling at ease around people much older than you. You learn young it’s polite to refresh a guest’s drink or pass the hors d’oeuvres. These are valuable life skills, people!

Booooooored?  Deal with it. With no siblings to torture play with, we’re left to our own devices to amuse ourselves. Back in my youth, cave drawings filled up a slow Sunday. Kidding! But even without the Internet or apps, etc., I was fully able to have a lot of fun alone. Trolls, Legos, stuffed animals, books, drawing, sports. Who needed a sib?

— Less competition! Whether Christmas pressies or dessert or adult attention, it’s all yours, baby!

— No odious parental, relatives or teachers’ comparisons to your brothers or sisters. I never had to be “the smart one” (instead of the pretty one). I could just be me.

— Lots of travel. With only one kid to finance, your family can easily pick up and go somewhere, for the day or a month or even a few years. I knew from the very start how damn lucky I was to have visited England, France, Mexico and the Caribbean, all by the age of six.

— Decent social skills. If you have no sibs to hang out with or socialize you, you better figure it out, stat. Once you realize that the world is filled with cool, fun, interesting people to hang out with, you’re ahead of the kids still terrified to talk to anyone in authority post-college. Friends become your family, and often much nicer, too!

Of course, yes, there are downsides. Like:

— No one has your back when things get scary. I used to cower behind the living room curtains when my parents fought, which was often and loudly, before they divorced. I could really have used some back-up.

— In a split family, there’s just not enough of you to go around. Christmas was crazy — divided between my mother, maternal grandmother and father.

— It’s all on you to win the Nobel prize/MacArthur/Pulitzer/cure cancer/create world peace. People with siblings can fob off these absurd expectations/hopes onto someone else and go watch (some more) TV.

— When your parents get sick and old, it’s all on you. Serious issue. A smart, kind spouse or partner helps!

When you get sick and old (and God forbid, broke), and if you have no partner or very close friends, what happens? (Note terrified silence here.)

Are you an only?

How was it?

If you — as several Broadside followers did — had a bunch of kids, what kept you going past one?

66 thoughts on “You have/are an only child — selfish, lonely, spoiled. Really?

  1. I’m an only child with no children, and I must say this rings true. I learned to entertain myself practically from birth, and took to everything more easily and quickly, I believe, because I was an only child. All the attention was focused on me, both the good and the bad. Now that I’m an adult, I’m seeing that scary part of being an only child, where I’m the only one to take care of the parents now. And I’m still young — who knows what lies ahead.

    1. If your parents are solvent, sane and together, your burden might be lighter. My mom had multiple health problems for decades I had to cope with and is already in a nursing home at 78 (went in at 76.) She has plenty of money, so she’s OK, but I had decades of fear and anxiety over her health and social isolation. It made things far more stressful than they could have been and than I needed to face all alone.

  2. I am an only too and I agree with you. My parents couldn’t have an other child after me and I don’t regret.
    But me, I have 2 daughters. They have 2 different personalities. And that ‘s great for parents to raise different children. But I am sure that if I ask them the question : would you prefer to be an only? they would respond : YES!

  3. I used to tell (cry to) my mom I wished I was an only child. Having 4 sisters I felt that I was often ignored and looked over (probably because I was!). I don’t like being ball and chained to my twin sister…which is something as an adult I’ve overcome by not mentioning that I have a twin. It’s not an important identifying factor. Just like being an only child is not an identifying factor. At least you your own identity… Twins get a rough deal! ahaha.

      1. haha no no not at all, since I left for college at 18 I disassociated myself from the twin link. It made me feel like I am my own person…which can be missing when people know there are “two” of you. It’s probably the biggest downside to being a twin. You don’t even have names.. “it’s the twins”.

  4. Heather Hope

    My husband and I are both only children. I think it was a great way to grow up! I’m comfortable with myself, have solo hobbies, and don’t need to take part in empty conversation because I’m not afraid of quiet. I’m also comfortable with adults (OK, so I’m an adult, I forget that sometimes, but I’ve *always* been comfortable with adults). And I’ve built a “family” out of friends, which has been great my entire life, because I’ve been able to surround myself with intelligent, interesting, supportive people. I’m sure there’s some stuff I missed out on, but it isn’t something I think about and I totally have no regrets about how my childhood went re: lack of siblings.

    1. It’s hard to miss what you never knew! I’ve seen too many stories of warring sibs, so I did not miss that bit. As for the closeness of sibs, some of my friends have been much more loving to me than family, so no loss there.

      1. Heather Hope

        Some of my friends have so much stress due to family and siblings. Totally glad to have missed out on that. Now if I could figure out how to remove myself from the stress caused by my mother haha. Some things are a work-in-progress.

      2. Heather Hope

        Wow, just read it, and thank you for directing me to the post. While your situation is very different, I can definitely relate to the issue of the mother not having interest, though my situation comes more from her own excessive self-centered behavior, need to be worshiped / on a pedestal, and lifelong manipulation of me so that I would feed those needs. We can’t all have the parental support we want or deserve. But I’m learning that I don’t need to blame myself.

        Sorry for the hijack. Thank you for your honest posts.

      3. Oh, good Lord, why would you blame yourself? It’s a genetic lottery!

        There are some very helpful books on this subject. Therapy can help. So can a few close friends who really know what the deal is so you don’t feel so alone and so pissed off all the time without people knowing why. I felt I had to keep it all a secret for so long and that made it much worse. Best of luck to you!!

      4. Heather Hope

        You’re totally right! But I’m maybe 3 months into trying to get a handle on 35 years of this, so it’s still early for me. A friend recently loaned me some books that helped her with understanding her family relationships, and my husband has been really supportive as I go through the process. I’ll probably seek out therapy soon, but I think I’ll hold off for a little bit until things with having a newborn in the house settle down.

      5. It takes a long time to de-tox (literally). I finally just gave up on my mother in 2010. We have not spoken since then and maybe never will again. It’s been sad in some ways but my life is much happier.

  5. I hate to hear that about your mother. Nursing homes are anxiety-producing no matter when someone has to go into them. My parents are no longer together — and sadly there are issues with the other two categories as well — so I relate to your concerns. But we carry on.

  6. Thanks. It was for the best, in every way.

    I’d suggest you have a frank chat with your parents about their financial plans in this respect (i.e. have they bought long term care insurance?) so this is NOT some sudden and hideous burden on you. Not saying it’s easy, of course. But my mother went from total independence living alone for years to three+ months in hospital with multiple surgeries then we were told she had to go into a nursing home directly from there.

  7. It’s so nice to hear perspective from onlies. I have an only daughter and am frequently fraught with guilt – brought on by her – that we have not provided her with a sibling. She is only 6, so I don’t blame her! I’ve often wondered how only children – once adults – feel about their lives lived, but have been afraid to ask, at the risk of offending them, or bringing back terrible memories that they just managed to bury! My worst fear is definitely placing on her the sole burden of caring for us as elderly parents – it makes me cry sometimes thinking about it. I never want her to feel alone. So I hope she finds many friends who become family, like you have! Thanks for this post!

    1. Nonononononononono. Ask away!

      I think many onlies, like me, are completely happy having been onlies. I’ve seen so much BS between siblings and even when — SUPPOSEDLY — all those sibs step up/in to help with aging/ill/dying parents, they do not! I’ve seen this with many of my very, very frustrated and angry friends. It’s always the women who are expected to do it, even when a brother lives within minutes’ drive and the sister(s) may live on the other side of the country. So I do not buy the great and comforting myth that sibs are going to be there for one another, let alone their parents.

      With all due respect to your daughter….friends?! Lauren’s radio interview (link on the blog) is well worth listening to. She tells her (pushy) daughter (like yours in this regard) that they are able to live the creative (less $$$$ producing) lives they wish because they have one kid. Life is all about choices!

  8. my parents had four and i had three. my parents had multiplies due to what was expected in their circle, and growing up catholic. i had three because i never wanted to have just one and for her to be alone, and i’ve always liked odd numbers. hard having three girls though, because it seems that two buddied up against the third, which ones were ‘the two’ was ever evolving, thus not always the happy trio expected.

  9. In some ways, being an only child doesn’t really sound very different from having siblings, but maybe it is I just grew up like an only child. Your siblings never have your back anyway, they really aren’t that entertaining, and they teach you things like how to flick boogers the farthest. In other words, not useful social skills. So, yeah, you get bored anyway. You deal with it. And the pressure is still on you to save the world, because your sibling has a different role. You know, they have to be a supermodel. You need to win the MacArthur prize. Or something like that. And when push comes to shove, the burden of caring for parents seems to get left to the one sibling who didn’t move away. (As in, not it…) So, I don’t know. I think we make out being an only as a lot weirder than it really is. What’s really different about having siblings is having someone in your life who was there with you while it took off for you. My sister doesn’t remember half of our lives together when we were small, but I know she was there. And that changes everything.

    1. Having shared history is important. I have no one to share those memories with…I have three half-siblings (that’s a whole other story) and we share some specific memories of my father, but it’s not at all like growing up together in the same home (s.)

      1. The thing is that it is often not shared anyway. Your siblings are there and you remember them doing things, but they always remember them differently than you did, or not at all. It’s like there’s an illusion of shared history. In my case, it’s probably even worse than that–it’s like we grew up in different households. But she was there. She played a part. And it does make a difference.

  10. I’ve 3 siblings but every of us has only one child himself. We don’t live at the same place.
    Lots of conflicts are not nice, even wie love each other. Old family-roles stops sometimes the respekt and tolerance.
    Our kids are o.k. – competent and enganged joung people.

    If your childhood is happy or not do not depend on siblings!

  11. I am an only child and so is my son. I enjoyed growing up that way. I realized that a lot of the things I got that my peers didn’t (nightly one on one homework help, privileges that are usually though of as ‘adult’, a parent cheering at every single sporting event, and as you mentioned, lots of travel) were specifically because I was an only child. I treasured these things, and still do. That’s why my husband and I decided to have only one. We wanted to be completely present for our child at all times, and know that we couldn’t be if we had even just one more. Still, I think it’s all what you’re used to. Growing up in a large family, many may feel that their treasured childhood memories involve siblings and give their kids lots of them because of this. I think that’s why the stigma still exists- more people grew up with siblings than didn’t. But hey, the world is always changing and to each his own.

    1. Thanks for sharing this!

      I think there’s also — as Sandler says — peer pressure from other parents to do the “right” thing, and if that looks like multiple children, you’ll face pressure to do so. Our neighbors in the next apartment have only one child and are very happy with their decision.

  12. themodernidiot

    “that mothers are the women most likely to have an abortion” – as opposed to, fathers?

    all joking aside – i love the two-sided list here. Things I’ve never experienced, and some things I have. I have two half-brothers and a step-sister, so I was a half-only because we’re all from different divorces. We all got the best of both worlds – solitude and unity.

    And “cave painting” – hilarious! 🙂

    1. Thanks!

      No…mothers, i.e. women who have already made the choice to have a child, or several. The fantasy, I think, is that it’s all single women. I’d like to know more about this.

      I also have three half-sibs (four women, two wives, don’t even ask) so I have some of that. I wish we had unity! I have never met one, one hates me and one I like a lot but he’s fairly hermetically sealed emotionally.

      1. themodernidiot

        haha, yeah, i figured it out eventually. duh. and yeah, tons of moms abort. i’ve had friends who’ve had to because the birth control failed, or they were in a divorce, or whatever the reason really. the same forces that drive single women to abort carry over into the married zone.

        sounds like you and your sibling relationships are actually right on track haha. family is hard! hope you find the missing one, and you crack the code on mr. lockdown. man, i’d cut the hater loose. so not worth the toxins.

      2. I actually have no wish to meet the missing one; many people have and it’s not great news. But I have been warned she is in my father’s will, so…

        The mean one, whatever. His ill will has made Xmas impossible as a family for years. Asshole.

  13. My Mom was an only child…and I cringe at people who think only children are spoiled…good grief, as if. She had more responsibilities, if anything. If she got in trouble, there was no one else to blame it on…no one to share the chores with. I think only children grow up to be more responsible adults and are often more comfortable in their own skin. Now, when Mom and Dad sat me down at 5 and told me my sister was on her way…my response was “I think we have enough children’s around here”. 😉 Can’t say as I still feel that way today…but at the time 🙂 I would have been very ok with being an ONLY CHILD…I’m actually a wee bit jealous of those who are.

    1. I look at small children whose mom’s are pregnant and think…”just wait!” My husband has two older sisters but was essentially an only — both sisters had left for college by the time he was born, to a mom who was 49. So, (and we joke about this), as the treasured only son of a Hispanic family he can be much more spoiled than I ever was. But he might argue the point. 🙂

      1. Wow, 49…my grandmother was 39 when she had Mom. It was just after the war…and she worked full-time when Mom was growing up. No spoiling going on in that household.

        Hispanic only son? LOL…oh, I can just imagine. 😉

      2. No, he’s great. He can be a little prince, but I call him on it. What I get more of, and am very grateful for, was how deeply loved and appreciated he was by his Mom. She died in his 20s, but I feel her presence every day in this respect and am lucky.

      3. I like that. Love is something that transcends all. Some just have so much inside them that it overflows; and that is a rare gift.

  14. Great post. While I grew up with a sister, which had many positives, my husband and I have decided to have only one child. Part of me entertains the possibility/recognizes/fears that our son is losing out on some things, with sibling camaraderie and shared familial understanding probably being the biggies. But the overwhelming part of me is more than happy with only one child. Of course there are many reasons why people may choose to have only one; with previous miscarriage(s) or loss being one of those reasons. I blogged about my miscarriages and subsequent decision to have only one child here: Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks!

      I have no doubt it’s a tough call in some ways. There were times I wished for an older brother, someone protective.

      I have very close friends, some from back in high school, so I don’t feel some terrible loss without full sibs — and many of my friends have met my parents as well, so it’s not as though they have no idea about who my family is like in person. I don’t think you have to share a household to become emotionally intimate with others. In fact, I have seen the opposite, so “family” is not some magic word to me.

  15. I completely agree with all of your points, Caitlin. I am an only child with siblings (3 half, 1 step) and can relate to this post on so many levels. Though I do have siblings, I was my mom’s only child and as a single mother, I got to have her all to myself and I was also alone a lot of the time while she was working. As a result, I’ve been around adults my whole life and often feel out of place around people my own age. Plus, I always thought I would eventually be close to my siblings, but since we are so far apart in ages (ranging from 37 to 15–I’m right in the middle at 28), it’s hard to find common ground since we’re all such in different phases of our lives. I never felt lonely as a child because I always had my mom, but I know there will come a point when she is no longer here and I will be the one in charge of picking up the pieces all by myself. Being an only isn’t necessarily a selfish life, but it is definitely one that shapes independence. Great post!

    1. Thanks for sharing this…it’s really interesting to hear how differently we can view the “same” experience.(And what is the difference between a half-sibling and step-sibling?

      1. To me, I really don’t see a difference between a half/step sibling and a full sibling, but some people (my siblings) do. My half-siblings and I all have the same biological father and different mothers. My stepbrother came from my mom’s relationship with my stepfather, though he’s always been more of a dad than my biological father ever was. Our family dynamic is incredibly complicated!

  16. My husband and I are both the youngest of two, but our siblings were 6-11 years older than us. So technically…we were like the only children. When we had our daughter we made no immediate plans for a second, and as time passed we realized we loved our one, and that was enough. She is amazing and has many amazing only friends as well. In Germany, there is a worry that the Germans aren’t having enough babies. Yikes, the turks might take over! But at the same time I think people these days look at things in a more economic and earth friend way. One is enough, and two is not double the love.

  17. poppyandk

    Hi Caitlin, have really been enjoying your posts since I subscribed a few weeks ago. I’m an only child and my mother was also an only child. While I have never had any problems with being an only child or potentially one day having an only child, seeing my mom having to single-handedly provide for her elderly parents has been enough to convince me that if I had kids, I would have two.

    But since I’m not planning on having kids, THIS is on my mind A LOT:

    “– When you get sick and old (and God forbid, broke), and if you have no partner or very close friends, what happens? (Note terrified silence here.)”

    (joined in terrified silence…)

    1. Thanks! Glad you’ve been here…

      Two answers. Buy long-term care insurance to cover the costs of your nursing, if/when needed. Invest in property and, if necessary, use a reverse mortgage to meet these costs. Maybe both. You have to think it through, no matter how grim.

  18. Great blog and very interesting comments. The only time I question myself about having just one child is when she (almost 5) hassles me re. not having a sister (never a brother). At the same time, I think this will pass – it’s probably jealousy, ie, she sees her friends at school with their siblings and wishes she had a special someone to play with all the time. I live in a place where big families are seen as a blessing and a kind of insurance for the future, so it won’t be getting any easier as she grows up, I imagine. I do worry about how she will cope when I get old and decrepit though. I hope she meets someone as sweet as her dad and starts a family earlier than I did, but that will be her choice, not mine!

  19. Not an only child but the youngest by 10 and 6 years to my siblings. Kind of the best of both worlds as they were grown way before I was, I had lots of time around adults, was often the center of attention and didn’t have to share anything, etc. It only sucked when they’d both left the house for college and I was alone with my warring parents (before they separated). Also, after my mother died, I often envied the extra time my siblings had with her and both my parents in happier times. The grass is always greener!

    1. This is interesting — very similar to Jose (my husband, whose two sisters are 8 and 10 years older), making him essentially an only as a young boy.

      My other siblings — the two who never lived with my father — are very envious of the time I and my half-brother had. Mixed, though.

      1. Yes, I forgot to mention I have two half-siblings (from previous relationships my father had) who never grew up with him. They were always gracious but clearly hurt that he chose to stay with our mother and not theirs. My siblings and I are friends became friends with them as adults and told them, it might have been for the best since he was a tyrant for part of the time. Hard to say who had it best/worst. He’s finally starting to have relationships with them now, which is nice to see.

      2. I wonder if you and I are sisters! It’s extremely rare (like, never) I meet anyone who has this exact family structure…and a similar sort of Dad.

        It’s comforting to know. I never like that routine query: “So, do you have brothers or sisters?”


  20. Yup, only child here. My sisters are really my half sisters, from my Dad’s first marriage. We are extremely close, but grew up in separate households. I wouldn’t say I’m spoilt or selfish. I’ve not been accused of either at any point in my life – I was brought up to share what I had and it gave me a lot of joy. Still does. I was never lonely. Love my own company, can’t do without it.

    I;m tired of all the pigeonholing. For anything, be it for generation, gender, color, culture… colour of eyes, skin, hair, nail length… whatever!

    Individually, we all think we’re complex, multi-faceted human beings. I hate that we can’t seem to understand that other human beings, too, are this way.

    I’m not removing myself from this rant at all. I catch myself thinking long those boxy lines when confronted with something I don’t understand, and it bugs me. Because I know better. The reflexes shouldn’t still be kicking in after all this time.

    Is this the typified only child in me coming out?

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