One of my newly-pregnant coworkers recently confided in me that her husband and her were trying to decide whether they should have an only. My surprisingly strong knee-jerk reaction was “NO!” – I’m an only child and sometimes I love it, but many times I hate it. Not that I could’ve changed anything, but I imagine I’d at least like one sibling if I could, and occasionally fantasize about being in a family as overwhelmingly large as the Duggars.
This conversation got me curious about onlies and their maligned reputation, leading me to Lauren Sandler’s One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. Journalist and author Sandler is an only child herself and has only one child of her own. She thus begins an examination of onliness partially as a way to prove that she and her daughter aren’t screwed up as a result of not having siblings.
According to Sandler, the majority of myths surrounding only children are scientifically-proven to be untrue. Onlies score higher in generosity and sociability tests, proving that we’re not all selfish and lonely, and tend towards high self-esteem and intelligence. I don’t think I’m selfish and I do think I’m intelligent, but I definitely did feel lonely and somewhat blame my onliness for my social awkwardness; however, I recognize Sandler’s point that it’s more about the individual’s other life experiences than being an only. Additional evidence that reaffirms the wisdom of onliness is the environmental and economic benefits to having an only child – it’s the single-best decision that can be made to reduce human contributions to climate change and jump-start developing economies. Particularly for women with high career aspirations, stopping at one child can be a logical work-life balance, which is why I guess there’s so many in my generation.
Oddly, throughout the course of my life, probably half of my best friends have been only children and that becomes closer to 2/3rds if we include children with huge age gaps between them and their only other sibling. Interestingly though, I also tend to befriend eldest siblings, whom I assume are more like only’s in temperament, despite the myths that onlies are more similar to spoiled and coddled youngest siblings. Sandler, following in the theoretical footsteps of Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, supports this claim and draws numerous parallels between onlies and eldests, though she says that onlies tend to be more creative and innovative than eldests.
In the end, Sandler concludes it’s a very personal decision, and she made the right choice for her, which really all anyone should do regardless of societal expectations and pressures. It was interesting to read about her journey to reach an informed conclusion, but ultimately I think this book will be of greater help to expectant mothers than to someone like me. But for onlies seeking inspiration and comfort, I recommend Alexandra Schwartz’s article “Onliness” in the New Yorker, which discusses Sandler’s books and ties its research into literature.