Wednesday 21 February 2018

Diary of a working mum: The single child debate rages on

Yvonne Hogan

Because of the unsolicited advice that I wrote of last week, I have been worried into doing a bit of research.

Even though my logical brain feels that it is a load of nonsense, my guilty mammy brain was compelled to investigate the claims of people who suggested that my daughter would be lonely if she were to remain an only. That she would be spoiled and unable to share. That she would be condemned to a life of confusion when the whole world didn't dance to her tune. That she would crumble under the immense weight of my maternal expectations and dreams if I didn't produce more offspring to share the load.


Well, I found no evidence to support any of the aforementioned and plenty to refute it but I was fascinated nonetheless by what my bit of googling unearthed. Vicious. Catty. Mean! It seems there is another topic alongside breastfeeding and working inside or outside the home that can rile up those of us who are wont to judge each other's mothering: Having one child by choice. Deciding that you do not want more than one child for career, financial or other personal or lifestyle reasons.


Well this hornets nest was most recently stirred up by a book published in the US this summer called 'One and Only, The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One'. Written by journalist Lauren Sandler, an only child herself with one child, the book claims that the key to 'having it all'  is to reproduce just the once.


One child, she claims, gives you access to the deep joyous life-affirming wells of maternity, whilst allowing you to keep your career, relationship and whatnot, whereas with two you become 'momsified' and basically lose yourself. Controversial indeed.


Obviously a bit if a divil, Sandler went further and wrote a provocative essay for the 'Atlantic Magazine' claiming that the best women writers, in her opinion, were those who had just one child - Susan Sontag, Margaret Atwood, Mary McCarthy among them.


She quoted Alice Walker, herself a mother of one, who advocated that women writers who were interested in becoming mothers should stop at one because "with one you can move. With more than one you're a sitting duck." (Interestingly, Walker's daughter Rebecca, who has written about the challenges of being the daughter of a crusading feminist, attracted her own parental storm in 2007 with her book 'Baby Love. Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence'. In it she said: "I don't care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved stepdaughter, the love you have for your non-biological child isn't the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood." Yikes! She didn't lick it off the stones, as they say.)


Anyway, writers with more than one child like Zadie Smith quite rightly went nuts at Sandler and cited reams of mothers with many children who had achieved success. Sandler's thesis after all is basically a personal opinion, and a polemic one at that with no more or less weight than it's antithesis. There is no right or wrong way to build a life or to form, make or raise a family.


But what was interesting was the bias experienced by single child families that the resulting debate exposed. Mothers of onlies came out in their droves in support of Sandler's book. Its assertion that US culture enshrined the idea that a happy family was a large family and that only children were destined to be outsiders and misfits spoke to them.


Women spoke of being called selfish, of not being considered 'real' mothers or having 'real' families. Of feeling left out at the school gates and at the playground. Of being accused of putting their wishes before the wellbeing of their child.


More mothers came out condemning Sandler and her ilk as bad mothers. Narcissists. Selfish, cold women who viewed motherhood almost as an accessory.


Why? Why the mean-spiritedness, the viciousness? And wherefore did the certainty come from? There is no body of evidence to support the theory so how are these women so sure that having an only child is a bad thing?


Follow Yvonne on twitter. @YvonneHogan

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