Monday 22 January 2018

Does 'only' always mean lonely?

Is having siblings really as vital for children as society leads us to believe, asks Joe Donnelly

'Our little club': Emma Buckley and her son Jackson
'Our little club': Emma Buckley and her son Jackson

Joe Donnelly

Perhaps it's an Irish thing, but we do have a tendency to ask questions that could be considered personal and – bluntly speaking – none of our business.

I was in the company of some people recently, which included a couple with a newborn baby.

They were asked by several people if "they'd be going for another", with lots of chortling and exhortations to give the baby a brother or sister.

It's a bit odd that many people assume it acceptable to engage in banter about a couple having another baby.

There are myriad reasons – sensitive, personal reasons – why it mightn't be possible, but more fundamentally a couple might feel they're very happy with one child and would rather do without the social pressure to "go again", as we like to say.

The issue also brings into light the status of the only child.

Is being raised an only child much different from one with siblings? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Is it lonely or more privileged being an only child?

Emma Buckley, TV host and nutritionist, is a 38-year-old mother of one but grew up in a house full of boys.

"I had three brothers and I was always a bit of a tomboy. I was never into baby dolls or prams," she explains.

"However, my mother ran a creche and after college and during the summer months I'd help her out so I was around babies and toddlers.

"The kids were really cute, and I was usually given the toddlers to look after.

"I learned a lot about what goes through their heads, you're at most 'true' as a person at the age of two or three.

"I found myself very natural with children, I wasn't intimidated or over-awed."

Was Emma planning to have a large family when she met her husband?

"I was thinking about having children. I was 31 – the right age – everything was right. I guess I was bit scared by the idea, though, if I'm honest.

"It's a huge decision, it's life altering. My husband and I were married two years when Jackson was born in California in 2007; I was living and working in LA at the time.

"After Jackson was born I remember thinking 'never again'. Physically it was very challenging, and I felt very alone at times.

"My mum had passed away and it was a tough time. When he was eight months old his father and I split up.

"I was working on a parenting TV show in New York at that point and many of the topics were relevant to me: raising a boy, single parent, and so on. I actually found a lot of support through that."

Emma eventually came home after a couple more years in the US. What does she notice about her relationship with Jackson that could be unique to an only child?

"In the last few months I've realised Jackson gets my undivided attention and while it's great for both of us in certain ways, I worry that it could be too much for him.

"He's had six years of solitary bonding, just him and me. I sometimes think about having another child, I love children and Jackson is crazy about kids and would love a little sister or brother."

Emma is aware that Jackson has a certain advantage over children from larger families.

"Maybe he's not learning that people's time has to be shared in families of more than one child. I met a woman in the park and she had two kids and I asked her 'How do you actually manage to share your love between the children?'

"This, believe it or not, is something I wonder about mothers of more than one child. Of course she explained that it's just there, there is no unequal distribution of love or care.

"When I'm buying things for Jackson I'm aware that he gets a lot of stuff, when I was younger my Mum would explain that we couldn't get everything we asked for. Not that he gets everything he wants – out of principle of course – but he does get things nonetheless."

Emma describes the bond between her and Jackson as their "little club".

"We have a wonderful time together," she says, "but he's a kid, and he needs other kids to play with. He's often asking to play games and I find it exhausting.

"I'll have to explain that I'm making dinner, or have work to do, and I'm also caring for my dad, but he thinks my primary role is to keep him entertained.

"But don't all kids today want to be entertained by their parents? Even still, if I insist he goes to his room to play he'll busy himself for an hour in there playing with figurines.

"Which is great, because he needs to stimulate his own imagination and entertain himself – imagination put a man on the moon!

"I regularly have an inner dialogue about whether I'm doing the right thing, with just an only child. You can only do your best."

John Gough is a married 41-year-old screenwriter and father of three from Naas, Co Kildare, and is an only child.

"As a kid it was lonely, yes. During the day when you'd be out and about with your mates it wasn't so bad. What I remember being worst of all was the evening time," explains John.

"Your friends are all going home, you're going home, but you've only got your parents at your house.

"Of course I'd nothing against my parents or anything like that, but you've no brothers or sisters so that kind of company is gone.

"You've been on a high from having the craic with your mates and then all of a sudden there's a crashing low.

"It wasn't as bad as a Frank McCourt novel now, don't get me wrong, but there were times when it didn't feel great.

"For example, take your typical very wet Irish day and you can't get out anywhere. You're stuck in the house and there's no one to play with."

John admits that adolescence was a challenging time.

"I found the teenage years the hardest. I know most teenagers go through a dark 'woe is me' kind of spell, and maybe it was because I was an only child, but as a teenager you've too much time to think and you're going to get yourself into trouble.

"You start to delve into yourself a bit too much, and because you spend a lot of time on your own – as an only child – that's going to happen even more. At times I would have wondered why I was an only child.

"I even broached the subject with my mother, I was still in primary school, and asked her why they didn't have more children."

Was John taking a risk in being so frank with his mother? Is it a question that – in some cases – people would rather not know the answer to?

"She was in her early forties when she had me. Back then, having your first child in your forties was a bit of an unknown.

"Everybody else I knew grew up in big families, with at least four or five kids. She explained to me that they simply couldn't have any more, and they'd talked about adopting but the father wasn't really into that idea.

"It was presented to be in a matter-of-fact kind of way, like 'that's the way it is'.

"I was chatting to a relation of ours one day and straight out of the blue she referred to me as 'the miracle baby'. I was in my late teens or early twenties at that stage, so I asked her what she meant. 'Well, your parents were married for five or six years before they had you, they thought they were never going to have kids,' she explained."

Did John notice a difference when he left his teenage years behind?

"Adulthood wasn't quite easier as an only child, I suppose it was different. For example, when my Mam got quite sick – she was dying really – and needed minding, there was only me.

"It was difficult because I had no siblings for support or to help out. When the childhood is over you lose the loneliness of being an only child, but as an adult you've the pressure of being an only child, especially with a situation like a parent passing away.

"But I guess that switches around for everybody doesn't it?

"When you're young and helpless your parents look after you, so it's only right that you'll look after them when they need help."

John is keen to point out that it wasn't all glum however.

"There is of course a major upside to being an only child: you get your parents' undivided attention.

"You don't have to fight and show off to get their notice. But the flipside is you'll get their attention whether you want it or not!

"When my wife and I were starting a family I definitely would have been conscious of having more than one child.

"We've three under the age of five now! I think I've always felt I missed out on that unique bond between siblings and I can see that developing now already with my own kids."

Vicki Notaro is an editor and journalist and maintains that sole attention greatly contributed to her self-esteem and confidence.

"At 27 I suppose you could call me an adult," she laughs. "But no matter my age I will always be an only child.

"My parents wanted more children, but it just never happened for them, and I suppose they were happy with just me.

"However, I've never felt like I wasn't enough for them, on the contrary, I was raised as the apple of their eye and I believe their undivided attention and encouragement instilled an innate confidence in me."

Vicki wouldn't entirely share John Gough's view or experience.

"People have a perception of only children as being a bit odd, a bit lonely, and a bit socially awkward.

"I am none of those things, but I am pretty good at talking to myself! Jokes aside, I believe being raised without siblings means I have qualities that I wouldn't have had I grown up with a brother or sister, good and bad.

"In fact, I can't imagine what that would be like, as I'm sure most people can't imagine a life without their siblings.

'Whatever your birth order, it comes with characteristics both positive and negative, and I feel like only children are often unfairly tarred with being spoilt and needy. The only thing I was spoilt with was my parents' time."

Vicki agrees that some people take an inordinate interest in how many children those around them are having.

"Choosing to have 'only' one child is often frowned upon in the world we live in, but I don't think it's harmful in any way to the child.

"Different, sure, but it's hardly cruel. Not only can you not miss what you've never had, but it means an only child has to go out of their way to find friends and playmates, to have their skin thickened.

"It's also not like the only child will be cut off from all other little ones – from cousins to neighbours, the bonds they form with these non-siblings are incredibly important.

"Yes, from time to time I wish I was a Kardashian, with a big brood at family gatherings and sisters to borrow clothes from.

"But would I change my life for all the Louboutins in Kim's wardrobe? No way."

Irish Independent

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