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Don't pity my family -- it's cool to be an only child

IN last week's Herald, I read Jillian Bolger's column entitled 'One's a lonely number when it comes to kids'. In it, the writer explained her belief that it was incredibly selfish of a couple to just have one child. She wrote this without being an only child, having an only child or having any direct experience of only children. She's entitled to her opinion of course, though I wouldn't judge other types of family units or make sweeping generalisations.

The article was brought to my attention by my mother, who was annoyed by the piece having raised 'just' one child. I am an only child. It wasn't a choice on my parents' behalf to have one kid. They tried for four years before conceiving me, and it just never happened again in the subsequent 26. However, they didn't choose to look into other methods of conception or adoption, simply because they were delighted that they had me. I was enough and, though small, the three of us are a family.

I know many other OCs with different stories as to their solo status. Whether their families struggled, split or decided one was enough is not the point -- the point is that they're all functioning adults who are not to be pitied or worried about by others.

Skills

Bolger states that she's not talking about those who had difficulty conceiving children, but those who choose just to have one. For so many it's not a choice, but an effect of circumstance. And even if it is a conscious decision, who are we to comment on the decisions other families have made for themselves, out of concern on behalf of children we don't know?

However, I know many parents raising only children are faced with stigma and cutting comments about "just the one" from family and supposed friends. They also worry that they're not giving their child the family unit they need or deserve, and that their child will have poor social skills, or be withdrawn and lonely.

"There is absolutely nothing for parents to be concerned about," says Dr David Carey from the Connelly Counselling Centre (www.counsellor.ie).

"All children need to be loved and cherished, and need to have their physical and emotional needs met by their parents. As long as all that happens, an only child can grow into a productive, contributing adult just like any other child. Just because they don't have siblings, it doesn't mean that an only child won't be socialised -- they go to school, meet other children and interact with them."

What about the guilt parents feel for not giving their child a sister or brother? "There is no need for guilt or burden on the parents' part, whether it's a choice or not. Nothing in psychological literature suggests only children will be less functioning than those with siblings. It all comes down to how children are raised -- how their nature is nurtured -- not how small or large their family is."

I know without a shadow of a doubt that I would be a remarkably different person had I grown up with brothers or sisters, but who's to say I'd be a better, happier, more well-rounded one? I grew up the sole focus of my parents' attention and love, and was an exuberant, confident child. Possibly annoying and attention-seeking outside the home, yes, as I was used to endless devotion and demanded the spotlight. But I learned, as children do regardless of the amount of siblings they have, what behaviour was publicly acceptable, and what was not.

That's part of growing up, whether the behaviour is picking your nose in school or hiding, shy as a church mouse, behind your mammy's legs.

I am comfortable with my own company, but also desire to be around others. Yes, I have been known to stamp my foot in anger like a spoilt brat, but I was not ruined with material things as a child, as many people assume of only children. I had plenty and never wanted for anything, but the only thing I was spoiled with was attention and love. I'm almost too willing to step in front of the camera, comfortable having my photo taken, having been the sole subject of my family albums, which is why you may see some not-so-hot shots of me in this very newspaper.



IMAGINARY

One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that I was never lonely as a child. In fact, I've been far more lonely as an adult, surrounded by people. How can you miss what you've never had? Sure I talked to myself, and had imaginary friends, but other kids with siblings did too (and did far stranger stuff too, let me tell you). I had space and time to read and write, to play by myself and use my imagination. I also cherished my friends and cousins -- the only time I could ever play board games interactively was when they were around -- and am still close today with those same girls I've been friends with since the age of five.

I may not have a sister to be my bridesmaid, a Pippa to my Kate, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if I ever get married, my two cousin-brothers (as I affectionately call them) will be up there with my groom, and out of choice, not necessity.

Only children today probably have it even easier than I did, thanks to the interaction offered by the internet and kids' TV, and new methods in child care and Montessori. I was never short of stimulation. Worrying about our children's development to such a degree is also a fairly new issue. When I was born in the 1980s, my parents didn't fret about my emotional wellbeing or take me to see a child psychologist for fear they were parenting me badly -- they just loved me.

I will admit though that, yes, as an adult, I would like to have had a sibling. It seems like it would be nice to have someone so attached to you. I watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians and smile at their dynamic, but I also watch The Gilmore Girls, and that only-child unit is just as alien to me as Kim and Ko's. I observe my girlfriends with their sisters, and admire their relationships. The older we get, the more like best friends many of them appear to be. Saying that, I also know sisters who don't speak to each other. Different strokes...

My boyfriend has a brother and a sister, and although all three aren't incredibly close, they're always there for each other when they're needed.



relationships

At Christmas I'd like to have an ally around the dinner table and someone to rip off the wrapping paper with. But I don't see my not having one as a lacking in my life; it just means I've had the liberty to forge strong relationships with people who are not related to me by blood. I have great friends that I chose. I have a boyfriend who holds my hand through family events, both difficult and celebratory. I am neither insular nor odd; in fact, I would go as far as to say that I am often the life and soul. I'm confident and courageous, and good at meeting new people, because I've always had to be.

In comparison, my boyfriend raised with two siblings is quiet, shy and declines to attend any social engagement that has the potential to be a tad awkward.

However I'm not here to defend only children. We don't need a defence; we simply are. If other people have a problem with our solo status, than that's simply their problem, as we don't need or want their concern. I could write a column pitying poor children who have been raised by one parent, or kids who have nine siblings in a tiny house and who have to fight for their parents to notice them, but I simply don't believe them worthy of my condescension. Because every family unit, no matter how "unconventional", is their own business.

If you're concerned that having one child will be of detriment to them, don't. Everybody has their own problems, regardless of birth order. I've never heard of a mass murderer who said: "If only I'd had siblings, perhaps I wouldn't have committed these heinous crimes." Concentrate instead on raising them to be strong, confident and joyful, and you can't go far wrong.


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