Sunday, 19 February 2017

Why having just one child isn’t as bad or selfish as it’s made out to be

Before I had a child everybody was after us asking when we are going to have a baby. Now also it's the same, but with a small twist. They ask when is the second one! When we say that we are not interested in having another child, people bluntly call us selfish. They make us feel guilty for not having a sister or a brother to our son... But then we realise that it's entirely our choice and our life.

I have always wondered how people used to have more children, not two, but three or four or five. During the times of our grandparents, they used to have more and more children, because they had limited access to health and family planning. Moreover, not all babies survived after birth. Thankfully, my paternal and maternal grandparents had only three children. They were very rational and modern in their thoughts, as they were educated enough and had to take the right decisions.

My both grandparents were educated in the pre-Independence era and had good connections with the British. They were part of Indian Independence struggle and had even gone to the prison. But even then, my parents always felt they were marginalised when it came to love and attention. The middle child always suffered, for the need of love. I read the letters written by my great grandfather to my father when he was in the hostel during his post-graduation days and realise how parents can be biased in giving love to their own children when there are more kids at home!

Due to their own experience, my parents decided not to have a third child and had only me and my younger brother. But even then, there are times when I and my brother ask my parents if there was really a need to have a second child!

My hubby's family is filled with children and children. His maternal grandparents had nine children and paternal grandparents had a whopping number of eleven! Even his parents had three children, and my hubby being the middle one always suffered from inadequate love and attention. Unfortunately, the same condition still prevails and it hurts to see him in pain by the way his family members treat him. The fun part is, almost all my hubby's relatives also have three children, some even have a third child when the first kid is in the high school!

I'm always surprised seeing their decisions and wonder the kind of effect it will have on the elder siblings. Recently, I came across a post which said how a kid was addicted to hardcore porn by seeing his parents having sex since he was a three-year-old baby. Though parents assume that babies will never understand, they forget the fact that everything gets etched the tiny, clean mind. In India, unlike western countries, children share bed with parents. Since birth to going to school, they sleep with parents. Sometimes, they sleep with parents even till the age of 10-12!  

I have personally seen how a boy who was born to the parents as a third child was into watching porn videos as early as he was in his high school. When he sent me a Facebook request, to my shock, his wall was filled with porn videos. No need to say that I never accepted his friend request. He was born when the elder sibling was in high school. He fell in love in his pre-teen age and eloped without anybody's knowledge. And relatives and friends blame the upbringing, citing their own example like, "when parents can get busy producing children, this is what happens..." It's unfortunate that parents don't tend to pay any attention to the kind of effect it will have on the elder child. The elder son turned out to be a womaniser and I have seen how women, including myself, frown when his lustful eyes fall on them. His own wife loathes him and says how he flirts and sees other women as mere objects of sex.

My neighbours at my native place got a third child last year. Their elder daughter is studying in Class 9 and the second daughter is in Class 7. When the elder daughter discovered that her mom was pregnant, she took it very personally. She was depressed and irritated and one day in a fight with her mom, came out openly in the public to ashame her parents for their decision. The kind of insult she hurled at her parents were so disgusting that we felt like slapping her parents. Though not surprised, all that we could do was empathise with the plight of the teenage girl. Last time, when I went home, her mom had delivered a boy and the girl didn't look happy. Every day she came to my place to play with my little son, while she herself had a little baby brother at her own home! We are sad that how one small wrong decision can ruin the lives of children.

Coming back to the point, there's no need for parents to feel guilty if they have decided to have only one child. If you have doubts such as: Is the single child doomed to a life of a lonely misfit? Are mothers of “onlies” making a selfish choice? Read the below article published on the Vogue and feel happy:

I am travelling with my four-year-old daughter to London. We enter the plane and are enveloped in that deodorised aircraft smell that is synonymous with travel. She looks up at me in delight and I squeeze her hand in return; we are both looking forward to the next few hours of unrestrained feasting on movies and treats (the Emirates A380 service has recently acquired little Lindt cookies that we both adore).

The smiling air hostess seats us, gives my daughter the requisite compliment and promptly turns to me. “She’s so sweet. When are you having another?” I have heard this question so many times that I now have a buffet of responses to choose from.

They range from “we stopped at perfection” to “my sex life is off limits” depending on how wired I am on coffee that day. In this particular case, I simply smile non-committally at the air hostess, reminding myself that my access to Lindt cookies in this metal tube depends entirely on her.

My daughter was born somewhere around my 30th birthday and I feel like my own rebirth from the stifling cocoon of diapers and burp cloths has only just occurred. Suddenly, in a blink of my sleep-deprived eye, I am turning 35. I realise that I still have a few minutes left but my decision to stop at one is more personal than a ticking biological clock.

In a primitive, almost visceral way, I feel that my daughter is the child I was destined to have. She is the one I am meant to pour my love into, and as she returns this love I feel connected to her in a glorious arc that leaves me brimming over. I am complete.

As I retire my fallopian tubes for the foreseeable future and join the ‘one and done’ squad, I realise that this club seems to be increasing its membership base not only in India but globally too. Over half of all British families have one child, and in the past 20 years the number of only child families has doubled in the US.

But even as our ranks swell in lieu of our stomachs, membership in this club is not without its share of misgivings. There are many things that all mothers agonise over—over-scheduling, under scheduling, over medicating, under vaccinating, overfeeding, mollycoddling, organic or not organic… the list seems to grow with the years.

But along with these, mothers of singletons deal with a whole other set of questions. At a recent wedding, I was talking to a friend who asked me the inevitable question of when I’m having another.

“I think I’m done, actually,” I replied. “Isn’t that’s selfish of you?” she demanded, “Are you too selfish to be a mom again?”

The statement stung and I wish this sort of judgment were rare. But it isn’t; at another swish dinner, a couple who had chosen not to have children at all told my husband and me that it was “better to have no children at all than to have just one.” This is the message that parents of singletons often receive: unless you supplement with another, having your child—this most loved creature in all the world—was, in fact, a dreadful mistake.

This badgering can make even the most resolute parents question their decision. Are we creating lonely misfits who won’t understand the joys of sharing and companionship? What about the inevitable storms of life: divorce, disease and death? Will our child be equipped to encounter these alone?

The stakes are high as we ponder if one is a lonely number—after all, we’re making a decision for them that they can never undo. And then there are legions of parents for whom the decision to have one child has been made for them perhaps by biology, finances or some turn of fate. Are these children doomed?

Toni Falbo, a prominent researcher from the University of Texas at Austin, has spent decades studying the differences between children with siblings and singletons. In a meta-analysis that includes the results of over 500 studies, she studied 16 behaviour traits.

Remember the fear that singletons were lonely misfits? Well, it turns out that onlies score the same as children with siblings on all metrics, including leadership, generosity, emotional maturity, contentment, peer popularity and flexibility. However, there are two traits that the groups perform differently in—motivation to achieve and self-esteem. And in these two traits, singletons score higher.

Falbo writes that much of this can be attributed to the “parental vigilance” that only children benefit from, which “deeply influences a child’s self-confidence and self-worth.” A psychologist friend reminds me that EM Forster and Frank Sinatra were only children. “An only childhood can be an amplified experience in a very positive way,” she says.

What Falbo found resonates in studies across the world. Lauren Sandler, in her thoughtful 2013 book One and Only (Simon & Schuster), suggests that onlies were deeply responsible for turning the fate of China, where a nation of only children has transformed a rudimentary agrarian economy into one of the world’s greatest superpowers.

But no one chooses how many children they have based on statistics and psychologists. For me, the decision to stop at one allowed me to be the happiest version of myself. It has allowed me to travel, to be in silence, to have conversations, to go to concerts, to start a new career, study texts, learn a language and deepen my understanding of the human experience in a way that matters to me.

It has allowed me to create a meaningful relationship with my husband that extends beyond the daily coordination of our schedules. It has also allowed me to focus on my daughter. I can tell her that she is my most loved, my most precious, without worrying if I’m being fair to another. I can squeeze her until she bursts with laughter without having to include another in the embrace. It has allowed me to showcase her art on my walls right next to our other collector’s items. It has allowed me to make up fairy tales featuring her in the starring role.

Sword in hand and faithful dragon by her side, she overcomes little fears that in the dark night can seem so big. I savour every phase of her life because I know I won’t be doing this again. I am not conflicted; I don’t feel that I am being pulled in more than one direction.

We don’t feel that there is a seat empty at our dinner table or a bed empty at night. She is both our son and our daughter and, just as she and I learn ballet together, she also learns about cars from her father. Together, as a family, we build things with the tools that we have been given—sometimes it’s Lego castles but mostly it’s a lifetime of memories.

Recently, I was on vacation with my parents and one night my mother and I were up late talking. We were in Goa and there is something about a warm sea breeze and a cold beer that lets you talk openly about your deepest fears.

“Mom, instinctively, I feel like I’m done having kids. But I still worry. Z can never undo my decision. Am I making a choice that will make her unhappy?” I asked.

My mother is no psychologist but what she said that night is echoed by every study around the world. “Find your happiness, Nenu,” she said using my childhood name, “No matter how many children you have, they can never be happy if you are unhappy.”

And she’s right; research shows that parental happiness is the single greatest factor in determining the collective happiness of the family. And I’m a happy mother not only when I’m cuddling my daughter or teaching her the alphabet, but also when I’m immersed in a book or enjoying a concert. By seeing me find my wings, my daughter learns to unfold hers too.

I know that I might still have found my happiness with more children. My point is not to undervalue the importance of siblings or parenting multiple children. I share a deep bond with my own sister and I remember our moments growing up—running around the dining table for hours, speaking secret languages, whispering to each other long after the lights were turned out, holding hands when our grandparents passed away.

There are moments when I look at Instagram photos of my friends on vacations with all their children; the fun looks oversized too. But the moment passes and I remember the simple truth that has taken me so long to internalise—whether it’s that gorgeous dress or the make-up of your family, one size does not fit all.

It’s time for us to redefine Mommy Wars. In my mind, the only Mommy War that needs to exist is the fight for every woman to decide when and how often she uses her womb. If you want one child or two or five, that’s your truth. My daughter may end up with several of her own — that will be her truth. I don’t want to advocate for only children but I also don’t want to apologise for it.

The captain has turned on the seat belt sign now and I buckle Z in. The air hostess comes around with the Lindt cookies and we commence our ritual—my husband and I feed Z and she feeds us. The sweetness fills my mouth and floods my heart. As I look around us, seated in this airplane cabin, I see a happy family secure in its love, finding its wings. We’re buckled in, and as the aircraft rises into the air, we clink glasses. We’re off to see the world. Together.

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