Friday 26 July 2019

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

Is the single child doomed to a life of a lonely misfit? Are mothers of “onlies” making a selfish choice?

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.
Image: Charudutt Chitrak
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.

(Source: Vogue

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