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September 20, 2018

One and done: Reflections on single parenting an 'only' child

Parenting Children
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My six-year-old son and I may be at the park, school, the beach, or running an errand. We may be in the checkout line or playing a pickup game of soccer. Upon meeting new families, moms with kids, or friendly cashiers – inevitably, the questions come.

“Is he your only one?”

“Do you have other children?”

I look at my boy. My creative, funny, courageous, loving and outspoken son. I consider the questions. Rarely are they posed with any judgment. I don’t feel defensive in any way. But still, I feel myself pausing for the briefest moment before answering. I breathe.

“Yes, he’s my one and only,” I reply with a smile. I want my son to hear the tone in my voice. I want him to see how my eyes light up when I answer with both pride and confidence, because these feelings are real.

Equally real are the complex contours of a backstory explaining my internal pause. I recall all of the good reasons why I waited to embark on the journey of motherhood until my late 30s. I remember the miscarriages which bookended the healthy pregnancy and birth of my six-year-old. I do my best to breathe through the pain of the separation and eventual divorce from my son’s father. I recall hours spent researching the possibility of adopting a second child as a single mom. I also remember ugly words.

“You aren’t really a family,” she'd said. “You only have one child.”

My friend at the time was in a hard place. Her rigid views on what constituted a family were formed by her own difficult past. Her vision wasn’t, and isn’t, my own. Nonetheless, I felt the sting of her judgment.

Not really a family.

Only one child.

Yes, denying family status to single or partnered adults raising “onlies” is rather extreme. A number of negative preconceptions about being an only child still impact our discourse on the topic, however. Consider the following: Onlies are selfish and self-absorbed. (Or, their parents are selfish and self-absorbed.) Onlies are lonely, awkward. They are more prone to negatively suffer if their parents separate or divorce. Living without a brother or sister leaves them bereft of one of life’s most precious relationships. Basically, they are socially stunted sans siblings.

Lauren Sandler, author of "One and Only: the Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One" dedicates her book to a research-based examination of the above. Are these negative preconceptions true? What are the actual drawbacks/benefits of having, and being, an only child?

Sandler planned to be, and is, the mother of an only child. She also draws upon her childhood experience as an only child in her book – which is part memoir, part research. Chapter by chapter, Sandler unpacks many of the assumptions made about parents who have one child. Her research also examines what it means to be such a child. Sandler makes a compelling case that while onlies disproportionately report more stress than their peers with siblings when it comes to caring for aging parents, on so many other levels of measurable life satisfaction, they turn out just fine. In fact, academically and socially, onlies are often more than fine – research shows them to be advantaged.

Perhaps, part of this advantage is due to the intensity of (positive) parental focus, naturally amplified in an only child/parent relationship. Sandler writes: “… in every single-child family around the world… the gaze is more intense, the love undiluted.” She continues to explain that this amplification “is the reason some adult only children have told me they were entirely committed to making sure their first child had a sibling, and the reason others have told me they’d never have more than one kid.”


Time will tell how my son will come to view his experience of being a single child – the recipient of amplified love and attention. While “bonus” or step-brothers/sisters gained through marriage or adoption are possibilities, the fact remains that he is, and always will be, the only child of his biological, and divorced, parents.

Is such a situation akin to having a double cross to bear? Being an only child from a divorced union?

When it comes to the dissolution of the marriage/relationship of the parents of only children, research is mixed. Sandler highlights studies describing how only children are more likely to be “triangulated” when their parents part ways. Conflict ridden relations between parents (married or not) are “especially tough on only children” as they are uniquely “sensitive to the pain of their parents, which makes it infinitely harder.” But Sandler notes that only children of divorced mothers show signs of “anger or distress about the divorce in its aftermath” less frequently than children who came from families with siblings.

Furthermore, mothers of onlies tended to be more self confident, optimistic and more likely to “move on to a new healthy relationship.” While it is wise in any co-parenting relationship to minimize conflict, gratefully separated or divorced parents of onlies need not despair. And yes, a single parent of a single child does constitute a family.

Today, nearly 1 in 4 American families are families with onlies. Whether by choice or circumstance, the number of single child homes has doubled since the mid-1970s. Professor Frank Sulloway at the University of California at Berkeley has studied birth order and its impact on everything from family dynamics to baseball. He predicts: “The rate of only children will go up. It won’t ebb and flow.”


Many factors play a part in the rise of families with onlies. Certainly, important ecological considerations are at work. Our global population is expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050. Researcher Sergei Schrbov, from the Vienna Institute of Demography, posed the question “What would happen if, starting right now, everyone made the choice to have only one child?” He crunched the data and posited that within 100 years our world population would fall to 1.6 billion “radically curb[ing] the erosion of our natural resources.”

Of course, each child doesn’t proportionately consume our earth’s natural resources. One child from an industrialized nation consumes – and creates as much pollution – as 30 to 50 children from a developing nation. My single six-year-old son’s carbon footprint is significant.

As Sandler concludes her book, she argues that it is ultimately “mindful child rearing” that is the key to a healthy family life “regardless of how many places we set at the dinner table.” Yes. We need: mindfulness with regard to how we balance care for self and others, mindfulness in our habits of consumption, and certainly mindfulness with regard to how we navigate conflict, change, love, and commitment.

Will my son’s experience inspire him to happily repeat his only status for a future child? Or, will he seek to have a larger family? As the eldest of seven children, I never considered a future of having one biological child. Nonetheless, I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to be a mother, even of “only” one.

“One and done!” my friend Melissa declared as we played soccer together at the park on a beautiful afternoon. Happily, confidently, clearly, she spoke with a bright smile: “One and done.”

I know people will continue to ask their questions: “Is he your only child?” “Do you have other children?”

As I answer, I continue to hold space for my internal pause – for all of the beautiful and difficult parts of my story. I remember my friend’s smile and the important research shared by Sandler dispelling so many of the negative preconceptions associated with my forthcoming answer. Most importantly, I remember my son is often listening and watching me as I respond.

“Is he your only child?”

I answer confidently, and happily. “Yes.”

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