Only The Lonely?

Time magazine recently ran and interesting article on “Onlies” or “Only Children” also known as children without siblings. The point of the article was to debunk the long-standing myths of “single children [being] perceived as spoiled, selfish, solitary misfits”. The article caught my attention because I was raised an only child and my son is being raised in an interesting situation where he can be the “only” child 80% of the time.

Here is an interesting trend of note:

“The recession has dramatically reshaped women’s childbearing desires,” says Larry Finer, the director of domestic policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a leading ­reproductive-health-research organization. The institute found that 64% of women polled said that with the economy the way it is, they couldn’t afford to have a baby now. Forty-four percent said they plan to reduce or delay their childbearing — again, because of the economy. This happens during financial meltdowns: the Great Depression saw single-child families spike at 23%. Since the early ’60s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number, to about 1 in 5 — and that’s from before the markets crashed.

I admit that finances are a major part of why I have no interest in having another child. I can’t imagine taking on the added responsibility of having another being to feed, clothe, entertain, educate, etc. right now. And I’m not poor! I can’t imagine being working class or living in poverty and having multiple children. I know many rely on government assistance, but even that does not make for a comfortable life. Some feel the benefits of having more children outweigh the downside of financial struggle. I’m not one of them.

The interesting thing is that the information about only children that so many people have sighted come from the flawed work of Granville Stanley Hall in the late 1800s. His studies have since been proven to be based on flawed data collection and other issues. His work has also been debunked several times over throughout the years by newer, more accurate research, but for whatever reason, people still hold onto this idea that being an only child is a fate worse than death.

“Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren’t measurably different from other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. Of course, part of the reason we assume only children are spoiled is that whatever parents have to give, the only child gets it all. The argument Judith Blake makes in Family Size and Achievement as to why onlies are higher achievers across socioeconomic lines can be stated simply: there’s no “dilution of resources,” as she terms it, between siblings. No matter their income or occupation, parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their kid.”

I was often called “spoiled”, though I disgareed then AND now. I was always smarter than those around me and I often was involved in more activities, given more opportunities, and received more parental attention than others. My parents had no other focus, so it was all on me. Sure there were various times of struggle, but as life progressed, everything, the good and the bad, came to me. I’m not sure I would have been able to attend the private schools, summer camps, have the latest toys and clothes, etc. had I a sibling. My parents were by no means rich or close to it, but as the article says, socioeconomic status is irrelevant; undivided resources benefit only children.

The only time I felt like I needed siblings was when my mother died and I was left with the responsibility of tending to her affairs. I would have loved to have a sibling to help assist financially, emotionally, etc. (For full disclosure, my father had a son when I was 13, but we never had any real relationship with him, so that’s why he is referred to as my father’s son. By age 13, the characteristics of being an only child are more than likely set in anyway, so it didn’t really matter one way or the other.)

Being an only child made me more creative, more independent. I started writing stories at a young age, I had imaginary friends, and I wanted to do everything by myself. The article (extended version in the magazine) made a point about how only children are more used to engaging in conversations with adults, so their vocabulary is more expansive and their thought process and conversation skills mature earlier. I would agree with this, at least it was my experience, and one I’m witnessing in my son. That is a good and bad thing. He doesn’t understand that when adults are having a conversation, it isn’t for him to jump in. He does anyway, though, because he doesn’t make any distinction; he thinks we’re ALL just talking. He also has a more expansive vocabulary than other children his age, from what I’ve witnessed. He is often complimented for “speaking well” and he uses words other kids generally do not. I love this (I’m a nerdmom) but I can see how it might lead to playground issues lol

I was able to put my son in gymnastics classes at 2 and not have to worry about enrolling another child. My step-daughter did not factor into the equation because she spends the majority of her time with her own mother. As I said, my son is in a unique situation. He has a sister who is the youngest of 4, so she has the experience of sharing resources and attention every day. He only sees her maybe 2-3 weekends a month and while he enjoys that time with her, she is not really much of a threat to the attention and resources focused on him. He can still take expensive classes, get new clothes and shoes regularly, eat out at his favorite restaurants, get new toys, go to the bookstore for new books weekly, etc. We would not be doing these things if I had another child after him.

Is this the best choice for him? I don’t know, maybe. It’s certainly the best choice for me… and others.

“Most people are saying, I can’t divide myself anymore,” says social psychologist Susan Newman. Before technology made the office a 24-hour presence, we actually spent less time actively parenting, she explains. “We no longer send a child out to play for three hours and have those three hours to ourselves,” she says. “Now you take them to the next practice, the next class. We’ve been consumed by our children. But we’re moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that’s simply easier with one.”

So, if you’ve read any of my previous blog entries, you know that it is really important to me that being a mother doesn’t consume every single inch of my life. I enjoy it, wouldn’t trade it for anything, but being ME is important too. Other people are feeling similarly it seems. I’m not alone.

People need to get past this idea that children MUST have siblings to turn out “OK”. Some of the most famous successful people in history were only children. These negative ideas need to stop so that parents don’t feel pressured into having more children that 1) they can’t afford and 2) they really don’t want. Only children are not being doomed to some social purgatory by not having siblings.  Family planning is a private choice, from every perspective.

What are your thoughts? Have you had to weigh this in your own mind or discuss with your family? How does your partner feel? Do finances impact your thoughts on this?

No Boy Is an Island

I tend to follow Benee’s and the other Cocoamamas’ pieces about raising boys closely, without really daring to interject. The fact is that my own relationship with my mother—with all its glorious and inglorious extremes—has driven me to form some very firm opinions about how to raise my own daughter, but I’ve given far less conscious thought to raising my boy. I know I want him to be respectful of women (and everyone really, but especially women) and kind and service-minded but beyond that, the canvas has largely been blank.

My boy is challenging in a different way than my girl. He’s loud and impulsive, can’t sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, tests boundaries constantly and can be found bouncing off walls quite often. I’ve generally shrugged at his behavior and observed: “It’s all that boy energy!”

An incident last week started an avalanche of questions and thoughts in my head, prompting me to rethink my strategy. We have observed for a while that while my girl (who is 5) can accept a no as a no, my boy (who is 4) thinks no is his cue to start a maddening crying and whining campaign to get whatever it is he wants. My husband and I have had a long-standing rule about whining: We don’t negotiate with whiners. And so when he begins whining, I walk away: no explanations, no sympathy, no begging and cajoling.

I thought our rule worked well until the other day when my four-year-old turned to me and said: “Mama, how come when Mina (his sister) cries, you be nice to Mina and when I cry, you get mad and be mean to me?” And two beats later, his sister chimed in: “Yeah, mama, I’ve noticed that too!”

Ladies (and gentlemen): This question stopped me cold in my tracks. My boy, my beloved boy, was hurt because he felt that he was being mistreated. That he was being treated unfairly. And, at 4, he is not necessarily connecting the dots of varied causation: that he gets no sympathy because he cries mostly when he’s whining whereas she gets sympathy because she cries mostly when she has hurt herself. All he knows is that when he cries, we get stern, and when his sister cries, she gets sympathy.

And we are not connecting those dots for him. We’re just expecting him to get it, to intuit the difference in treatment, and to be a boy and get over it. There is a lot of emotional nuance, most of which is not being explained in the way it needs to be.

I went in search of more information and found this blurb in Dan Kindlon’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, which really resonated with me:

There is plenty of reason to be concerned: a confused young boy grows into an angry, emotionally isolated teenager, and, predictably, into a lonely, middle-aged man at risk for depression … Boys need an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression. They need to experience empathy at home and at school and be encouraged to use it if they are to develop conscience.

All this is not to say that my boy is now going to be coddled and get his way when he whines. But I intend to be more expressive about why I’m not sympathetic to the whining, about how much he is loved, how sad I am when he is hurt, how much compassion I feel for him when he is frustrated or angry. He may still be one hyper bundle of pure boy energy, but surely he is just as deserving as his sister of the emotional exchanges that come with the childhood hurts and tantrums.

When did we sign this silent pact that our boys are to be islands, cut off from the same emotions and connections we provide so freely to our girls? I don’t know how and where it all got started but I, for one, am out.

A Lesson Best Learned Early

Unlike most California babies who start swim classes virtually at birth, my two New York City-born transplants didn’t begin classes until the relatively ancient ages of 4 and 5.

With summer approaching, I realized there was no ducking the classes any longer and so I signed up my kids at one of a handful of swim schools around where we live: a little school with a somewhat pretentious French name and three locations.

With some difficulty we pinned down the instruction time. I paid no mind to who the teacher would be; I figured they must all be somewhat decent.

On the first day I delivered my bathing suit-clad children to a somber-looking young woman by the pool. She did not smile at me or the kids. I noticed this but tucked it away and didn’t think twice about it.

I sat behind the glass partition and looked hither and thither, reading, chatting with other waiting caretakers, every once in a while watching the kids. There seemed to be some serious business at hand in the class. Once the class finished, I got the kids showered, dressed and off we went.

The following week: same drill. Delivered the kids to an unsmiling teacher. Watched them through the glass. Picked them up afterwards.

Except this time, my daughter, the five-year-old, said: “Mommy, is it possible, if it’s not too much trouble, could we maybe get a new teacher?” (She really said it that way.)

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I just was wondering if we could get a new teacher.”

Unlike my boy, who often protests classes, school or anything organized, my daughter loves classes. She has always adored teachers, babysitters, caretakers. She never once cried when we left her for an evening out.

“But why?” I pressed.

“This teacher is too … grouchy. She doesn’t seem happy. She’s not that nice to us.” And then: “Life’s too short to be unhappy.”

I almost fell over. Obviously she’s heard it from an adult. Probably me. Maybe her father. But here’s what blows me away: It stuck! She gets it. She doesn’t want to be around someone who makes her feel bad. Who doesn’t treat her well.

Do you know how long it took me to learn this lesson? Decades! And I still struggle with it. Recognizing in the moment that something doesn’t feel right or is not okay.  Then taking steps to remove yourself from the situation. My daughter has learned to intuit this at five. What I was still trying to learn at thirty five.

It was a proud moment for me.