The trouble with idealizing what we don’t have

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You may have seen the Motherlode post written by an unhappy only child this week in the New York Times. It’s fairly typical of its ilk: my mother wanted more children, and I wanted siblings, and therefore an only childhood is a miserable thing.  The only data points the author offers are on the rising number of only children in America.  According to her anecdotal experience, this is a terrible thing.

Perhaps without knowing it, the author–a public relations specialist and essayist–reveals what may be the two surest ways to lay the groundwork for unhappy onliness.  It starts a generation earlier than you’d think, with our parents’ longing. She writes: ”For my parents, having an only child was not a choice. They met later; my father was 41 when I was born, my mother, 36. My mother had two miscarriages, before and after me. I was the lone survivor, the longed-for child.”  Research shows that parents fo only children who can confidently own their one-and-done status, regardless of the reason for it, have kids who don’t pine for non-existent  siblings.  It’s when parents, especially mothers, mourn the children that aren’t, instead of celebrating the child that is, that kids mourn those children too.

When only children are raised to feel like it they would be better off with siblings, they idealize those imaginary siblings, and begin to tell a story about their lives that isn’t their truth, nor would it have been the truth of an actual larger family.  Siblings come with plenty of pain and loneliness attached.  But our fantasies of them rarely leave room for the heartbreak–or sometimes total disengagement–that occurs in those relationships.  Sometimes it’s great to have a sister or brother.  Sometimes it’s excruciating.  It’s a spectrum, either way.  And the notion that they keep us from the experience of loneliness has been thoroughly debunked in scholarly articles and clinical observation.

An Austin-based psychotherapist named Carl Pickhardt, who wrote an excellent book called The Future of Your Only Child, says that one of the “gifts” of only childhood is being “a good companion for yourself.”  He explains, “Only children are well self-connected in their primary relationship in their life.” Echoing the observations of many psychologists and researchers, and drawing from years of observation and analysis in his practice rather than quantitative research, Pickhardt has found, that “time alone, far from being painful, becomes rewarding because the only child is establishing a bond of lasting benefit—a primary friendship with himself,” he says.  “This bond creates a foundation of self-sufficiency that contributes to the only child’s independence, an enjoyment of solitude, and an affirmative relationship to himself.”

It’s grueling to feel that other people get something you want, which you’ll never have.  This sort of envy and resentment can take seed deep inside us and grow into thorny identities.  When most people have siblings, and we don’t, that outsiderness foments that growth. So I feel empathy, I truly do, when the author of this post writes:

“On a recent visit with my friend Dena, she pulled out “the beach picture,” the one where all the grandchildren are wearing white T-shirts and khakis. She and her three sisters have produced an impressive brood, and their holidays brim with the closeness of cousins who are as tight as siblings. Even now I can feel the sting of that photo in my hand. I miss the siblings I will never have, and now I miss their phantom children.”

I want to tell her that what she’s missing is a fantasy, a smiling-for-the-camera moment, which she’s populated with another generation of imaginary relatives, just as her parents did. I want to tell her that by making her feel less-than-enough, she was given an idealized sense of a happy big brood, which the culture and friends’ snapshots supports, but personal struggles may not.  We all have stories we tell ourselves to explain our struggles.  Hers is that she’s an only child.  Siblings I know have to reach for other narratives: divorce, career struggles, disability, various unquenched desires.  (Or having to dress alike in a family picture. Seriously, how did white shirts and khakis become the de rigeur family beach photo uniform?)

As parents, it’s incumbent upon us to protect our only children from our own struggles with having only one. And as onlies, we need to upend the story that siblings make a happy family, and own the joy and strength we make in our own lives, in our primary friendships with ourselves, and with everyone we bring into our chosen family.

Comments for:
"The trouble with idealizing what we don’t have"
  1. amy

    The tendency to dwell on regrets is a personality characteristic and it is heritable, both through genes and environment. Therefore if you have a mom who regrets things, all kinds of things, including the number of children she has or has not got, her progeny will tend to form regrets also. It is also a heritable personality characteristic to be grateful for what you have. Some women who have that longed for child will spend their lives counting their blessings that they conceived at all. Their child will tend to feel more gratitude as well, both because they experienced it in the environment, and because of a genetic tendency to be grateful.

  2. Melissa

    Lauren, I follow you on twitter and I knew you would intelligently weigh in on this Motherlode lode. I’m at that exact point when most of the women I went through my pregnancy with are entering their second pregnancies, and I have been questioning my decision to stop at one.

    I’m of “advanced maternal age” so it’s now or never. One feels so right, so reasonable and so sane, and yet, in this time-deficient, money-strapped age it’s still not as common as you would think. (I really enjoyed your published conversation with another “only” mother because it was basically the echo of a conversation I’d had the day before). Because I still see most women hellbent on the sibling model, I keep asking myself if I missed some important memo. And, I am the happy sister of a terrific brother who I am very very close to. I loved having a sibling, but I just can’t see how I could give my son a sibling and also give him enough of my self.

  3. san francisco mom

    I really love this! My husband and I are also parents to “just one,” and while we are occasionally tempted and curious to have another, I have to say I am just so happy having one.

    I have noticed that oftentimes acquaintances with only one child will look visibly relieved when I tell them I’m happy to have one. I think some women feel guilty for being just fine with one, even when no one is telling them directly that they should have more children.

    You are so right that it’s the parents’ attitude that will shape the child’s own narrative. I’m really looking forward to reading (and sharing!) your book.

  4. I look forward to reading your book – the issues you raise are very close to our hearts. Late-in-life parents like us feel blessed to have a child. Might we have had more had we met earlier? Perhaps. Has he asked us for a brother? Yes. Was there some guilt associated with this reality? Yes. Is none better than one? No!

    We decided to have a child together. It was a considered choice. We were both very near the border of what is considered safe and knew the risks. The reality of having a child has proven to be joyous beyond our expectations. There is no room for regrets – life is preciously short.

  5. Anne Matheson

    Hi Lauren, I came across you online tonight and will be buying your book. My 9 yr old one and only son is having a phase of feeling he has fewer friends than his friends with siblings, that he’s lonely and “has the short straw”. Heartbreaking to hear that. Sadly his 2 of closest friends both moved away a year apart and I think he’s feeling unconnected from his peers and seems to be unsure of the friendships he does have – they are not as strong and maybe more fickle characters rather than the staunch loyalty of the main guys who we do still see when we can. We are a very sociable and active family, we enjoy fantastic relationships between him, me, his dad and our dog and wider family but the older he gets the more it seems he feels he is missing out even when I point out the hassles so many of his friends have with their siblings. I want him to know we are listening but I don’t want to feed the negativity as he is clearly feeling down in the dumps and that it’s all unfair. Any and all advice (from the community) is welcome! Thanks

  6. Jenny Godley

    Thank you for this piece. As someone who falls into the “wanted to have two but started too late” camp, I need to remind myself not to impose this longing on my son – who is a very happy, extremely sociable, sibling-free child! Your writing really speaks to me and I am so glad I found your blog!

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