my one and only love

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Only one, they exclaim. I mumble something along the lines of we’ll see and not just yet. Eyes narrow as they take in my daughter, who, at five years of age and in the face of more intense scrutiny, either hides behind my legs or executes a wonky somersault in the hopes of being worthy of their gaze. I suppose she doesn’t get to play with other children very often, is what is sometimes said, or, if a somersault is in evidence, She needs a little brother or sister to rub off some of those edges. Inside I grimace, lobbing imaginary and imaginative insults back at the speed of light. In reality, I stand there, one hand protectively on my daughter’s head, and murmur what amounts to nothing at all.

It is rare that someone will comment so bluntly on what they perceive to be a dire situation in need of immediate remedy. Mostly it is simple curiosity or an expectation that there will be a sibling somewhere, at school perhaps or hiding behind a tree. But when it does happen, it feels like a knife slicing into our little family of three. In the face of such conviction I sometimes struggle to hold on to my equilibrium. My daughter, meanwhile, plays on. In her eyes, all is as it should be.

There are no words to describe the joy of seeing my daughter first thing in the morning when she tumbles out of bed. Or when she sings, for the umpteenth time, a silly song sung in the squeaky voice of Geoffrey, her favourite bear. Our lives are unrecognisable from what they once were and it is almost impossible and not very appealing to imagine what once was. We are very lucky with what we have, says my husband, and rightly so. Yet there is not a day in which I do not mourn the lives of the children who will not follow our daughter into the room, or fight over who gets to hold which bear.

Our daughter will never have a sibling. A life threatening haemorrhage soon after her birth and my body’s subsequent extremely adverse reaction to treatment left me incapable of having more children. One hundred years ago I would most likely have died. I have much for which to be thankful.

But still I find myself in a bittersweet situation not of my choosing. As my daughter gets older and her ‘only’ status becomes more obvious and more of a potential worry, I am increasingly forced to confront both my own feelings and those of people around me towards families with only one child. For the sad thing is that, really, I quite agree when someone says they think she should have a sibling. I don’t agree that without one she is doomed to a life of loneliness or ruin. For me, the idea of a sibling just seems right. I have one, my partner has two. I have eight aunts and uncles, he has six. What could be more normal?

Yet our families are shrinking. Fertility rates continue to drop. One hundred and fifty years ago women were having six babies, a hundred years ago it was three, and now it is 1.something, not enough, according to those who would like it to be so, to replace the population. I can pat myself on the back, at least, for not contributing too much to the overpopulation of our already overpopulated world.

Choice is our catchphrase. We will choose our career, decide ourselves when and if to marry and when and if to have children, we will choose how many kids to have and to which schools we will send them. We will choose our family, and we will choose the life that suits us, never for a moment thinking that what you choose and what you end up with might not be the same.

When it comes to families, there is no one size fits all, and far better we define the term family to suit ourselves. Yet still we cling to the dominant idea of what constitutes the perfect family – mum, dad, a couple of kids and a dog. And, from holding on to this ideal, it is only a short step to judgement of our own choices and those of others. Beware of those who do not fit the mould: One kid and a cat, two mummies and one little boy, or, heaven forbid, no children at all? These families swim in dangerous waters, their deviance – despite trends – forcing the rest of us to question the relevance of the families we try so hard to create.

So how can we match our expectation of what our family should be with the eventual reality? This expectation is hardly surprising, with every song, book and movie telling us what we should expect, which is, of course, a happy ending. We live in a time in which we’ve come to believe we can pick and choose when and if to have kids. Movie stars have babies at 45 so why can’t we? Multiple births, surrogacy and adoption jump out at us from the media every day. Want to freeze your eggs? Go right ahead. Want to
buy an egg? Sure!

And here I am with my one very much-loved daughter and my loving and loved husband and I feel…bereft. I have had my ability to choose taken away from me. Of course, as soon as I think this I am overwhelmed with guilt, guilt that I feel this way and guilt that I cannot give my family what we (or is it just me?) want. My daughter has not yet asked me for a sister or brother, but I feel that day is fast approaching.

And then, like so many, we live far away - the other side of the world, in our case - from extended family. With the exception of a weekly Skype session in which the grandparents sing songs and read stories, it really is just us. Meanwhile, my daughter’s bears are over endowed with siblings, cousins, grandparents and it occurs to me that perhaps she thinks there’s a baby brother waiting on the other side of the world, much as her grandmother and granddad wait to see her on our much-anticipated trips home.

And then a woman I meet at a playgroup tells me she is always slightly wary of those with only one child. I stand there, cup of tea in one hand, plastic truck in the other, and say nothing. It is either say nothing or say everything. For a moment, furious at her blithe assumptions and her smug family of three daughters, all currently, or so it seems, torturing another small child, I enjoy imagining ramming the truck down her throat. Instead I glance over at my daughter, engaged in a squealing game that seems to involve much hopping and little else. I wonder what dark forces this woman thinks are at play in our household that would never darken her own doorway.

Yet I am complicit in this fantasy that we all must have and are entitled to the perfect family. How can we crowd around the Christmas tree with clear consciences if we don’t have the requisite number of children, our loving partner standing by, grandparents and jolly aunts and uncles waiting in the wings? My daughter has endless storybooks with this exact scenario, usually sent by far away relatives pining for a family gathering.

Emboldened by my fears and increasing confusion, I decide to seek guidance. I type ‘only child’ into my search engine and am instantly confronted with hundreds of links, some touting books designed to alleviate my concerns, others warning me not to make the seven big mistakes parents of only kids usually make (as if there aren’t enough to make as it is), reams on personality traits of only children and the impact of birth order. Phew! How can I possibly keep my daughter safe from all the pains and pitfalls of growing up?

A few hours later and I sit back, stunned. By all accounts, when she grows up my daughter will be spoilt, selfish, incapable of sharing and, inevitably, something of a brat. A loner, she’ll be too bossy for her peers and too precocious for those older than her, but just right for her imaginary best friend (who else, after all, will she have to play with?). Coached mercilessly by her doting and starry-eyed parents, she’ll inevitably do very well in school (little overachiever that she is!) but will be all the more depressed and anxious for it, the pressure of fulfilling our dreams or perhaps not filling them to our satisfaction just too much. And relationships? Forget it. She’ll be too busy carrying on her rounded, stressed shoulders the sole responsibility for her aging, crotchety and, most likely, senile parents. Unless, of course, she finds another only child, someone who, just like her, knows what it is to carry a whole world’s worth of expectations, fears and love single-handedly through life.

And yet, reading my way through all the advice, admonishments and warnings makes me giggle hysterically with the sheer hysteria of it all. Disappointment, unmet expectations, bad relationships, loneliness: are these the exclusive territory of those with no siblings, and is a family of four automatically immune to grief and disillusionment? Surely there are some advantages to being an ‘only’.

Yes, says Susan Newman, author of
Parenting an Only Child. Only children are more likely to do well academically, as parents are usually able to devote more resources, crucially their time, to one-on-one support. Newman also says that there is no basis to the stereotypes associated with ‘onlies’, namely their selfishness, loneliness, bossiness and general outsider status.

I remember to ring a friend in America who has just undergone her fourth go at IVF. She answers, her voice heavy with sadness. Told to wait five years after the all clear from breast cancer, she and her partner have been trying for seven more to have a child. Now their latest attempt at IVF has failed and they’ve decided to stop. I feel both chastened and supremely blessed. While still real, my dilemma feels, at this moment, like the dilemma of someone who has everything yet still wants more.

And then, one weekend not long after, two pregnant friends come to visit. Their kids play with my daughter and she is over the moon to have someone – anyone! – to whom she can show off her room, dress up with or kick her big yellow ball. I sit in the kitchen making endless cups of tea. Surrounded by such fecundity I simply pretend it isn’t there, and this seems to go down fine. Most likely the thought of twice, or in one case, three times the yelling and placating is sometimes just too much to contemplate. Every now and then I sneak a glance at a burgeoning belly, my back almost remembering that feeling of supporting a burden that just keeps growing and growing. By the end of the afternoon my mouth feels stretched from too much smiling. And then I look at the wreckage of our living room and wonder how I ever thought I could cope with more than one child!

So here I am, torn between what I have and what I want, which is the same as what I and also some other people think I should have. But I am also happier than I ever have been with what I do have, experiencing more joyous moments in the last few years than in the thirty before that.

We go around to my friend Fiona’s house for an intensive session of Lego and coffee. She has a daughter just a few weeks older than mine. Fiona finds it hard enough to juggle the demands of her job with the needs of her son, and can’t imagine bringing another child into the mix. “No way,” she says, as we sit on the floor, shoring up our children’s teetering towers. “We just don’t want any more and if anyone ever asks me I just tell them straight out - and you should do the same - that it’s none of their business.” Fiona is a proud ‘only’ herself. “And look at me!” she says with a laugh and a twirl of her hand.

I want Fiona conviction. I need to accept that my situation isn’t going to change and move forward from there. I get upset when someone questions our arrangement but can’t accept it myself. I think I am in danger of imploding, and then where would our little ‘arrangement’ be? I seek guidance again, but this time it is for me. I start to read some online forums for parents of only children. “I was in danger of forgetting the child I had already,” writes one mother. “I overheard my little boy telling his grandmother that mummy and daddy were trying to find a better child than him.” “We just don’t want any more. Our family is complete,” states another. And so it goes. The ‘only’ world is divided into those who don’t want more kids and those who do but can’t. What unites them is that often they are asked to explain and sometimes defend their situation to a sometimes-hostile audience.

“But what if something happens to her?” asks a woman I casually start chatting with in the playground. The answer to that, of course, is that my heart will stop. But what I actually say is that it is none of her business and she should consider very carefully whether that is an appropriate question to ask. My inner Fiona whoops and cheers. The woman looks shamefaced and apologises and I tell her it is quite all right, before calmly walking off.

The questions will most likely keep coming while my daughter is still young. And I will feel that knife slicing in and wonder at the unfairness of life. But then I will remember what I do have and that we try our very hardest to do the best by our daughter and our small family. It’s not perfect. We yell, we sulk, my daughter stamps her feet and I have trouble stopping myself doing the same. We struggle endlessly to balance work, study, and everything else that we do. But, by any definition of family, it is more than satisfactory.

Without doubt, over the course of her childhood and probably adulthood, too, my daughter will both curse and thank me for leaving her without siblings. But I’m just as sure she will curse and thank me for many other things as well, for we are the architects of her life, at least for these early years. Because of us she will become bilingual, will learn to play the piano and ski, and will gain an in-depth and somewhat unnecessary knowledge of early seventies funk and soul music. What are parents for, if not to bear the brunt of their child’s happiness, their frustrations and disappointments?

I’m at the hospital bedside of my friend, Deepa. She’s holding her newborn son, a brother for my daughter’s playmate, Nina. Her mother, fresh from the airport and her long trip from Delhi draws me aside to ask when I, too, am going to have a second child. “It is terrible for children to be alone!” she proclaims. “You must have another as soon as possible. Otherwise you are being very selfish.”

I instinctively recoil, my feelings of guilt, frustration and longing reawakening. But then I see that this is the loving arrogance of a grandmother-for-the-second-time. At this moment she rules the world and wants only for those around her, even this unknown woman who is her daughter’s friend so far from home, to have the same joy. For a moment I consider saying it just isn’t possible, but as I look at her face I remember that we are here to celebrate. So I simply smile and say we’re very happy with how things are. As I watch Deepa with her son in her arms, my arms cradle their own phantom baby, pretending that I too have a pair of beautiful brown eyes staring up at me in the certainty that I am the centre of the world.

When I get home that afternoon, my daughter rushes up to me as if I have been gone a week. She squashes her nose against mine so I can hardly see, squeezes my neck so I can hardly breathe. But I am already holding my breath, trying to make this perfect moment last, knowing that with my next breath I will have moved on, but also knowing that there will be more perfect moments to come. She is my one and only love.


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