Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Some of my best friends are only children. There, I said it. They’re not spoiled or selfish, either. And when they talk about their childhoods, they don’t use words like “lonely.” I think sometimes in the rhetoric about how many children we (or better yet, other people) ought to have, we forget that families are complex. It’s as easy to cultivate cruelty among siblings as it is camaraderie, maybe even easier. And being surrounded by people is no guarantee of not being lonely. That’s why I appreciate an article like Lauren Sandler’s “Only Children: Lonely and Selfish?” so much. She approaches the topic of family size with nuance and recognizes what so many well-meaning friends, relatives, and strangers at the grocery store fail to understand: it’s complicated (and also, usually, none of their business).
Sandler’s research strives to debunk the myth that parents of onlies are selfish people producing more selfish people for the world:
Now, I don’t know of any reason to have a child that doesn’t begin, even in some disguised form, with “I want.” The desire to perpetuate one’s genes is inherently selfish, and that holds true for one child or many. There’s also no certainty that producing children, even with the attendant sacrifices asked of parents, will make parents less selfish. I think in some cases it does the opposite. Yet there are many reasons, particularly within a recession, why parents might want to focus their resources — of finances, attention, energy, etc. — in a way that feels manageable for them. Like with only one child.
If a child doesn’t have siblings, it’s generally assumed that there’s a hush-hush reason for it: we don’t like being parents (because we are selfish), we care more about our status — work, money, materialism — than our child (because we are selfish), or we waited too long (because we are selfish). When have you heard someone say an only child is better off?
The criticism of onlies and their parents is merely a flipside to the criticism of parents who have too many children. Those parents, too, are called selfish. There is in the cultural milieu a vision of how many children is “right” that fits a definition of the “right” family without attention to circumstances and desires that are often very personal. Who am I to dictate how many children someone else ought to have?
Children are a blessing, yes, but they’re not the only blessings. My children are gifts from God, but I have other gifts too, ones that are patiently waiting on the backburner while my children grow. Parenting can be an all-consuming task, and caring for children can divert parents’ resources from the communal body of Christ. There are brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t share our nuclear families but depend upon our gifts and resources.
I’m not an only child and I don’t have an only child, but I am still sometimes lonely and sometimes selfish. Both are lifelong struggles. Yet I am incorporated into the Church in spite of my shortcomings, still sometimes lonely and selfish, but with brothers and sisters whose grace stretches wide through space and time. Can’t we extend that grace to other families, no matter their numbers?