I crave attention. I turn unrelated conversations into stories about my own life. Being social is important to me, and I get lonely fairly easily. I’m sensitive because I never had a sibling to help me thicken my skin.
In other words, I am an only child. And I am destined to pass all of these traits along to my daughter, who is an only too.
This was the baggage I brought to my interview with Lauren Sandler, a fellow only/mom of one and the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One. She quickly set me straight. Over coffee, Sandler explained how little evidence there is supporting any of the stereotypes about us.
The three biggest myths, she says, turn into one word -- lonelyselfishmaladjusted -- when people talk about us, despite the hundreds of studies that show only children are no different than people with siblings. It is a knowledge gap with consequences. The stereotypes “are really infringing on the lives of parents and especially mothers,” Sandler says. “They have their first kid for them and a second for the other kid. If the reason they’re doing that is that only children are somehow screwed up, then the reasoning is flawed.”
As I dared to exhale, she laid out the facts:
1. Only children are not lonely. This is true, but with a few qualifications. School-aged only children are not lonelier. However, those in rural areas might be somewhat more so, and adolescent onlys get lonely because they are teenagers. And grown-up only children coping with the needs and then the loss of aging parents do tend to feel more isolated than others in the same boat. “For me, personally, it is not a reason to have another kid,” Sandler says, “just so my kid has a sibling when I die.”
2. Only children are not more selfish than other people. Instead, Sandler says, “we become generous and respectful people. We put a lot of weight on our relationships. We tend to be very giving friends, and we are no more narcissistic than anyone else. For some reason, researchers cannot believe this, and just keep testing it.”
3. Only children are not all spoiled. At least, no more spoiled than any other child might be. “There is a notion that only children are spoiled because they get everything their parents have to give,” Sandler says, “and end up with the pony in the backyard and the diamond tiara and have a snit when they don’t get what they want. That’s not my kid. It wasn’t me.”
4. Only children are not maladjusted. “All of the data around that shows us that as long as kids go to school they’re socialized,” Sandler says. “I tend to be the person throwing a party. I bought a house with friends.”
5. Only children do have shared strengths. High achievement, intelligence and self-esteem. Raised in a “rich verbal environment” we talk a lot -- and with depth. But, Sandler says, just as preventing “lonelyselfishmaladjusted” is not a reason to have a second child, improving your child's SAT score is not a reason to stop at one.
6. Onlys are basically the same as oldests. But different. That’s the conclusion reached by Frank J. Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel, whose argument “won me over,” Sandler says. Like oldest children, onlys tend to be more conservative, but, like youngests, they are more likely to be innovators. “You guys are the wild card,” Sulloway told Sandler. “You have more freedom to define yourself than anyone else.”
7. In other words, only children can’t be put into a box. In One and Only, Sandler features two only children, married to each other. “One is hyper-social and one is a loner,” she says. “And they both attribute that to being onlys.”
8. There is no such thing as good and bad family choices. The insidious subtext of any “lonelyselfishmaladjusted” conversation is that parents who raise just one child have burdened them for a lifetime. Her goal, Sandler says, is to “skewer that notion” and liberate parents to construct their family freed from the fear that they are somehow ruining their only children for life. She also has a suggestion for how parents of fewer children might spend their “freed” time -- advocating for more supportive family policies, which would make decisions like these less fraught.
9. You can change your mind. Not everyone, and not forever, but possibly. “As far as I know, my daughter is going to be only one,” Sandler says. “I’m still 38 and I was lucky enough to have an easy time getting pregnant. Who knows? But I want the decision to be mine and my partner’s and not the culture telling me I’m being a terrible mother.”
All of which seems to say that if I don't have another baby, and my daughter is an only like her mama, she will be okay. She may be social, and as she already does at age 3, seek out a best friend in every new classroom. Maybe she'll grow up to be highly independent, someone who needs quality alone-time. Or she'll want a little bit of both. And none of it will be because I didn't "give her" a sibling.
Now, to bring this back to me (because I am an only who wants to relate this to herself after all), the point is, if all of my personal traits that seem so only-esque have nothing to do with my birth order or lack therof, that could mean my personality comes from somewhere else entirely. It might just be -- me.