Just the one? The misconceptions of the only child


Having only one child is something many people frown upon, but the reasons for this are unscientific and unfounded.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s not feeling up to incubating another human. Maybe it’s my unshakeable dislike of Dustbuster-shaped family cars, or the thought of having worse than a one-to-one ratio of parents to children at any given time. Whatever my reasons, I’ve experienced surprising resistance since I started admitting we might be stopping at just the one. “Wait till you hit 40 and panic!” and “But she’ll be so lonely!” or “Oh, hooray! You’re pregnant again, right? Oh my god, sorry, it’s just your billowy top.”

Here I thought I’d be freed of childbearing harassment once I’d had a child. (Incidentally there’s a good post about nosing in on women’s fertility status that recently went viral). When people used to ask if I was “trying for a baby” I’d go Full Snark and say things like “Nope, we’re trying for a panda. It’ll be tough, genetically – but the world needs more.” Being confronted about having an “only” has rendered me more tongue-tied. It can feel like no-man’s land: you’re an ousted traitor of the No Kids Club, but if you didn’t know better, you could be made to feel like you’re not a real parent unless you double down.

A friend of mine was in the park recently with her child, when another parent asked “when her number two was coming.” (If you share both my puerile humour and perspective you might agree it’s about as invasive to prod about family planning as it is to ask about bowel movements.) My friend explained she was stopping at one and the parent retorted “ah, then you can remain a lady of leisure!” Because when you’ve only got the one, life is just lobster and Laurent, 24/7. The same friend was in the same park a few weeks later, talking to an older man. He had unfortunately lost his adult son, so my friend of course sympathised with his grief. The man talked for some time then ended abruptly with “So. That’s why you should have more than one.” Suddenly she was at the barrel-end of some pretty depressing advice: basically, “better have a spare.” She really needs to stop going to that park.

With the demographic increase in one-child families observed in the past decades, along with so many experts like Susan Newman repeatedly debunking the myths of only children (weird, spoiled, selfish, serial killers, etc) these ought to be antiquated sentiments that we now joke about, like LaserDisc. Numerous studies have disproven the theory of the “maladjusted only child,” and if you want to base arguments on potential environmental impact (not to mention finances), then having fewer children comes out on top. I’m not making a case for one child as the “best” option– I live by the Amy Poehler mantra “good for you! not for me” –I’m just baffled we still need to normalise it.

Psychologists call the phenomenon of continuing to believe something which has been disproven by science belief perseverance. And sometimes bad science colludes with culture, creating a storm of myths and assumptions which are hard to shake, no matter how much they are subsequently studied, disproven, and written about. Case in point, in late 1800s America, a psychologist called Granville Stanley Hall, the “father of child psychology” and granddaddy of only-child myths observed only children and made a series of assumptions about them skewed by his own experiences and opinions. His conclusion was that “being an only child is a disease in and of itself” (Take that, Gandhi).

Not long after, Austrian Psychologist Erwin Wexberg penned the upbeat Your Nervous Child: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, which similarly warned of the perils of having just one child, for both parent and offspring. The upshot? Having just one child was deemed a “dangerous indulgence” for the mother and child. It was a golden era of flaunting medical authority backed by little scientific evidence, not to mention a time when men were considered the authority over women. And even as Western society underwent radical changes affecting childbearing in terms of falling infant mortality rates, economic structure, women’s rights and family planning options, and sounder scientific studies to boot, the myths and sentiments persisted - right through to a little park in London in 2015.

When I read about the attempts to frame and defund Planned Parenthood in the US, I can’t help reflect that society seems to be at odds with science in a different way now when it comes to women’s fertility. Or more bluntly, that scientific evidence and progress is no match for those who wish to rain judgement on family planning choices. From where I stand, it’s pretty simple: if you want to have a bunch of kids, go for it. I won’t question you. If you don’t want any kids, go for it. I won’t question you.

For me, just the one will do just fine. Please don’t question it.

Taylor is on Twitter a lot because she only has the one child: @taylorglennUK

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Taylor Glenn, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 27th October 2015 07.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010