Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Article: "The War on Only Children"

Salon had a great article by Mary Elizabeth Williams recently about "The War on Only Children." As I read, I couldn't help but compare the reactions she describes to her status as an only child to the typical reactions those of us who are childless/free (for whatever reason) get when people find out that we don't have kids. Tell me, does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

I was making small talk with a woman I’d just met when the inevitable subject of family came up. “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” she’d asked. “No,” I’d replied. And there it was: the subtle change in her expression, the quick reassessment, the pinched face I’ve seen a thousand times before. “Well, that must have been nice for you,” she replied. “You must have been so spoiled.”

It’s one of the standard responses we “onlies” get — near strangers denigrating us because of our parents’ reproductive habits. Nobody ever says, “Youngest of four? So you’re really immature, right?” or “You’re a twin? Wow, you must be a total dick.” But I didn’t answer, “Yeah, after my dad left my 21-year-old mom when she was pregnant with me, you can imagine what a cosseted, pampered existence this princess had.” That’s because I didn’t want to get the other classic reaction: unbridled pity for my no doubt sad, lonely existence. Hi, what year is this?

Growing up in my mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood, I understood that I was an anomaly. Hell, just having parents who were divorced was considered exotic. Back then, I generally shrugged off my dubious reputation as both wildly pampered and horribly starved for company, content with my childhood claim to fame as The Girl Who Didn’t Have to Share.

As I grew older, I met other onlies. It wasn’t always easy to find them – shockingly, they look a lot like everybody else. We exchanged stories of our similar bad and sad reps, but I noticed we almost never expressed a longing for a different fate. We were just a contented if misunderstood minority. But times have changed. There are now roughly 20 million only children in America, representing nearly a quarter of all our families. You’d think those swelling ranks would have changed those misconceptions. So how come if we don’t smoke in bars anymore, we’re still dissing only children?

I particularly loved this paragraph:

It’s especially galling to hear the contempt for onlies – that vaguely snide attitude that the real selfishness is on the part of the parents – coming as it does within a culture in which the subjects of infertility, pregnancy loss, deferred child rearing, and divorce are the stuff of idle playground chatter. If a child you know has no siblings, chances are you know the reasons why. It’s rarely because the parents are such big jerks. But whether it’s by the hand of fate or conscious decision, who’s to knock another’s choices, anyway? Why be a self-appointed Goldilocks of family size, bloviating that one is pathetic, five is pushing it, but two or three is juuuuust right? As my friend Anne’s mother once sagely told her, having one is a long way from the worst thing you could do to a child.

Read the entire article here. And thank you, Mary Elizabeth Williams!


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I think it's an important read, especially in a world where large families seem to be regularly celebritized.

  2. I'm an only because my mother had cancer soon after I was born and was told to not have any more. I'm well aware that the privileges I've had (my education, for example) are because of being an only - my parents weren't wealthy - they got by because there wasn't more than one kid to spend money on.

    And yes, I do tell people that if they ask and are judgemental.

    (I now have a stepsister, she's pretty ace!)

  3. I worry about Petite being an only child if we never try again for a second because of finances. I am going to read that article you linked and thank you for sharing it. I have to hope that whatever choice we make (or are forced to accept) that she will be happy and well adjusted. Maybe I'm delusional, but I can certainly hope, right? Hugs to you Loribeth. :)

  4. People are judgemental about the stupidest things. I know lots of onlies - one of my favourite cousins is an only, and I realise reading this I've never really asked why. Then I realised I never asked why because it never mattered.