I Was an Only Child by Circumstance, My Son Is an Only Child by Choice

When my wife and I decided to make our first child our last, many asked us why. Here's what I tell them and what we learned when planning our (little) family.

boy at the beach
Photo: Christopher Dale

I came to be an only child through the worst of circumstances. When I was three, my mother, Laura Dale, died suddenly. She was 24 years old and seven months pregnant with what would have been my baby sister.

With one burst of a blood vessel—an aneurysm brought on by preeclampsia, generally described as pregnancy-driven high blood pressure—my nuclear family went from two healthy parents and a sibling to one devastated dad.

My father never really recovered, let alone remarried. Through no real fault of his, my childhood was saturated with a clueless alienation, an eerie silence that should have been broken by not one but two additional voices. My father knew exactly what was missing but didn't know what to do about it; part of his loss was a loss of direction, which I invariably inherited.

It was not a happy childhood. My status as the only child of a stunned single dad made my home life irrevocably inferior to those of most peers. They lived in houses, me a four-room apartment. They had siblings, I not only didn't but almost did, which is somehow worse. They had two parents, I had one—and an emotionally broken one at that. The result was a socially awkward absence of normalcy. I grew up feeling that everyone else had a life manual that wasn't provided to me.

Three decades later, you'd think that someone who grew up unluckily lonely would want more than one child upon becoming a parent. Only it didn't turn out that way and, far from being thrust upon me via disaster, it's a matter of pure choice.

My wife and I are happily married with a three-year-old son, Nicholas. Though we're both 40, we're healthy and capable of having another child. Economics are not an issue, nor is housing or lack of support from relatives and friends.

We have a great little family; we've just decided to keep it little. We are officially post-procreation. The question, one which we've been asked incessantly, is: why?

Perhaps being 'one and done' would be more easily explicable were my wife also, like me, an only child. But she's not. In fact, she has a sister who is exactly the age mine would have been. They grew up natural playmates in two-parent, upper-middle-class suburbia. Her childhood was so normal that it's weird—at least to me.

So no, the "that's all either of you have known" rationale doesn't apply. One of us not only experienced being an older sibling but, my wife would agree, enjoyed and benefitted from it. All totaled, then, our decision to leave both well-enough and Nicholas alone seems discordant with each of our childhoods. I missed out on having a sibling, and my wife has fond memories of big sisterhood.

It took some soul-searching and honest discussion to discover why standing pat at one was the best choice for us. Often, this required one partner's feelings to stand upon the shoulders of the other's—a layered, nonjudgmental tag-team difficult even for two people who love and trust each other.

Here's what we learned about ourselves, and our decision to have just one child.

We're introvert parents.

One key factor is our personalities and, as parents, the hypothetical projection of those personalities onto our son. Specifically, my wife and I are both introverts. Each values alone time and, consistent with our "less is more" approach to people, don't necessarily see being sans sibling as a detriment to Nicholas.

We see both benefits and drawbacks to being an only child. There's something to be said for having a built-in bestie but, on the other hand, also for independent childhood exploration. Some issues, like having to share, straddle both pro and con.

Basically, being alone gets a bad rap when it is really condition-dependent and therefore neutral. We don't see being alone as either positive or negative, and hopefully Nicholas won't, either.

Three's company—especially today.

In the time since my wife and I were children, technology has altered life in a fashion unprecedented from one generation to the next. That is not an understatement; kids today are literally wired differently than their Gen X and even Millennial parents were as youths.

Between social calendars and social media – between playing virtual games with cyber-friends and playing Little League baseball "IRL"—Nicholas will grow up with plenty of person-to-person contact. In lives increasingly led online as well as on the go, with school and extracurricular activities combining with avatars in social or hobbyist online communities, being an only child today isn't the same experience it was for previous generations. It is, quite simply, far more interactive.

Considering this, my wife and I don't feel Nicholas "needs a sibling for company," an oft-repeated reason for having a second child. Our son will grow up with more than enough playmates, schoolmates and who-knows-what-else-mates. Despite its ugly side, tech has placed connections a touch away, a new reality that will only deepen throughout his childhood.

Limitations and Logistics

For my wife and I, the hardest part of our one-child-only decision was a reality check that falls squarely on our shoulders. When push comes to procreation, we honestly feel another kid would stretch these particular two people, who love being parents but aren't necessarily "natural nurturers," too thin.

Sometimes selfishness and self-knowledge intersect, at least a little. We both have demanding careers and dedicated outside interests, and are worried the time- impoverishment fallout from a second child would cause us to sell everything—including our firstborn—short in trying to keep up. In the prospect of having another baby, we anticipated a level of regret far exceeding the typical 3am-feeding second guesses, and into the unhealthy realm of resentment. We know ourselves, know our limits, and know (OK, mostly know) that forgoing a second child is the appropriate path forward for us.

There's no right answer here.

And then there's the most important lesson of all: That it's OK to have just one kid. We are two people whose childhoods strongly portend a multi-offspring marriage. We are not bad or incomplete parents for choosing just one child, and neither is anyone else, regardless their backgrounds. And besides: our backgrounds, however varying, can guide us down proper parenting paths.

For example, as an only-child parent of an only child, I have the benefit of hindsight, insomuch as I'm aware of the inherent loneliness it may cause our son and can take measures to counteract it. This means everything from the yin of extra father-son playtime and bonding to the yang of not placing unfair expectations on my only child to fulfill all my self-centered parenting dreams.

There's also an aspect of relatability in all this, because being an only child is, essentially, the only thing my childhood has in common with Nicholas's. It's a point of identification and recognition that, at worst, I can neutralize any negatives associated with being on only child amid the sea of advantages my son enjoys that I did not.

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