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Tips for Parents Suffering From the 'Only Child Syndrome'

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With snow storms wreaking havoc throughout the United States these past few months, many families have spent the time cocooning with their child or children.

I've heard that some of the kids have played together well, while other moms have told me that "they are constantly fighting over toys, treats, hugs and the best LEGOS."

And recently, a friend told me that she is losing sleep at night because she only has one child; and "I feel guilty that he doesn't have a sibling when so many of his friends do." She says, "I'm just waiting for him to ask me why he doesn't have a brother or sister, and don't know what I'm going to say."

I have one child too. A girl, 4 1/2; and we don't plan to have any more. Without oversharing, I had a very difficult pregnancy and felt that I couldn't handle another child without sacrificing my marital and personal happiness. Also, I don't feel any guilt about the decision; it's the right one for our family.

As a journalist, I wanted to see what the research says about having and being an only child and discover the long-term effects of being raised as a singleton (full disclosure: both my husband and I have siblings).

I read the informative book, The Case for the Only Child, written by social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. and found some eye-opening statistics:

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the single-child family is the fastest growing family unit and has been for more than two decades.
  • Statistics from the National Institutes of Health show more women are having their babies later in life (41% of newborns are born to women over the age of 35).

Yes, Most of the moms I know had their child/children when they were 35-43. I know several pregnant women, and they are in their early forties.

  • Mothers of one child are the happiest (older parents are happier too).

The moms I know who are happiest are the older ones, maybe because they have already had varied life experiences, so don't feel they are missing out on much by being parents.

  • Adding more children to a family has no effect on fathers' happiness, but a negative effect on mothers' contentment.
  • Siblings are not essential for "normal" development and the stereotypes we've heard about the only child (bossy, pushy, selfish, lonely) are not correct.

In fact, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the Marriage Project at Rutgers University, one child fulfills the maternal and parenting urges of more and more people these days and allows parents to keep a somewhat "adult-centered" life.

So, what to do about those questions from family, strangers or as my friend was wondering your own child?

"When someone asks an inappropriate question or offers up a 'he needs a sibling' statement, you are within your rights to not respond," says Newman. "You may even want to toss a question back at them: 'Are you asking me about my personal life? You'll forgive me if I don't answer.' Good chance you will get an apology."

I kind of think that response is a little harsh. A few months ago at a kids party, one of the moms repeatedly told my daughter, "You should tell your mommy you need a brother or sister." I think she was well-meaning, but after the third time she said it, I smiled and gently but pointedly told her, "We don't talk about that with her."

I nervously waited for my daughter to bring it up, and was ready with reasons (we love you so much; this way all mommy's and daddy's love goes to you); but she didn't much to my relief. Frankly, she knows that her other friends have siblings, but she doesn't seem to miss the experience. Perhaps she also thinks that our cat is her sibling. Because she does seem to act territorial around him.

And what about family? Mine is very understanding (on both sides) so we don't have an issue there. "If your family just won't let the issue go, Newman suggests saying, "This is our family, we're happy and it's the way it's going to be."

Don't be afraid to get angry to stop the badgering, says Newman. Another firm response: "We talked about having more children and one child is our choice -- it works for us."

When well-meaning people ask me "Are you going to have another baby?" my pat response was to say, "I'm not sure," or "We'll see." Now, I'm more likely to say something like, "We're one and done."

Is your child a singleton and how to do you respond to questions from people and/or your child about siblings?

This article originally appeared on Musings on Motherhood and Midlife