"Only," as an adjective, modifies the word "child." He is your "only child." We don't ask of lottery winners: Is this your only million? That would seem to be looking a gift horse in the mouth, questioning an obvious surfeit from a position of condescension.
"Only" is a word that connotes a lack, and yes, there is a certain lack with an only child. It is true what they say: Don't you want a playmate for your child? My energetic son would love to have a brother to wrestle with, and he has told me so. We have lain side by side on a pillow, as we often do to talk, and sometimes he is just annoyed. Sometimes he has tears in his eyes when he asks, "Why can't I have a brother?"
In response, I tell him the truth.
I tell him he would probably have had a brother or sister if life had gone according to plan, but it rarely does. People who are very lucky have life according to their wishes. The rest of us are more among the majority, but often have our complicated stories questioned. I tell him that I left his father in the late stage of my childbearing years, and for years before and years after I was in tatters, and in those tatters I used all my energy to nurture my son, but had no thoughts of bringing another child into that whirlwind. I soon met another man I loved. That other man soon came to love my child -- my only child -- as if he were biologically his own offspring. I would muse about having another and the man would tell me to think about how it would affect my only child, the real child he loved. He gave up a chance to have "his own" because he loved my real child that much. And in that time of decision, I was in no shape to raise a second child. Together, we decided no, based on the fragility of both of our lives in the years we had lived through.
I am told to "have another," and sometimes I laugh it off as a compliment, a guess at my age, and then I scoff and say, "I'm 41. That ship has sailed." Other times, at certain times of the month, as the last of the other opportunities leave me one by one, the phrase "have another" stings. And I want to tell the helpful person encouraging my uterus and me how both of us barely made it through the last decade. I want to have a board book of my life, a series of pictures that would shock any highlighted head in the supermarket. When people say "Have another," they are in a sense approving of me, telling me the world needs more of me. Who? White? Educated? Women with red glasses? Artistic types? Far end of liberal?
That is one reason people give these days in our achingly split populace: Have more of yourselves to balance out the insanity of the other side, as if we were massing opposing armies for a final invasion, as if politics came out easy and clean with genetics and a good push.
Another reason is the horror of the void of non-existence: If one dies, you will have none. As for me, I will not be a mommy any more, just grief. I read Joan Didion's Blue Nights and sent texts to another friend with one child and we both winced, wanting more beautiful babies to stave off the horror of being unmothered while still alive. But should a second child bear the burden of erasing the death of a first child? If Didion had another besides Quintana, would it be easier? Perish the thought. For God's sake, I'm a Buddhist. We sit and think about nonexistence all the time, about how we cling to life and in our very clinging we wring out our ability to be present with the surfeit -- the lucky privileged joy -- we sometimes have. I cling too, and all I can do is see how I cling to my son, how I hate that any child anywhere on the planet dies, not just mine, how safe he is compared to so many.
Still another reason for siblings is the guarantee of a soul mate, someone who understands implicitly. I believe that is often the case, and I would love to feel that twinned consciousness. I do have two siblings, a brother and a sister, and the truth is that neither of them is the person who knows me best in the world. I love those two versions of myself very much. But for strange reasons I can't name, I am through and through an oldest child, and my soul mates as girlfriends are other oldest children, other single children and other children who have been only'ed -- divided, set aside from the human race, "aloned" -- at some point in their lives. Those are the women who understand me best.
Here I am making a manifesto, I see, and maybe it's to make myself feel better. What am I doing? I could Google the psychiatric and social problems of only children, I suppose. People who have and come from big families hate the onlies. I was trained to look askance at the behavior of single children even as a child myself. Despite the fact that my two best friends were non-spoiled single children, I remember my mom explaining a needy spoiled tantrum from a child across the street as a symptom of an "only."
We all want to be told we made the right choices, but we can't ever know that for sure. That false security of being right must come at the expense of degrading another person.
A fourth -- or fifth? I've lost count -- reason for more: I don't want my child to face the burden of dealing with my aging and ill self and my spouse's all by himself. This seems not "natural" at all, but political, economic, and in some sense a sign of giving up on our shared burden, the project of improving society as a functioning group of humans. This is the burden our country sets upon little shoulders: the paucity and expense of eldercare, the fact that one would have more than one child in order to share around the horrid expense of easing one out of life.
I am suspicious of "Have Another" because it carries echoes of Americana. The flipside, after the shit has hit the fan or as it is sailing toward the whirling blades, is to say "It Will All Work Out." If you have unease, the solution is another car, another country, another vacation, another invasion, another shopping spree, another cupcake, another affair. Children are not like any of those things, of course, but children are similar in that they also fulfill deep needs, and help us stop up deep cracks and fissures in our sense of ourselves. Their insistence forces us to vault ourselves over questions about who we are and if we matter. To children, of course, we do matter. So the more children we have, the more we matter, I suppose. This, too, is another way in which we try to argue that we each matter (more) in a society where mattering depends on amassing one's individual storehouse of wealth and security -- in a society where the concept of equality despite difference is a concept too seldom felt in the bones.
The "spoiled" issue stings most because I worry about it. We have more to go around because we don't have two or more to provide for. All I can tell the world is that no one wants a spoiled child, a greedy child, a child who doesn't understand how to share. Spoiled is an epithet that finds its comfortable target in an "only," but I have seen many, many children and adults of multi-sibling households who identify so strongly with their army, their affiliation, their camp, their little nation, that sharing and welcoming the stranger, that providing for the afflicted and the lost, the widow and the orphaned, seems utterly alien. Better to crow and brag about what you have than to identify with the lone, the single, the outcast, I suppose.
A massage therapist kneading my back once spilled out her life story as I spilled out mine, as we found amazing similarities in our tatters-to-today tales. She, too, had a single child as the result of childbearing years dominated by chaos of various kinds.
"He doesn't like the word only," she laughed as she explained her son. "He told someone once, 'I'm an independent.'"
We have this "only," this quaking bias against households with one kid, and I know it comes from deep in our genetic guts as organically fashioned baby-makers, and I understand that people say "Oh, just one?" when they just want to say Children = Joy. I agree with them, of course, but Joy? Joy is the main thing. Tell me not, "Have another." Ask me instead, "How is your Joy these days? How do you stave off your fear of nonexistence?" I will say my joy is overflowing, my recipes are complex and they often involve careful attention to my own instincts for more.
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