Why I Want to Take the ‘Only’ Out of ‘Only Child’

“Why am I Only One?”

My inquisitive five-year-old son started asking me this question a couple of years ago when he began to realize his little friends had even littler, or bigger, people in their lives called brother or sister.

“Mommy and Daddy love you so much, and we are so very glad you’re our son,” I’ve said.

This doesn’t answer his question.

What runs through my head faster than I have time to blink: Because we wanted you so badly. Because you are here and you might not have been. Because you’re a scientific and medical miracle. Because very brave people before me made you possible. Because I’m too scared to try again. Because there was a time when I thought — for a few horrific hours — that I lost you. Because we’re a bit old now. Because I worry for my life, even if that’s the PTSD talking.

Because I wished for you for so long, you are enough.

So I ask him, “Do you want a brother or sister?”

At three years old, when he first started noticing his buddies’ siblings, he’d say, in a very straightforward manner, “I want a brother.”

At four years old, this question came up less frequently. When it did, I asked him to share how he was feeling and I reassured him that he has lots of people in his life who love him — his cousins, his close friends from daycare and within our other circles, his grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

He’d smile, move on, and play.

I’d worry.

Now at five years old, when it comes up, I continue to ask him. Last week, we were singing together “Let There Be Peace on Earth” as Spotify still filled our house with holiday music, and we sang the line Let me walk with my brother. I saw him pause, his dazzling eyes staring off for a split second. I imagined him thinking, “But I don’t have a brother.”

When I check in during these times, he says, “I just want it to stay the three of us.” A couple of days ago he declared, “I really want a puppy.”

My son is imaginative. He memorizes movie lines (I’ve heard “Bah Humbug” more times than I can count this season and not because my son is a grump. He’s taken to acting around the house daily and thinks Ebenezer Scrooge is quite something!) He’s also musical (a big Beatles fan since age two and he knows far more lyrics than I do in my forties), and he’s fun, silly, and caring. He is still a toddler, and a human, and acts out and can yell with the best of them. But he hugs and kisses and does share his toys and loves his family and friends.

His happiness is my happiness and I beam with pride when I watch him do just about anything. Yet I have never-ending guilt that he is only one.

Why?

As I grapple with this question, I have started to track my cringe-y moments. Those times when someone says something that cuts to my core and I force a smile and find myself jumping in with an unnecessary explanation or defense.

He’s “an only.” It must be hard that he’s only one. You only have one?

I hear this, at times, in conversation about how we’re maneuvering through this ongoing pandemic (he must be SO lonely without a sibling). Or when he was one or two years old and learning to share, and perhaps didn’t share without some (often loud) protest.

My guilt also comes from generalizations I’ve heard my whole life.

Only children can’t share. Only children are spoiled.

If you’d asked me whether these statements were true before I had my son, I would say of course not. The “only children” I know are absolutely incredible people.

While I was growing up, no one ever accused me of wrongdoings because I had only one sister and not multiple siblings. I love my sister abundantly and cannot imagine my life without her. My son will know a different life, and my hope for him is that it’s a happy and healthy one filled with laughter and all kinds of people he loves who love him back — abundantly.

After Christmas, when my husband spent a good amount of time with my son coloring pictures of his latest fantasy characters, my son stopped whatever he was doing and looked at my husband with his sweet, big brown eyes, as he often does. He then said, “Daddy, next year at Christmas, I’d like for you to open the first gift.”

I sat, quietly listening, truthfully stunned. But not because he’s an only child — because he’s five. My husband told him how generous and thoughtful it was of him to make this kind offer. Then my son, with his ruffled auburn hair and a little bit of leftover ketchup on his tiny cheek, looked over at me and said, ever so gently as he realized he left me out, “Mommy, you can open the next gift. I’ll go last.”

My son dreams of opening his presents like so many children, ripping open those special gifts like there’s nothing else happening in the world. In that moment, he put aside his own wants and considered his father and mother.

He is a compassionate, giving soul.

He is our gift.

If he must be called an only something, he is only loved.

Katie McLeod

Published by Katie McLeod

Hello! I am a Boston-area mom, wife, and digital communications specialist eager to connect with others making their way through family and mid-life happenings. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

10 thoughts on “Why I Want to Take the ‘Only’ Out of ‘Only Child’

  1. Katie, That is lovely! You are a wonderful writer and have raised a wonderful child. He is so thoughtful and selfless. You don’t need siblings to learn about life – just amazing parents who love you and help you learn.

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  2. I have an “only” who at around 3 years old asked me if it was “terribly dangerous to go to the hospital and bring me back a baby sister?” I told him that Mum was old and yes, it could be dangerous. He seemed OK with answer, and now that he’s almost 16 (gulp) he’s quite content to have all our love and attention, and enjoys being an “only”.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of openly communicating and about his feelings now as a teen … time really flies! Almost 16! I agree that honesty and openness is so important:-)

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  3. I have an “only”. She is now 44 years old. She never asked about wanting a sibling when she was younger. Recently she told we that she did want a sibling. I would have loved to have one for her but it just didn’t happen.
    Fertility treatment was just not what it is today. As it turned out, my cherished daughter is the most loving, giving, intelligent woman I have ever known. She has always been surrounded by friends that are like sisters to her, because she knows how to be a friend.
    Having more children may have been wonderful, or I may have had a brother or sister for her and they didn’t get along. I learned to accept what was meant to be. We were meant to be a three person family. A couple can be a family, the number of children doesn’t make the family any better or any worse. Embrace the child you have and enjoy every minute. Feeling guilty will only distract you from enjoying every moment with him.

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    1. I so appreciate hearing from you and a little about your own journey. It is so important to learn to accept whatever life has in store for us, and to see all the beauty in it as well. I am absolutely seeing how guilt can get in the way of being present and truly appreciating all that we do have. Thank you for your words of wisdom!

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  4. Hello from an American in Germany – my aunt in Boston just sent me your article. We have had many conversations as she has one daughter as well. It brought tears to my eyes; thank you for writing it. We are Americans living in Europe for a year. When it became abundantly clear that our IVF miracle baby would not have a sibling I was devastated. And angry. And confused. And desperately sad for my daughter. You see, my sister is my person and to think I can’t give her that is, well, sometimes still hard to take. All that to say….part of my healing from my long and painful IVF journey was a statement I would say which, at the time, seemed like a justification to feel better or not feel so guilty. It was “well this means all 3 of us can sit in one airplane row when we travel AND it won’t be as expensive to travel bc I want to introduce the world to her!” My passion is traveling and we find ourselves in Europe for a year and often I stop and am absolutely struck by how fortuitous my statement was dating 3-4 years ago. And how our travel is easier with one child and how my husband and I don’t have to divide and conquer rather it is just the 3 of us, as a unit, at all time and how much more we are able to do with our ‘one daughter.’ So you are right. She isn’t an “only child”…she is the only child I will have but she isn’t only an “only.” She way more than that! Be well and thanks again.

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    1. Thank you so much for your honesty and openness in sharing your own story. I very much appreciate all of your words here — and your inspiration for others sharing similar feelings, including myself. I, too, have started to think about the opportunities we can have as a threesome, including travel, and how special it will be to have those experiences together. Life is what you make of it, as they say, and I am very much looking forward to creating a life for us all that is as fulfilling as can be. This is all a journey, and I firmly believe that all of our steps in life — the challenges as well as the happy times — help move us forward and grow. Enjoy Germany and be well!

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