Having an only child was recently labeled “child abuse.” One would think that statement was made 100 years ago. Not so. Jennifer Graham, a freelance journalist for The Boston Globe, wrote it a few months ago. From her Globe op-ed, “The Omnichild’s Dilemma:”
“In the 1800s, the Harvard-educated psychologist G. Stanley Hall conducted a study of ‘peculiar and exceptional children’ and concluded that being an only child is akin to having an incurable disease.”
Graham continued, “He was wrong, of course. It’s not a disease, but child abuse—a cruelty that only gets worse as the Baby Boomers age.”
Statements throughout her article smack of the dark ages. In presenting the argument that Western civilization is endangered by shrinking family size, she writes, “But America’s only children, of which I am one, won’t notice. By then, we’ll have all gone mad, not from our lonely childhoods populated with imaginary friends, but from the stress of dealing with our long-lived but health-challenged parents.”
In her piece, Graham also calls people like me who advocate for single children and their parents “loons who encourage this madness.” She mentions a chapter in my book, The Case for the Only Child, about the working mother penalty and references Linda R. Hirshman’s book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (…and Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late). Graham reports Hirshman’s message this way, “…smart women and ambitious women commit professional suicide by having more than one kid.”
Graham defended her attacks on the Emily Rooney radio show by saying that she wrote her op-ed tongue and cheek, that she intended it to be a humor piece. Few saw the humor. The pushback to Graham’s op-ed was stormy as well it should have been. In the comments, one woman said: “I sat with dropped jaw, appalled. In a regrettably condescending tone, Graham suggests that having more kids is always better.”
Graham declines invitation
When I was invited to speak about one-child families at Parent Talk, a community-based organization of families with young children in the Boston area, I asked Jennifer Graham to attend for a catch-up on the current findings and thinking about only children. She responded to my e-mail invitation: “You are very kind, but I have this ardent desire not to leave my kids orphans, so I'd best not step into that lion's den! It's a touchy subject, apparently.”
Part of Graham’s anti-only child position is steeped in the notion that an only child will feel “crushing guilt” among other pressures (including while growing up) when he or she needs to take care of his or her parents. Parents want to believe that their offspring will support each other should parents need help as they age or if they become ill. Or, parents think, as Francine Russo writes in her book They’re Your Parents, Too!, that needing care is something that will never happen to them so they don’t plan for it.
Parent care is rarely equal; and even when duties are divided, the in-fighting can be unpleasant. Think of the horrors stories you have heard about siblings disagreeing--a brother or sister who doesn’t do her share or show up. In a study of adult onlies and their peers with siblings reported in the Journal of Family Issues last year, researchers Katherine Trent and Glenna Spitze found that only children visited their parents more often.
Why do we still question having one child?
Within certain areas of family life, doubts and criticism have all but vanished. For example, decades ago I married a man with full custody of his four children (then ages 3, 4, 8, and 11). At that time, I was deemed crazy, irrational, silly, and/or out of my mind. Of course, today marrying someone with children barely gets a nod.
Women with one child comprise the second largest group of mothers, and, as Graham noted, “are rapidly gaining on the percentage who have two.” In fact, the one-child family is the fastest growing family unit and has been for more than two decades.
Yet, having one child continues to be scrutinized by many, often harshly. Why do we still question having one child?
Graham, Jennifer. “The omnichild’s dilemma.” The Boston Globe, January 30, 2012.
Russo, Francine. They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Survive Their Parents' Aging without Driving Each Other Crazy (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Trent, Katherine and Spitze, Glenna. “Growing Up Without Siblings and Adult Sociability Behaviors.” Journal of Family Issues, September 2011, vol. 32 no. 9 1178-1204.
Copyright 2012 by Susan Newman