When Single Child Families Idealize What They Don't Have

How the fantasy of larger families can poison our own happiness and development

Posted Feb 20, 2013

You may have seen the Motherlode post written by an unhappy only child this week in The New York Times. It’s fairly typical of its ilk: my mother wanted more children, and I wanted siblings, and therefore an only childhood is a miserable thing. The only data points the author offers are on the rising number of only children in America. According to her anecdotal experience, this is a terrible thing.

Perhaps without knowing it, the author–a public relations specialist and essayist–reveals what may be the two surest ways to lay the groundwork for unhappy onliness. It starts a generation earlier than you’d think, with our parents’ longing. She writes: ”For my parents, having an only child was not a choice. They met later; my father was 41 when I was born, my mother, 36. My mother had two miscarriages, before and after me. I was the lone survivor, the longed-for child.” Research shows that parents fo only children who can confidently own their one-and-done status, regardless of the reason for it, have kids who don’t pine for non-existent siblings. It’s when parents, especially mothers, mourn the children that aren’t, instead of celebrating the child that is, that kids mourn those children too. 

When only children are raised to feel like it they would be better off with siblings, they idealize those imaginary siblings, and begin to tell a story about their lives that isn’t their truth, nor would it have been the truth of an actual larger family. Siblings come with plenty of pain and loneliness attached. But our fantasies of them rarely leave room for the heartbreak–or sometimes total disengagement–that occurs in those relationships. Sometimes it’s great to have a sister or brother. Sometimes it’s excruciating. It’s a spectrum, either way. And the notion that they keep us from the experience of loneliness has been thoroughly debunked in scholarly articles and clinical observation.

An Austin-based psychotherapist named Carl Pickhardt, who blogs here at Psychology Today, and who wrote an excellent book called The Future of Your Only Child, says that one of the “gifts” of only childhood is being “a good companion for yourself.” He explains, “Only children are well self-connected in their primary relationship in their life.” Echoing the observations of many psychologists and researchers, and drawing from years of observation and analysis in his practice rather than quantitative research, Pickhardt has found, that “time alone, far from being painful, becomes rewarding because the only child is establishing a bond of lasting benefit—a primary friendship with himself,” he says. “This bond creates a foundation of self-sufficiency that contributes to the only child’s independence, an enjoyment of solitude, and an affirmative relationship to himself.”

It’s grueling to feel that other people get something you want, which you’ll never have. This sort of envy and resentment can take seed deep inside us and grow into thorny identities. When most people have siblings, and we don’t, that outsiderness foments that growth. So I feel empathy, I truly do, when the author of this post writes:

“On a recent visit with my friend Dena, she pulled out 'the beach picture,' the one where all the grandchildren are wearing white T-shirts and khakis. She and her three sisters have produced an impressive brood, and their holidays brim with the closeness of cousins who are as tight as siblings. Even now I can feel the sting of that photo in my hand. I miss the siblings I will never have, and now I miss their phantom children.”

I want to tell her that what she’s missing is a fantasy, a smiling-for-the-camera moment, which she’s populated with another generation of imaginary relatives, just as her parents did. I want to tell her that by making her feel less-than-enough, she was given an idealized sense of a happy big brood, which the culture and friends’ snapshots supports, but personal struggles may not. We all have stories we tell ourselves to explain our struggles. Hers is that she’s an only child. Siblings I know have to reach for other narratives: divorce, career struggles, disability, various unquenched desires. (Or having to dress alike in a family picture. Seriously, how did white shirts and khakis become the de rigeur family beach photo uniform?)

As parents, it’s incumbent upon us to protect our only children from our own struggles with having only one. And as onlies, we need to upend the story that siblings make a happy family, and own the joy and strength we make in our own lives, in our primary friendships with ourselves, and with everyone we bring into our chosen family.