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The “S” Word

"Selfish" is a special brand of finger-pointing.

Guest blogger, Michelle Cove, is a documentary filmmaker with professional and personal experience on the issue of family size. Here she shares what she discovered while interviewing and filming people for her latest work, Rise of the Onlies-the overwhelming feelings about and frequent mention of the "S" Word and what it means for mothers and their children in the 21th century. Michelle offers another perspective and dimension to a question I had raised: What is Selfish?

Selfish. If there's one word that pops up more than any other when discussing only children, it's the s-word. Parents of onlies are "selfish" for "robbing their child of a sibling." It is assumed onlies must be "selfish" given that they grow up without having toys snatched away or getting clobbered by a brother or sister. This is in spite of the fact that onlies today get their fair share of hard knocks on play dates and at school--and that study after study shows onlies are as social as children with siblings. It's apparently easier just to brand all of these one-child families-of which there are over 15 million today in the U.S.-- selfish.

In interviewing only children and their parents for my documentary Rise of The Onlies, the brand of "selfish" finger-pointing that most raises my shackles (admittedly because I am the mom of an only by choice) is that of parents who have one child in order to have the time and resources to pursue pleasures outside of parenting. It's hard to judge parents who truly can't afford more than one child, especially in this economy. But it is just plain wrong in our culture to hold back from two or more kids if you have the financial means.

It is apparently unacceptable to choose one child so we can balance our lives with activities outside of parenting. No matter how many children we have, we are supposed to give everything to them: filling any and all free time helping them with homework, shuttling them to lessons, tournaments and rehearsals, playing infinite games to grow their malleable brains, and encouraging them to develop interests and hobbies so they are well-rounded. Yet, somehow, the idea of parents taking on outside interests and hobbies is wrong. Hey, that's time we could be giving to our kids.

To this I say, WHAT ARE WE DOING?! Do we really want to provide our children with a model of parenting that showcases ourselves as selfless martyrs who live out our dreams through them? In this age of "helicopter parenting," in which we hover over our children and weigh in on every detail of their lives, is there not something to be said for developing our own joys? Wouldn't our children be thrilled to know that our life satisfaction does not ride altogether on their accomplishments?

From my research (and my own personal experience), I can tell you that parents of only children -who have chosen to have one - typically make the decision with serious intention because we know what's coming: the pressure from families, friends, and strangers who want to know when we're planning on having our next child. We are the ones left to deal with the pity in others' eyes when we say "we're happy with one"- the assumption made by others that we have fertility issues.

The parents of onlies I've spoken with are the opposite of selfish: They care about not adding to an overcrowded population; they worry about the toll of the extra footprints on the environment. They know their limits -mentally, physically, financially-for how many kids they can parent well. What could be more thoughtful then being clear on one's own boundaries and not bringing another child into the world to avoid peer pressure?

As Oscar Wilde put it: "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live. It is asking others to live as one wishes to live."

About Michelle Cove: She is the director/producer of the award-winning documentary Seeking Happily Ever After, and the book Seeking Happily Ever After: How to navigate the ups and downs of being single without losing your mind (Tarcher/Penguin, 2010). She is also the director/producer of Rise of the Onlies, which explores why one-child families are the fastest growing family type in the U.S.

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