‘One and done’ parents are some of the most thoughtful and compassionate I have met
“Aren’t you worried they’ll be lonely?” This is the question that the parents of only children are probably asked the most, and the one that is mentioned again and again when I asked for “one and done” parents to get in touch. Although “one and done” parenting is on the rise, and in some countries only children are becoming the norm, the stigma against single-child families is real. Stereotypes about only children being spoilt, obnoxious or lonely persist.
What my callout on social media revealed is that there are many persuasive economic and social reasons for deciding to only have only one child, and though they can be as diverse and complex as families themselves, there are some common threads.
The financial cost of being a parent in Britain – the astronomical cost of childcare, not being able to afford a larger home – was a major theme, as was the impact that motherhood continues to have on women’s careers. The climate emergency was another. One mother, who asked to be anonymous because it upsets her own mother so much when she says that she won’t have any more children, wrote how “the backdrop to my first trimester was two 35+ degree heatwaves. I’m terrified for my boy’s future”.
Another frequent theme was the lack of support, and a palpable sense that the UK is particularly unwelcoming for parents. “There is no ‘village’,” wrote one mother, whom I’ll call Angie. The fact that she had a baby later in life means that her parents are elderly and her siblings have their own families. She found the early stages of motherhood “extremely difficult”, suffering from postpartum anxiety, and decided not to risk her mental health again, with the impact that could have on her happy son. Angie is far from the only parent who contacted me citing mental health as a contributing factor to her decision-making. Traumatic experiences during birth were a common reason – the makers of the podcast Only You highlight the role of pregnancy complications that are likely to recur.
“I feel like the experience very nearly broke me and the thought of doing at all again with a toddler is enough to trigger an anxiety spike …” wrote another mother, Rosie. “I truly feel like I barely survived the first time round and I have no desire to put myself in the same space again.”
The belief that “one and done” parents are being selfish in not giving their offspring a sibling is widespread, but in speaking to parents, I actually found the opposite: they put the happiness and welfare of their existing child front and centre, whether it is deciding that a new sibling means they would not be able to devote enough time or resources to their first child, or that risking their mental health is in no one’s best interests. I was moved by the compassion and the thoughtfulness with which “one and done” parents approached the issue.
It is a shame that many can’t see the decision to have an only child for what it often is: an act of responsible parenting. For Lauren Sandler, the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and The Joy of Being One, an answer lies in our changing social structures. “Larger families made sense when we worked the land, when we had high infant mortality rates,” she says. “Your family was your labour force, your insurance policy, your tribe. Since that time, especially since women have needed to make a living, and, beyond that, have chosen to have careers … a lasting bias strikes me as serving the old structure: women doing unpaid labour at home. The more kids, the more labour. And the more labour the less active citizenship, the less freedom for spending hours as we please.”
Related: Being ‘one and done’ is certainly more common, so is it good or bad being an only child? | Maddie Thomas
It is interesting to me that the parents of only children are frequently challenged about the potential negative impact on their offspring, but we never really speak about what being a part of a large family can mean for a child’s emotional wellbeing. “I was never jealous of my friends’ sibling setups: it seemed either an annoying younger sibling was always trying to join in, or that an older sibling was exasperated by our unwanted attention. Their houses seemed noisy and chaotic, with someone inevitably in tears or screaming,” wrote one only child. As Sandler notes, decades of studies show that only children fare just as well, or better, even, than kids with siblings, and their parents tend to be happier, too, with lives that ideally offer more freedom, pleasure and fulfilment.
While those who want more children but feel grief and anger at being robbed of the choice by circumstance deserve support, it must also be recognised that being one and done can be joyful and positive. The way forward is, I think, to highlight these pluses of being and having an only child.
Notably, the parents who seemed most at ease with their decision to have only one had been happy only children themselves. “I had a wonderful upbringing with no siblings; I have a great relationship with my parents and was always treated as an equal, and got their undivided attention,” says Rosie. “I love having the physical, emotional and financial capacity to give my daughter everything she needs, while maintaining my own identity and independence – something I fear I might lose if I had another child.”
My husband took a week off work and heroically night-weaned the baby, and though sleep is by no means perfect, we are getting some nine-hour stretches now. So I wanted to shout out to all the dads out there who have been in the night-weaning trenches. It really does seem to work better if a man does it.
The more the bairn eats, the more I am starting to realise that not having a dishwasher is seriously affecting my time and, therefore, wellbeing. Along with “living up so many steps/stairs”, it’s another thing to file under the category of “should maybe have thought about this and rectified it before having a baby”.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author