Having “Only” One

We are living the dream – at least the dream according to the secular mind. We only have one child. Not by choice, mind you; we would love to have more and didn’t expect to end up with just one. For a while it even looked like we would have none. This child was greatly desired, prayed for and many tears were shed over the 9 long years of marriage it took before God gave us this great gift. We were lucky. Some have none, while others have so many that they are struggling to manage. So why complain? And why speak of “only” one? Is it really that bad?

It is not, but it takes some mourning and adjusting. When interacting with one’s secular friends, they can have a hard time understanding why the pain is so great not to have more (except if they’ve suffered from infertility themselves – then they KNOW). So it can be challenging to explain why this is so difficult. Or people assume that this is your choice, and you didn’t want any more. Since the modern ideal is between one to two children, some people think that a sibling is a good idea (so do I, though I’d put that in the plural); so they’ll make some helpful suggestions, such as: “When will Therese get a little brother?” or “you shouldn’t put too much space between your children, otherwise they can’t play together anymore”. I generally answer with a smile that we’d love to have more children, but that so far it hasn’t worked out. In the meantime, the second comment has put a knife in my heart, not just making me feel sad once again for my husband and myself, but also for my daughter who will experience what it means to be an only child.

I know. I’m an only child myself. My parents also hoped to have many children, but it didn’t work out. I remember praying every day for a sibling until my teens. I didn’t realize then that God answered my prayers in other ways: He gave me many cousins (over 30) and He gave me some extraordinary friends who are like sisters to me, who are truly soul-mates. But I would still have preferred for myself and for my daughter to have siblings.

People assume that only children are by definition spoilt and self-centered and that sharing doesn’t come easily to them. I have always found that unjust, and, like all prejudices, it feels like one has been squeezed into a box. Especially as a child or teen, when one is more sensitive to how people react to or think of oneself, it makes one feel particularly powerless. What will it take for me to show you that I am none of the above? It’s a losing battle.

Children can be spoilt by their parents, whether they have siblings or not. Yes, it is more tempting to do so, if one has only one. But the real spoiling happens through lack of guidance, lack of love, letting children “get away”, so to speak, with selfish actions rather than correcting them, and not just by giving them many things (though this can be a problem as well). I certainly had more toys (and unbroken ones at that), than my cousins; but my parents didn’t let me get away with bad behavior of any kind, and I would have traded in those toys anytime for the joy of playing with other children. It didn’t take any toys to come up with the best games with my cousins that filled our hearts with joy and the house with laughter. Ironically, I often find myself having higher levels of tolerance when it comes to children’s noise and mess than others who’ve had some siblings.

This is already a reassuring thought for parents with one child. There is no in-built deterministic fate, which will make my only child become a selfish brat. Instead, it’s a challenge for the child, requiring overcoming shyness and taking things into her hands. If she doesn’t, then “only means lonely” (as a friend who’s an only child herself once said to me). Rather than being spoilt, being a single child can be particularly challenging. One’s parents can have particularly high expectations for their one and only. It means they can focus more on their child who cannot get away with anything (“he did it”, doesn’t work as an excuse for a single child). And they certainly don’t want to fail with the one “project” they have in terms of child-rearing. On the positive end, parents have the opportunity of being particularly close to their child; there are no distractions. My mother took me along to myriad cultural events from the age of three (opera, museums, the ballet etc.); I flourished, and it would have been hard to do this with a rambunctious crowd of children. The needs of the child are less likely to go unnoticed, while this is more prone to happen with many. There are many positives, though I’m not listing them to deny parents their need to mourn their lack of children (or make parents with many children feel bad).

Sometimes people experience the absence of children as a lack of God’s blessing on them: “Children come from God, so if He doesn’t give me any or more children, He must love me less”; or, “I wouldn’t be as good of a parent as those with many children”. But this is our twisted perception of God and has nothing to do with the infinite love He has for each one of us. Yes, children come from God, but God also bows down to our broken nature, affected by original sin which has brought sickness and death into the world (and infertility is a form of illness). Why does He sometimes work miracles while not in other cases? Why do some overcome infertility at least partially, while others remain childless? This remains a mystery and it takes much prayer to accept this cross with love; but one thing we can be sure of is that God does not love us less. His specific plans for each one of us, how they play out in our salvation and that of the world will only be revealed in eternity, but for now we can already know that He loves us infinitely and that He mourns our loss with us.

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St. John the Baptist was an only child, the blessed Virgin was an only child, some of the saints were only children. God has a special plan for each one of us. Therefore, I need not feel terrible for my child who is missing out on siblings. Yes, it would be a richness to have more children. But one has no idea how the relationship between siblings would have been; some have very tense relationships, don’t even play with each other early on and it doesn’t become easier later. We obviously can’t know, but we at least shouldn’t feel the burden that our child is missing out on something which would, by necessity, have been extraordinary.

Every child is infinitely precious, be she one of a crowd or alone. We need to welcome each child into the world in that spirit. Then we can fully enjoy those or the one we have.

(Read more about infertility in Marie’s articles Wanting One More and Parenting for the Sterile)

Marie Meaney, Ph.D. is the author of the booklet “Embracing the Cross of Infertility” which has also come out in Spanish, Hungarian, Croatian and German.  She is furthermore a specialist on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, and her book Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Ancient Greek Texts appeared with OUP in 2007. She was an Arthur J. Ennis teaching fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia before moving to Italy due to her husband’s work in 2010. Dr. Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She also obtained an M. Phil. in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and a D.E.U.G. from the Sorbonne in Paris.
Articles by Marie:

  • Cheryl Ruffing


    I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. Have you been tested for celiac disease? Studies have shown higher rates of infertility and miscarriage for women with undiagnosed celiac disease. Since the tests are often inaccurate (many false negatives), you may want to think about simply trying a gluten-free diet. I personally know many, many individuals (including myself, my husband, and my six children) who have discovered greater overall health once they’ve eliminated gluten. A wealth of information on celiac disease and gluten-free living exists online.

    I agree with your observations about only children and would say that youngest children tend towards spoilage more than onlies, especially if there is a large age gap between the youngest and the sibling closest in age.

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  • L.S.

    When society is open to life, the only child doesn’t suffer as much, because their family will still benefit from a “big family culture.” I think that trying to raise an only in the current milieu is more challenging, not just because of the assumptions and rude comment from others, but because of the way children are being raised in general. But of course, it is not the number of siblings that will make the difference, but the love, instruction, example and holiness of the parents.

    I’m from a family of 10, and that was a great blessing. My husband, like you, always wanted a sibling – eventually he did have one much younger brother, but they are somewhat estranged and they were essentially raised as ‘only’ children. It was a real heartache for him, but looking back, it did end up providing him with all sorts of opportunities that never were availible to me and formed him as the man that he is.

    God works through all things.