I am an only child. My parents didn’t plan it this way, but life and biology, as you know, rarely go according to personal plans. While it used to be somewhat rare, misunderstood, and even frowned-upon, the number of families with only one child has more than doubled in the last several years, representing the fastest-growing type of family unit there is.
When I was growing up I was surrounded by whispers and assumptions of being spoiled, strange, unable to share or even socialize properly. I was an oddity among my peers, no siblings or bunk beds to speak of, just me in my imagined castle, barking orders from the pedestal society presumed my parents sat me upon. Only children were wildly misunderstood, victims more to stereotype than spoiling, and I’ll be honest in sharing that I really, truly hated it.
Nowadays, however, only children are becoming rapidly more common. Whether due to economic reasons, environmental concerns, relationship issues, family dynamics, biological struggles, or just plain personal preference, having but one child today isn’t the radical aberration it once was. We now know that the typecast of the spoiled only child demanding a goose that lays a golden egg was more of a Hollywood license than a predetermined fact.
We know better than to assume that a child without siblings cannot build social skills or that lacking a brother or sister equates to lacking empathy or patience.
Society’s acceptance of only children, however, doesn’t guarantee them—us—a life free of struggles unique to them alone. While I am very glad that my counterparts are free to grow up without the judgments and assumptions that I did, I have reached an age when I am again feeling the weight of being an only child, and I feel compelled to share my experience with the parents who are now raising their own.
Having now reached my mid-30s, I thought the fact that I’m an only child was something that would have stopped mattering. I don’t get invitations to classmates’ birthday parties that conflict with a brother’s schedule, I don’t have to share a trampoline or game console with a sister, I’m a grown woman with my own family, so I couldn’t imagine that a lack of siblings would be an issue ever again.
Until my mother passed away last year. Until my father was diagnosed with a degenerative illness with no cure. Until I realized that I am the keeper of my parents’ futures and my own childhood.
When the time comes for my dad to need help caring for himself, I am the only one the responsibility falls to. When a will needed to be executed for my mom, it fell to me alone in the midst of my grief. When I had a question about my second-grade best friend or wondered if a familiar dishware pattern was one we’d once had, there was no one else to ask. No one shares my childhood memories, knows the stories or the quirks from younger me. I have no one to share in the fears and burdens of an aging parent, no one to consult when my memory is weak, no brothers or sisters who have become loving uncles or aunts to my children, no network of babysitters or support system when I need help.
I say these things not to guilt or shame the parent of the only child, but to encourage you to think ahead—further ahead than my own parents did.
If you have an only child, begin planning immediately for the moment you’ll someday be gone. Have very clear wills that are updated as needed to reflect your wishes and assets. Make your desires known via advanced directives, living wills, and conversation when it comes to medical decisions, final resting place, even songs you might want played at your funeral. Set aside a small savings account now to cover the costs of a memorial service, or better yet, go ahead and make your plans now with a local funeral director and begin paying toward them before you’re gone. Estate planning is not paperwork for the ultra-wealthy and it’s not morbid, it’s a gift to your child, a relief granted to them in the midst of the most turbulent time of their life. However unsettling it may feel to pick your own coffin or urn, every decision you make ahead of time is one you spare your child from making all alone.
When you’re raising an only child, document as much as you can. Take photos and actually do something with them. Don’t let pictures gather dust on memory cards and old phones—print them out, write notes with them, create albums or scrapbooks, something your child can have, hold, and look back on when they’re all that remains of their memories. Record videos and back them up frequently, of not just your child but of yourself.
Give your child the gift of an immortalized childhood, memories that are captured and kept rather than fleeting or dependant upon an aging mind.
When you are gone, no one will be around who shared your child’s younger days, at least no one who shared them as closely as you. Baby books and growth charts are shockingly precious when there’s no one left to ask about your infancy.
While it can be tempting to hibernate inside your little bubble, the smaller family you have and love, it will be so important that your child learns the importance of found family—friends whose allegiance is thicker than blood. Encourage close relationships with other adults such as aunts or uncles, children such as cousins and neighbors, and strive to always have your home open to your child’s friends. Friends are the family they’ll end up with eventually, and while more doesn’t always mean merrier, nurturing friendships from a young age will give your only child the experience necessary to trust in friendships, in chosen family, later on.
There’s obviously no one right way to raise a family, no right size or shape or decision. We parents know all too well that there are no rule books or instruction manuals to aid us in our childrearing.
I share this all with you not to condemn or guilt those of you raising only children, only to help you plan for their future so that it looks as little like mine as possible.
Siblings are not guaranteed playmates or best friends, there’s no promise that a brother or sister will someday become a source of support or even remain close. Siblings are not a promise of a more secure or less lonely adulthood, so I don’t mean to give the impression that only children will struggle more later in life.
There are, however, very unique situations and difficulties that await your only child in adulthood, most of which can be alleviated through thoughtful planning and deliberate, intentional actions.
Planning for your own absence, while seemingly dark, is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child, your only child, the legacy you love . . . and leave behind.