Some might say that since I’ve never had kids I have no standing to give advice to those who do, or plan to. But in a way, having no family of my own — no children, no siblings, parents gone — actually makes me uniquely qualified to opine on one aspect of yours: whether to have an only child. My unsought advice is, don’t.
In the mid-1970s, when I was entering my teens, 40 percent of women nearing the end of their childbearing years had given birth four or more times. Almost everyone I knew had at least one brother or sister, and most of my friends and cousins had several. Today, the percentage of mothers who have only one child has doubled, from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent. Some data suggest city living encourages singletons; the Census shows that Boston’s average household size dropped from 3.39 in 1970 to a minuscule 2.26 in 2010.
It makes sense: Having children is expensive, and so is living in cities; more couples are dual-career, making full-time child rearing challenging; and in today’s competitive and kid-centric world, parents who want to give their offspring every advantage have a lot more work to do than in the more economically egalitarian days of disco and Gerald Ford. The pendulum has swung far from the pejorative stereotype that onlies are spoiled, selfish, and socially awkward. Nowadays we hear almost exclusively that singletons actually have, according to a 2014 California State University study, “higher achievement motivation, higher self-esteem, and higher abilities, especially in verbal skills,” than their middle- and youngest-child peers.
“Onlies aren’t lonely after all!” shout the cheerleaders for single-child families. But if you ask adults who grew up with no siblings, that rosy picture clouds a bit.
I wouldn’t say I was lonely as a kid. When no one was around, I enjoyed my solitude, exploring the Niagara River, which ran past my backyard, or losing myself in books like Treasure Island and The Outsiders. I had a lot of friends and cousins — one cousin in particular whom I saw almost every weekend and most of each summer. But when we played “Let’s pretend,” I always conjured up a bestie twin sister. I constantly heard from my mother, the youngest of eight kids separated by only nine years, how much fun it was to grow up amid the chaos, and witnessed almost daily the adamantine bond between my friend Catherine and her older brothers Pat and Tony. Being the third wheel in my own house left me with no reality check when my somewhat difficult mother lost her temper and my reticent father retreated; I sought comfort from my pets, who were sympathetic but not terribly insightful.
I understand that not all sibling relationships are without peril. But for everyone I know who has a fraught liaison with a brother or sister, I know many, many people who don’t. In any case, you have a much higher chance of getting along with your adult siblings than I do with mine, since my chance is zero. My friend Linda doesn’t consider herself particularly close to her sisters in terms of time spent together but says, “I can relax with them in a historical way. I know they’ve got my back no matter what our disagreements are or how we see life.”
Google “adult only child” and you’ll find headlines such as “Does Anyone Know Any Adults Who Are Happy to Be Only Children?” A romantic relationship can’t provide the kind of no-matter-what confidante Linda finds in her sisters, and those who say they’ve made their friends their families have been lucky so far, because the fact is, friendships, no matter how close, come and go. Even the ones that turn out to be lifelong can change significantly when one friend marries and the other doesn’t, or someone moves far away. “I could call my sister tomorrow and say, ‘I need to leave my husband and would you cosign on a house with me,’ and she’d say yes,” Linda tells me. “What friend can you call and say, ‘You need to lend me $2,500 right now’?”
And speaking of money, while the cost of raising a child to age 18 has reached an average of $286,050, caring for an elderly parent can be at least that much — often times 2, if you’re really unlucky — over the span of a much shorter period, even without a nursing home or assisted living. Imagine handling that as an only child. GenWorks says median monthly cost for home health aides is $3,861, and it’s $1,473 for adult day care. I’ve written before about the costs these numbers don’t reveal, including the average of $254,000 in lost wages and Social Security benefits for an adult child caring for a parent at home, not to mention the stress of doing so by yourself.
My Aunt Joan, seven years younger than my father, Art, once told me about the time she competed, as a chubby 8-year-old, in a half-mile footrace for the neighborhood kids at Edgewater, an amusement park near their house. “Artie ran right beside me the whole way,” she said of her cross-country-star big brother. “He kept saying, ‘Come on, Joan, you can do it. You can finish.’ And I did. He was such a good brother.”
All I’m saying is, sometimes it’s hard to keep running on your own.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.