A boy alone peeking out over the edge of a bathtub.


Are Only Children Lonely?

Apr 10, 2018

I was always ambivalent about having children. Then, at 39, my biological clock exploded. Although I didn’t think my partner of more than a decade and I really had our you-know-what together, I knew he’d be a good father and he’d wanted children for a long time. I was a suddenly a slave to the bone-deep desire to have a baby.

We got lucky — pregnant practically as soon as we agreed to try, a drama-free pregnancy resulting in a perfectly healthy, beautiful baby boy. Mama’s little only child.

Although whatever hormones continued to surge periodically suggested I have another over the next year or two, I never succumbed. I love my boy beyond words, but I knew I didn’t want to take on more kids and that my relationship wasn’t working. Plus, with my advanced age, any subsequent pregnancy would be fraught. Still, like many parents of only children, I wondered if I was doing him a disservice. Would he be lonely? Antisocial? Too precocious to connect with his peers? Now that he’s eight, the respective answers would seem to be no, no and sometimes.

Relevant Reading: The Real Reason I Have an Only Child

Since the topic is so near and dear, I’ve had a lot of conversations over the years about sibling relationships. Whenever someone has suggested that I owed him a sibling, I’ve asserted that having another child is no guarantee of anything, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are few commonalities. Having siblings doesn’t necessarily equal companionship, and not having siblings doesn’t mean a solitary life, unless it’s by choice.

My brother, who is three years older than me, didn’t talk to me for the entire two years we were both in high school. Even though we had moved from the far east end of the city to the western suburbs over the summer and knew no one — or maybe because — he wouldn't even walk to school with me in the morning in case someone thought I was his girlfriend. (Like I wasn't way out of his league.) We became friends gradually as adults and are now, in middle age, close. But as kids? My cat was better company.

My father, who turns 80 soon, was the youngest of three, his two sisters considerably older. He has never told one affectionate story about their common childhood experiences. Their father was abusive and as the only boy, he'd taken the brunt. Not much depth ever grew between the two close sisters and their little brother. When he was informed of the death of the last remaining sister, I remember him saying, "So?"

My father, who turns 80 soon, was the youngest of three, his two sisters considerably older. He has never told one affectionate story about their common childhood experiences.

I asked him recently to elaborate. When they were younger, did he never feel like he had a built-in support system? “Ha!” he barked out a laugh. “Oh no, not at all. I didn’t feel like I had parents or siblings. No one ever told me anything or asked me anything. I learned everything from my friends, which was stupid because they didn’t know anything, either.” He said his family was “the most dysfunctional group of people to ever share a house.”

His partner, Dorothy, 87, grew up with a sister three years younger and a 13-years-younger brother, and eventually had seven children of her own. Her brother was only six when she got married and would die at 50; their relationship never developed into closeness. As for the other sibling? “My sister was a b---h,” she says. “She was so bossy. Even at five, she knew everything.” Dorothy bemoans having had to drag her younger sister everywhere with her, and says she resents her parents for making her. Dorothy’s own oldest daughter, she says, would have preferred to be an only child and didn’t take it well when the six subsequent siblings came home.

Relevant Reading: Should You Homeschool an Only Child?

My mother, who was painfully shy and the middle child of five, never had a friend in the 37 years I had her. With the built-in companionship of three sisters and a younger brother, she wasn’t forced out of her shell. After marriage, she devoted herself to her kids, then to her elderly parents. She was always suspicious of outsiders, and jealously guarded holidays and get-togethers not merely as family time, but as family-only time. I don’t think she ever developed the individual identity that would have given her the confidence to overcome her fearful nature. Would she have been better off if circumstances had forced her to be more independent?

Sometimes, the perceptions of others take me by surprise, and remind me that there are a thousand reasons to consider adding a sibling to the mix. When a Facebook friend posted pictures of her newborn girl, a little sister for her three-year-old boy, it was with the caption, “Now our family is complete,” as though the shape and size of it were preordained and she and her partner were merely filling in the necessary holes.

My mother, who was painfully shy and the middle child of five, never had a friend in the 37 years I had her.

A close friend, whose pre-adolescent son is autistic, once expressed the desire to have another child so that there would be someone to look after him when she’s gone. It struck me as not only a considerable burden to lay on a child, but also hardly foolproof. What if she had another autistic child? With one, her odds of having another are higher than among the general population. I don’t think she meant it — more than she was just expressing her fears about the future.

In a recent article in Psychology Today, author of The Future of Your Only Child, Carl E. Pickhardt, addresses three factors that can make parents of onlies anxious about the sociability of their kids: time alone, having parents as primary companions and the lack of siblings.

Relevant Reading: Parenting Truths About Raising an Only Child 

He thinks that the combination can give only children an edge. They are often, he says, anchored by friendship to themselves — and isn’t that a great thing to want for your kids? Liking themselves can translate into confidence with others that makes them immune to peer pressure and unlikely to sacrifice personal integrity. Their identities derive less from those with whom they surround themselves and more on who they believe themselves to be. He suggests that parents who devote themselves entirely to entertaining their onlies may be doing them a disservice, but if the parents lead “reasonably” social lives and bring those lives into the home, their children can learn a lot of helpful social skills. They also get all the attention, care and resources parents have to offer, and although the conflict and competition among siblings is lacking and only children can have a strong drive to live independently, the skills to accommodate communal living can be learned later.

People are individuals and psychology is as much art as science. It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and only you know when your family is complete. My boy, Callum, rarely expresses an opinion on his lack of siblings, except to occasionally says things like, “Sometimes I think I’d like to have a brother, but not really.” I relate. Sometimes I think it would have been wonderful to have more kids — but not really.

Article Author Annette McLeod
Annette McLeod

Read more from Annette here.

Toronto-based freelance writer Annette McLeod is partner to roofing contractor Brian, and mom to eight-year-old Callum, two cats and Harley, the beloved mongrel. They try to keep it all together by laughing a lot and not sweating the small stuff. She is an award-winning feature writer, contest-winning short story author and produced playwright. When not stringing words together, she obsesses over Pinterest and fights the urge to buy more knitting books. You’ll find her online at nettiewrites.ca.

We are very sad to announce that Annette passed away in August 2018. 

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