While pregnant with my only child (he’s now nearly six) I tuned in to an episode of Dateline, an annual feature following septuplets since birth, the children ten years old at the time of my viewing. Seven is a fairytale number conjuring dancing sisters slipping away at night to meet lithe princes; or seven raucous brothers winning the hearts of seven prim sisters (or seven kingdoms fighting for an iron throne). However, through flashback montages to the septuplets’ early days, the Dateline camera revealed this was far from a fairytale: seven screaming mouths barely satiated by constant bottles; seven gated toddlers railing against their prisons; seven demanding children and two beaten parents who truly needed a village to raise them.
My son shifted in my womb as I watched, as if sensing my anxiety, and I thought: remember these hardships multiplied by seven on your most difficult days with one child—relief will surely follow.
After my son was born, I learned that one child can actually feel like seven on his worst day, especially when you’re blessed with what the books try to soft-pedal as a “spirited” baby, whose personal ad would read: Sleep resistant. Makes colic look like fun. It took me awhile to figure out why his first month seemed like an eternity—awake every hour and a half, I experienced literally more hours in a day than ever before. These first three months were a lucid reminder of why sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture too cruel to use by Nation states.
For three weeks after Ben’s birth I was so sluggish I stuttered, words skittering through my mind like pelted marbles, and I worried that some neural pathway in my brain had been permanently damaged. The three of us formed a food-chain as my husband spoon-fed me while I grappled with breastfeeding, a feat more complex than those soft-lens photos of nursing mothers show. No simple matter of fitting slot A (ready, rigid nipple) into Slot B (baby’s yearning mouth). My son would peck and dance at the breast blindly as if he were nowhere near it, though his lips nearly docked, milk spilling over us like a baptism gone wrong.
And the crying—the baby’s soothed only by high-powered swinging from side to side so vigorous that were we to release him, he would have flown the distance of the house; mine coming in hourly shuttles of inexplicable intensity. I sobbed at the sight of birds taking flight and suffered anxiety that my husband would consider doing the same. Beneath that rumbled a terror that I would never submerge from exhaustion long enough to love my son right.
All of which put a practical spin on our pre-existing plan to only have one child.
Having only one has always seemed a sensible thing to me, living as we do with such outrageous population growth. It makes financial sense, too: we can pay for one set of basic needs, save for one college fund and still have money to retire so that we can (hopefully) help out with our own potential grandchildren or just enjoy life.
Listening to the harried mothers of multiple children, I realize how rare it is to to plan and chauffeur only one child’s schedule ; one round through teething and puberty; and one round of empty nest (for which my husband and I are already making preparations).
One, I tell you, is not the loneliest number.
To my surprise, this is a controversial choice. The several phrases we have heard most commonly are: “But wait until he’s x age…you’ll have forgotten how hard it was!” (I don’t think mothers ever forget—they simply tell themselves they can do it again).
“You should just have the next one quickly, to get it out of the way!” (What, like traffic school?)
It’s frustrating to be told we don’t know our own minds and insulting to insinuate that we’ll deprive our only of a valuable experience or worse, “spoil” him like rotten fruit. I like to remind people that not all siblings get along. My husband is one of three who are not the best friends of sitcom scenarios; my father goes years without speaking to his brother; and I can speak from the trenches of only child experience (who got half-siblings unexpectedly as a teen) that being the center of your own special universe doesn’t always turn you into a greedy monster.
Being an only means you don’t have to fight for your share of the resources, and can bask in the attention of hapless parents who don’t know any better. I know, it also means no whispers across the bedroom at night; no one to scheme and fantasize with; no one to hold vigil at the end of your parents’ days.
In the realm of only children, that’s what friends are for.
A version of this piece first appeared in the anthology Milk & Ink:A Mosaic of Motherhood edited by Eros-Alegra Clarke & Tomi Wiley James, Outskirts Press.
Photo credit: Let’s Go To The ZOO by Jiunn Kang Too is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.