“Only” is not lonely: Choosing to have an only child

only child

“Just one?”

She asks the question with an air of familiarity, though we met just minutes ago. Somehow she sees my decision to have an only child as fair game for discussion during our kids’ Friday afternoon tennis practice.

I pause before responding, watching as a single yellow ball bounces on the green court. With a firm smile, I let the words unfold with measured cadence: “She is my only.”

“Oh, OK,” the woman responds somberly, a potpourri of apprehension and disbelief registering on her face. An awkward silence, as if we are mourning together, follows. My body leans toward the fence, my fingers intertwined in the gray wires, while she directs her attention to her cellphone.

I watch as my 11-year-old daughter arcs her arm across her body and a strong backhand moves the ball down the line. Her ponytail rises in the air like an exclamation mark. She smiles and hustles to the baseline.

Her confidence on the court mirrors my comfort with having an only child. The decision I made with my husband didn’t come from a place of “just one” or “regret.” We wanted an only.

How we shaped our family invites a litany of comments from strangers, friends and even family — from “Only children are spoiled” to “Don’t you want a backup?” to “She will be so lonely.”

only child
“The decision I made with my husband didn’t come from a place of ‘just one’ or ‘regret.’ We wanted an only.” iStock

As a family, we don’t feel the texture of these words. They evaporate.

We spend countless evenings gathered around the dinner table, exchanging stories and laughter about our day. Our daughter will share an anecdote about school, the conversation sometimes tilting toward discussions about art or a math test she couldn’t conquer. There are silly moments of group hugs, staring contests and playing checkers. We huddle on the couch watching movies or spend the day reading, each of us grabbing appointed spots.

As with any family, there are moments of struggle. Slammed doors, bruised feelings and exclamations, such as, “You just don’t understand!” are familiar occurrences in our house, too.

We’ve had screaming matches and periods of silence, but these conflicts eventually move toward reconciliation.

As we experience various seasons with our daughter, we aren’t focused on what is “missing” from our family, but on the sense of completeness the three of us feel and know in our interactions. There is no talk of having another child or wanting a sibling. We focus on our circle and what works for us.

I’ve learned I cannot expect outsiders to understand this dynamic.

While my daughter finishes her tennis lesson, I watch as she races across the court, her movement slowing to catch the ball on the rise. Her momentum is sometimes smooth, sometimes rough. When she exits the gate, I let her know she did a good job.

“Thank you, Mama,” she says.

I see the other mother and nod my head in silence as our paths intersect. I can’t expect her to relate. Yet there still is the pulse of familiarity in our stories. Both of us will witness our children growing up, moving forward, experiencing happiness and sadness and, eventually — as our children make their own choices — we will learn to let go.

As a mother of one, the joys and sorrows aren’t any less or more.