I prefer to enjoy my weekends in Florida when I can, but on Saturday I flew from Fort Lauderdale to New York with my wife and one of my daughters so we could be with my father-in-law on Father’s Day.
That’s exactly how it should have been.
My wife is an only child, and her father will turn 95 this year. The time we have with him is something we always hoped for but never assumed we would get. In years to come, there will be other Father’s Days that I can spend in Florida, or wherever my two daughters are able to join me. It may not always be possible for both of them to be with me on that day, so it could turn out that I’ll settle for one at a time, or maybe a video chat. That is fine with me. I will not be neglected.
As an only child, my wife Linda feels a different and greater responsibility than my girls are likely to experience with me. Her father lost his wife three summers ago; he needs as much of Linda as he can get. Not for his physical care, or even for day-to-day companionship, because he has aides who take excellent care of him and who are lovely people besides. Yet he needs to know that his nearest relative, the person he cares about most, is close by.
Linda spends hours holding his hand, sometimes talking loudly over his growing deafness but mostly just sitting quietly with him. Any granddaughter who happens to be present will often take his other hand. Sometimes the two granddaughters take up both battle stations. Those times with his daughter and granddaughters are his happiest moments.
My wife’s parents were Holocaust survivors. They married and came to America in 1946, but it took them a decade to have a child. By that time, they had reconstructed as much of a life as they could, with a handful of siblings who also survived the Nazis and a few more distant relatives who had emigrated before the war. Linda’s mother was in her late 30s when she was born. I don’t know whether her parents ever wanted another child, but most likely it would not have happened regardless of their desires.
Only children, and the parents who choose to have only one child, look like they are going to be a hot topic this summer – an echo of the prominent debate over demanding “tiger moms” two years ago. This summer’s conversation-starter is a column by Lauren Sandler that appeared in The New York Times on June 9. Sandler is the author of a forthcoming book, “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.”
Sandler’s column did not give me the impression that she feels free and joyous, however. It gave me the impression that she feels judged, unfavorably, by everyone around her.
“Call me a terrible mother,” she begins. Why would I do that? I don’t know her, and while I don’t know any perfect mothers, I don’t know many terrible ones, either – and none of them would give enough thought to parenthood to write columns and books about it.
Sandler elaborates: “I have an only child. For now, at least, I’m planning to keep it that way, for my happiness and for hers. But the notion that an only child might be a happy one contradicts strong cultural beliefs. According to these, children like mine will end up rotten with selfishness and beset by loneliness.”
Okay, now we have enough evidence to pronounce Sandler guilty – of doing what she thinks is best for her particular family. And, more ominously, of caring about what other people think about the choices she makes.
“Call me selfish,” she writes at another point, “but, as the mother of one child, I enjoy more time, energy and resources than I would if I had more children. And it is hard to imagine that this isn’t better for my family as well as for me.”
If Sandler believes her family is better off with one child, who am I – who is anyone outside her household – to argue otherwise? People make all sorts of family decisions, in all sorts of circumstances, for all sorts of reasons.
Yet it seems as if, feeling judged herself, Sandler cannot resist the impulse to judge others. She seems to use data selectively to go beyond the argument that having only one child is a valid choice, instead arguing that it is generally the best choice. Only children are smarter and have greater self-esteem, she posits, without being more self-involved or introverted than anyone else. “It turns out brutal sibling rivalry isn’t necessary to beat the ego out of us; peers and classmates do the job,” she writes.
Not surprisingly, Sandler’s column generated a lot of reader responses, with a broad spectrum of views. Some noted that it is easier to share responsibility for caring for elderly parents with siblings. (Sandler asserts that this responsibility often falls to the child who is physically closest to the parent.) Some observed that it is easier to cope with a parent’s death when grief is shared with siblings.
My work has brought me into close contact with many families over the years. The only consistent trait I have observed is that estate planning is simpler when there is only one child. Parents often wrestle with how to be fair and equally loving to multiple children who may have different financial needs, different business or intellectual abilities, different marital histories or different family goals of their own. (If you have two children and five grandchildren, with four of the grandchildren in one family, do you divide your assets so each child gets the same share – or so each grandchild is eventually treated the same?)
I work with some families where adult siblings have loving, supportive relationships, and with some where they are not on speaking terms. I have seen some where there is a natural leader among the siblings whom everyone respects, and some where each child demands that his or her brothers and sisters mind their own business.
I am the older of two brothers. Our father is gone, but we both spend time with our still-spry 80-something mother, “Wheels-Up Rose.” Someday, when it is just the two of us, it will be nice to know that there is someone out there who shared my experiences growing up. I was thinking of this years ago when Linda and I decided we wanted to have at least two children. It felt like the right choice for us, but I never assumed that someone else’s decision ought to follow the same lines as ours, or ought to be made for the same reasons.
I certainly did not see a selfish, or lonely, or unhappy only child yesterday. Not when I watched my wife holding her father’s hand on Father’s Day.