I am a single mum to a (mostly) delightful tweenager I refer to as Moo. It has been just the two of us for ten years now and we generally bumble along just great. Yes, we are but two, but a family we are, nonetheless. I guess you could call us a ‘single parent, only child family’ (or SPOC!). Did you know that 55% of single parent families are made up of only one child? And yet, despite nearly a quarter of families (with dependent children) in the UK being single parent families, society still defaults to the 2.4 family set up despite families coming in lots of glorious shapes and sizes. One example, is how over the years I have noticed how infrequently people refer to my daughter and I as a family and I cannot help but feel this is because the term ‘family’ silently assumes the presence of two adults (with the absence of the other parent seemingly carrying more significance than how many, or how few, children you have).
“Together, we make a family”– Unknown
The absence of another parent also means I have hardly ever been asked if I will have more children. Less so, I imagine, than couples who only have one child. I would hedge my bets that if I was still coupled up at least one elderly relative or earnest parent in the play-ground would have suggested that I provide my child with a sibling. As a single mum, however, no-one has ever suggested my child is ‘lonely’ and needs a sibling, most likely due to ‘good old patriarchy’ and how single mums are viewed. Society definitely assumes that a two-parent family is ‘on the blocks’ ready to have more children whereas single parents – particularly single mums – only seem to be credited if they keep their heads down and focus on raising the child (ren) they already have (with extra ‘credit’ given when the child ‘defies the odds’ and does well) rather than to “keep on having kids” which is quite often the criticism levied at the reproductive habits of the single mum.
My daughter has (adult) siblings from her father’s first marriage, so she is in the unique situation of being an only child but also a sibling. She experiences the joy of sisterhood but has no experience of being raised alongside her sisters under one roof. You could say she gets the best of it as she has grown up under the protective gaze of two older loving siblings without having to experience being punched to the face by either of them like I did growing up with a brother two years my junior. I would also add that in referring to my daughter as an ‘only child’ I am not diluting my daughter’s relationship with her older sisters as they are very close (and it’s a joy to see) but on a day to day basis, it really us just me and my girl. My little only child.
“All families are different and unique, but they all have one thing in common – love”– Unknown
Now, whilst no-one has ever suggested I provide a sibling for my child, plenty of people have commented on the impact of my child being an ‘only one’. And, it never seems to be positive. The most frequent assumption is that my daughter doesn’t know how to deal with conflict because she doesn’t have to suffer the torment of annoying siblings. And, yes, I would agree my daughter is sensitive and she doesn’t like conflict. But then, neither do I and I had that annoying brother, remember? How much is nature, and how much is nurture? That’s the million-dollar question, although I totally accept that even if her sensitivity is down to nature, the lack of exposure to sibling conflict means she is less ‘used’ to it, than perhaps others. Fair enough. But could you ever imagine saying to one of your married friends with multiple children that the reason their child is hyper attention-seeking is because actually they’ve got siblings so therefore the love and attention they receive is diluted so….oops, there’s your answer! No, because that would make you a bit of a knob. And yet, us single parents seem to constantly be measured against the norm and people love to gift us with their ‘observations’ whether we ask for them or not. It’s all just a bit strange.
“I wish I had siblings to share my parents’ affections with. Said no only child, ever”– Unknown
So, I wanted to write a little something about the absolute positives of being part of the coolest twosome there is: the single parent, only child family. One thing I have noticed (and obviously this isn’t empirical research although interestingly a quick google search on ‘single parent only child’ families results in very little research on this dynamic; if any, actually) is that single children to single parents are often quite mature, in my view. For me, I think this is in part, due to communication. I mean, I never have to ‘dumb’ down a conversation because there are younger siblings about and the absence of anyone else present means I can tailor our conversations to exactly the right level for her. And, truth be told, the absence of another adult means I often level up our chats for my own sanity! My daughter never ‘checks out’ of a conversation assuming it is just for the adults as I am the only adult here so whatever I say she engages with. We have had so many brilliant conversations where I find myself thinking I would never had conversations like this with adults at that age, and she just knows so much about the world already. It’s amazing and has worked wonders on her curiosity. I try to never fob her off either by suggesting she is too young (within reason, of course) as, quite frankly, I appreciate the chat! She recently got a certificate for being ‘star debater’ at school and I asked myself: would she be the type of conversationalist that she is if it wasn’t just the two of us? On this one, I don’t think she would be!
“Growing up an only child with a single parent is probably why I’m an actor”Lauren Graham
The same goes for her independence skills. Part of that is obviously down to choice in what you teach your child to do, but also, I think she ‘levels up’ at times because I only have two hands and there is no other pair available other than hers so in some ways I ‘cosset’ her less than I would have done if there was another adult around (although in other ways I cosset her more as she is my only baby lol). She’s known how to crack an egg since she was 2, she’s been making me cups of tea for years, she’ll often strip her own bed and remake it without being asked and is a good cook. I don’t recall being that independent at that age, I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, she can be as lazy as the next tween (and she is messy as hell), but when push comes to shove, when she sees me juggle doing things that require two pairs of hands, she will naturally offer to help, so, I’m going to claim the added independence skills as a situational win for me. That said, this is something that I try and keep in check as I find people can sometimes have higher expectations of my daughter than perhaps other kids her age (me included!). Whilst she may find it natural to swing pretty seamlessly between being child-like to being more mature, she does not need to be burdened with the expectations of adults just because she can be more mature and independent than perhaps other children her age. She is still just a child after all.
Like I said before, I do accept that her ‘conflict resolution skills’ may not be as honed as mine were growing up with my annoying little brother (although I don’t exactly recall using them to be fair; I was more inclined to dob him in to my parents). But yes, I think being an only child means, sometimes, she can struggle with being teased by other kids and, at times, I think she has overreacted to peer issues. That said, her sensitivity means she is pretty much winning in the emotional literacy department. She can spot a child in need a mile away and will do her upmost to help. She’s also not one to tease others (not like me then deliberately trying to get my brother in trouble!). Also, the absence of another adult creates opportunity for her to role play as ‘caregiver’, especially when she sees that I am unwell, for example.
“I grew up as an only child, and my mother was a single mom. It’s always been “us”.– Edwina Findley
Don’t get me wrong, I worry a lot about my girl (don’t we all?) and that includes questioning whether she would have had more fun growing up with siblings; a question I asked even more during lockdown since she did not see another child in person for months. But I suppose there is no use crying over what is not, and it is important to look at the positives, of which I genuinely think there are many. I recall a bleak time when I first became a single parent when I had to readjust to the weight of my new responsibility. I realised I had absorbed society’s negative views of single motherhood and I subconsciously adapted my parenting to ensure that we would never live up to ‘the stereotype’. Obviously, I eventually realised that that is society’s burden, not mine, and the dedicated parent that sticks around for the day to day work is not the parent society’s criticism should be levied at. But for a time – and probably quite a while – I was stricter with my girl than I think I would have been had I not been single. For as long as I can remember people have commended me on my daughter’s manners and I know they’re on point. I really feel that was part of that need to go into overdrive to avoid being the ‘statistic’. I’ve left that behind now but it isn’t always easy, such can be the weight of stereotypes. That’s why I think it is so important to change the narrative about single parents – especially single mums – and our children. They are not the Cinderella options.
My daughter has her faults of course, and my parenting is far from perfect, but she is an incredible little lady and that’s so worth shouting about. In all, I would say there is something unique and very beautiful about being part of a single parent, only child family. I won’t deny it takes a lot of work and I have realised that it takes a lot of accountability on the parent’s part because when there is only two of you and there is no-one else around to dilute that dynamic what you essentially have is a mirror. There is nowhere to hide your flaws – they are magnified- and they are easily reflected back at you. It can be very intense, especially when times are hard. But when it’s good, it’s magnificent, and I wouldn’t change our relationship for the world (click here if you want to read more about some more positives about being a SPOC). So, let’s lose the narrative that the further away you are from the 2.4 set-up the more disadvantaged your parenting is. Because truth be told, my child isn’t a statistic that has ‘overcome the odds’. If anything, I’d say her experience being part of a single parent, only child family is a huge part of the incredible person she is and the adolescent she is becoming. And that’s a very positive thing indeed.