I am an only child mothering an only child—please don’t feel sorry for us

Did you know that everyone has an opinion about only children? Well, maybe it just seems that way to me. After all, I’m an only child who is mothering an only child. I’ll be quick to admit my ears undoubtedly perk up more than most when someone dives into the subject, usually unsolicited.

Growing up, I have to say, I never really never gave it much thought. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I noticed I was often on the receiving end of some backhanded compliment. “You are an only child? I never would have guessed! You’re so normal!” As if my sibling-free status should have slapped a warning label on my forehead. Like a courtesy red flag to others that I was “an only” so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard and could keep a safe distance. It was occasionally mildly insulting, but often just amusing. I would listen, laugh off the jokes and move on. Yes, you’re right. Don’t ask for a bite of my dessert; I’m an only child so you know I won’t share it! It was always that sort of thing. The low hanging fruit.

However, after becoming a mother myself, my perspective shifted entirely. I am a mid-30s, stay-at-home mom and I absolutely adore the job of motherhood. I’m beyond lucky to have had the privilege to make the choice to stay home with our son. It’s not for everyone but for me it is the single best thing I have ever done with any time in my life, and if I’m being honest, unexpectedly so.

While other moms seemed to be high diving into an Olympic-sized pool of double strollers and minivans that could accommodate three car seats, I was treading water in a frothy sea of everything I hate: melancholy, resentment, jealousy and anger.

My thoughts on the female mystery of “what motherhood will be like” during my pregnancy consisted of precisely, “I don’t know.” I knew enough to know that I knew nothing when it came to motherhood so it was best to just take several seats. I set aside a whole lot of expectations in favor of just riding the ride. The result is a sense of love and joy and purpose that is absolutely nauseatingly pure. And of course I’m exhausted and fed up and overextended like all moms of any breed are. I pick up the same toys over and over, I repeat the same pleading requests, my voice pitching higher and higher with each echo. I enforce the same rules and point at the same chore chart until I’m blue in the face. But generally, I’m in heaven with my child. So when our son was three, my husband and I decided to roll those dice again. Try for number two! Just when I have so much love I think I’m bursting, there will be more! Right?

Wrong. For about 15 or so odd months, my husband and I were stuck on the unending treadmill of “trying.” We spent hours, days, weeks and months waiting and trying and waiting some more. I peed on ovulation prediction sticks and charted my cycle through multiple apps. I downed fertility teas as if they were tequila shots and I was on Spring Break in Mexico. I scoured blogs for conception-friendly diets and nutritional or herbal supplements. I patiently listened to advice from everyone on the planet to “just relax.” I went to doctors appointments, follow-up appointments and, finally, stood staring at my hand holding a piece of paper, printed with the dreaded referral to a fertility specialist. And during all of this, I was simply put, miserable.

While other moms seemed to be high diving into an Olympic-sized pool of double strollers and minivans that could accommodate three car seats, I was treading water in a frothy sea of everything I hate: melancholy, resentment, jealousy and anger. The year between my child’s second and third birthdays, I wrung myself dry with worry, research, planning, phone calls, insurance details, late-night crying jags and pleading prayers. Yet no part of this procreation hamster wheel led me anywhere but towards one simple, quiet thought getting louder by the day: the quest for a sibling for my child, the seemingly endless marathon, the deluge of it all pulling me under again and again—that was making me unhappy. But the actual lack of a sibling for my child? Well, that wasn’t making me, or any of us, unhappy at all.

And so we gave up. We skipped out on fertility referrals and said that our family was good enough. No, in fact, it was perfect. I stopped bending myself unrecognizable with complicated mental gymnastics. I allowed my husband to put down the emotional life preservers he had been desperately tossing me for months, watching helplessly as I batted them away time and again into the tide of my confusion. We didn’t just hop off of the conception treadmill, we unplugged the whole darn thing.

I understand now more about how deeply proud my own mother was of our “three pea pod,” as she named our small family, and how hard she worked to defend it.

Maybe you think I don’t want it bad enough. Bad enough to put my body and my husband’s body through intense scrutiny in what can feel like a blame-laying process of diagnosis. Bad enough to spend my physical, mental and emotional energy on treatment plans and hormones that may or may not work. Bad enough to continue to steal more of my own sanity and joy away when it could be funneled right back into the family that I already have. Bad enough to spend money that could be funding soccer camps and field trips and a full-blown college education for our son. And in that case, you’d be right. I didn’t want it bad enough to bring our family to its knees. And I know that if you are one of those who is on a long and winding path to parenthood, your strength of character is mighty and your emotional fortitude is vast. It was a boulder I was unwilling to push up that hill.

So I dug in my heels, I sat down and I watered the garden I was already standing amidst. I understand now more about how deeply proud my own mother was of our “three pea pod,” as she named our small family, and how hard she worked to defend it. How it feels when other mothers look almost imperceptibly askance at you out and about with your army of one, eyebrow raised just barely and wondering not quite aloud, “One and done? Not mom enough to handle it. How sad for her child. Kids need other kids.”

I understand now the weapons she used to protect her small brood because I carry them too. The countless volunteer spots she took on at my schools, the way she knew—really knew— every kid I was friends with and the warm home she opened to welcome any and all of them there alongside me. The other parents she befriended, the teachers she aided and the coaches she supported. The webbed network of community and love and care she spun around me. The ferocity with which she polished the single jewel in the crown of her motherhood. I understand with a new knowing how that pressure and grit refines a family, distilling it down to its most vulnerable beauty.

And so our son remains a “lonely only.” But now I know that this was what I was meant for all along. That my path led me directly to this moment, with this one child. I know that if I do my job right and raise him up well with a loving heart, a generous spirit and an arsenal of support, maybe one day he too will get to chuckle to himself as someone asks him, gobsmacked, “You are an only child?” I can’t wait to laugh with him.

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Today’s Parent is Canada’s #1 source for parenting content that informs, inspires and builds a sense of community. We help parents celebrate the happy chaos that comes with having a family and remind them that they are not alone. If you’re trying to conceive, pregnant or have children from newborn to ages 9+, you’ll get insightful information for all ages and stages on discipline, health, behaviour, education, plus easy and nutritious recipes and so much more.

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