Dealing with only-child shaming

Parents of “just one child” know the pain of judgmental comments all too well. Two mamas of one share their stories, and an expert weighs in on how to handle it.

I’m an only child. There, I said it. Now to answer some questions I’ve been asked throughout my life.

No, I wasn’t dreadfully lonely as a kid. I spent lots of time playing by myself on our big country property, but that was my “normal” and I consider myself lucky to be able to enjoy my own company as an adult.

Nope, I’m not spoiled. From a young age, my parents taught me the value of money and a strong work ethic. I certainly never expected everything to be handed to me on a silver platter.

Actually, I’m REALLY good at sharing. Because I never had anyone to share my toys with growing up, I was so excited to lend my clothes and makeup to my roommates when I left home.

These days, I’m a mom to three beautiful daughters and I love watching their bond grow as they do. Sibling relationships are so fascinating! But when I watch my friends who have one child being barraged with questions and unwelcome comments about the downfalls of being an only child, my heart hurts for them.

Because I understand that for many mothers, having “just one” isn’t a choice. Some watch helplessly as their relationship melts in the pressure cooker of parenthood and they end up raising their child on their own – goodbye, dreams of having a big family. Others can’t convince their reluctant partners to have more than one child no matter how hard they try. And then there are the moms who desperately want a second child, but their wish is never fulfilled and every question they’re asked about it breaks their heart into a million pieces.

When all you want is a plus-one

Toronto mom Andrea, 40, not only fell in love with her daughter, Evelyn, the second she laid eyes on her four-and-a-half years ago, she fell in love with motherhood too. So, for the past three years, she’s been trying to conceive a sibling for Evie. Three miscarriages and one failed round of IVF later, Andrea refuses to give up hope. But, sadly, she knows the sting of people’s thoughtless comments all too well.

“I’ve heard it all!” she says. “People have said to me, ‘You don’t get it, it’s harder with two kids’, ‘Of course you buy your daughter expensive toys, you only have one’ and ‘Make sure you go on vacation with other families so your child doesn’t feel so lonely.’ And then there are the comments implying that you’re not a ‘real’ parent or a ‘real’ family until you have two kids. Most of them come from close friends, which makes it even more hurtful than when they come from a stranger. In the moment, it’s like water off a duck’s back, but after the fact, the comments linger inside you and make you feel like a failure.”

When one is enough

Other parents make the conscious decision to have only one child. They might feel happy with the balance in their family unit and don’t want to risk disturbing it, or perhaps the challenges they faced the first time around led them to pull the plug on the idea of expanding their family.

When San Francisco mom Julie’s son, Damian, was diagnosed with autism six days after his second birthday, life as she knew it changed forever. “His diagnosis started a roller coaster of further evaluations, various treatments and early intervention,” she says. “He became my full-time job. We enrolled in research studies and learned to work with him one on one. I was driving close to 300 miles a week to his various appointments and treatments. It was exhausting, but we saw him making progress.”

Because Damian suffered from social anxiety, Julie and her husband decided to send him to a small, inclusive private school for kindergarten. Over the next three years, Damian progressed by leaps and bounds. “This year, he’s in the third grade and he’s back in the public school system,” says Julie. “He’s in a class of 30 kids and he’s excelling!”

While Julie wouldn’t change a thing about her journey with Damian, it hasn’t been an easy road. So, when friends and family started to ask when they’d have a second child, Julie explained that it would probably never happen.

“The amount of time and energy I put into working with Damian made it impossible for me to consider having another child,” she says. “I feared that it would kill me. It wouldn’t be fair for Damian and life would never be fair for a second child. Who wants to grow up spending all their time in a car taking their older brother to therapy and treatment? But as my son grew older, people kept asking why he didn’t have a sibling. It wasn’t always easy, but today I’m at peace with the decision.”

A psychologist weighs in

So, how should you deal with people’s insensitive comments? “The first thing is to consider the person’s intentions,” says clinical psychologist Michelle Pal. “More often than not, they don’t mean to be hurtful toward you. They may even be well-meaning, such as a family member or old friend taking an interest in you and your future plans for family. Some people aren’t aware of the number of couples who struggle with fertility or with behavioral or other issues with their first child.”

“The next important thing to do is take your time to respond. You don’t need to apologize for your choices or make excuses, so take a deep breath and think about what you’d like to say. If the comment came from a stranger and you don’t want to disclose personal information, a good way to deal with it is to laugh and shrug it off, or make a joke. But if you really want other people to understand your decision – especially if they’re family members who might keep bringing it up – it will require some self-disclosure as some people are just not very empathetic or aware of potential issues holding you back. Although you don’t need to explain the situation to anyone, it could help society by spreading awareness of these issues and reducing such shaming comments to others in the future.”