Does only have to mean lonely?: How does growing up without siblings affect a child? Marina Cantacuzino looks at the question from the point of view of offspring and parents

Marina Cantacuzino@@MCantacuzino
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:23


Hard facts are hard to come by but, according to Social Trends 1992, published by the Central Statistical Office, in 1990, 18 per cent of children lived in a family of a married couple with one dependent child (as compared with 16 per cent in 1972).

Exploring Parenthood, a general support service for any parent, says it has noticed that more and more people are asking advice about the pitfalls of being an only child.

What makes parents chose to have one child?

Exploring Parenthood says requests for advice come particularly from couples with dual careers who are delaying having children until quite late. Over the last 10 years the number of women having their first child over 35 has doubled. The recession may also have an effect. The number of adults who would prefer a one-child family has risen from 2 to 10 per cent in the last 10 years.

Are only children at a disadvantage?

Studies have shown that reluctance to have one child is one major reason for parents having more, yet research also shows that only children are no more selfish, spoilt or lonely than anyone else, but that they are better at socialising than children from larger families and have a more positive relationship with their parents. They are also, on average, higher achievers. There are more first-class honours degrees among only children.


Stephen Bayley, 41, lives in Vauxhall, south London, with his wife, Flo, and their two children, Bruno, aged seven, and Coco, five. From 1981 to 1990 he was the director of the Conran Foundation, and he subsequently became the chief executive of the Design Museum. Since then, he has been running Eye-Q, which he describes as a 'specialist information' business dedicated to changing the orthodoxies of 'paid-for communication'.

BEING an only child is a mixture of pleasure and pain. The pleasure is the effortlessness of being the centre of attention. The pain is that exquisite sense of missing something and constantly feeling that other children are having a better time.

The ghosts of these feelings are still here today. For instance, I long to be part of company and I love going to parties, but once I'm there I stand at the edge, quite happy just to talk to my wife or a close friend. I don't like mixing, and I'm incapable of any form of group activity.

I'm a thrusting and ambitious person and I have a monstrous arrogance about my ability to conduct myself socially, which I'm sure comes from the fact that my doting mother was always telling me what an exceptionally good- looking and intelligent child I was. Her fanatical belief that I was something special has contributed massively to my self-confidence, and I'm sure it is the reason why I've never had any nerves.

I gave my first public lecture at the age of 20, and was completely fearless. Ever since then I've loved standing up in a large room full of people and telling them what I think. Perhaps the reason I used to detest children's parties so much was because they denied me attention and, in a more Freudian sense, threatened my ego and sense of integrity.

My parents come from that generation that was amazed to have survived the war. I've never asked them why they didn't have more children but, having produced one healthy one, I don't think it occurred to them to have another. I have a very vague memory of being asked whether I would have liked a brother or sister, to which I trenchantly replied no.


Blanche, 16, is the only child of Mark Girouard, an architectural historian, and Dorothy Girouard, an artist. She goes to St Paul's Girls' School, west London, and is studying for her A-levels, which she takes this summer. The family lives in Notting Hill Gate.

WHEN I was born, my parents didn't want any more children, partly because I was a nightmare to conceive but also because my mother didn't understand why a parent couldn't be happy with just one. To have had a second child would for her have meant diminishing the first. Later, however, they came to regret it and I know they now wish they'd had another - for my sake more than theirs - so that I shouldn't be left alone when they die.

The worst thing about being an only child is the morbid side, and I feel sad that because I have no brothers or sisters there won't be someone to share memories with when they're gone. I also mind that if I have children, they'll have no aunts or uncles.

I'm going to have more than one child myself, even if I have to adopt. The minimum I want is two, and I might even have four. All my friends have siblings. I am in a tiny minority at school. A few years ago one of the teachers called me in to ask if I liked being an only child. He had one already and was wondering whether to have another. I told him he should, for the sake of the child. I don't know if it had anything to do with me, but in the end he did have another.

When I was younger, friends used to be jealous of me because I was the sole focus of my parents' attention. But after about the age of 13, just at the time when children begin to separate themselves from their parents, they started seeing their siblings as allies rather than as rivals, and from then on no one envied me.

I liked being an only child when I was younger, but now I wish my parents' attention could be diverted on to siblings. I get the sense I'm in their thoughts a lot of the time and that can be quite trying. It would be nice to have someone to share these pressures with. My mother and I are incredibly close, but at the same time we're very different. The mother-daughter relationship is an intense one at the best of times, but this is made worse if you're an only child. I think you need brothers and sisters because they're the only people to know the intimate details of your life apart from your parents.

I've always felt older than my age and I grew up more quickly than my peers because I was in adult company all the time, visiting the sort of homes where children aren't usually welcome and being dragged around every art gallery and museum in Europe.

My mother had a strong feeling that a child should be around adults, so I never got that sense of inferiority. I got treated like an adult but only as long as I behaved like one, so I suppose it's hardly surprising that I used to feel more comfortable with adults than with children. It was only later that friends of my own age became terribly important to me. Long before boys were ever thought of as entities in themselves, I'd imagine marrying my best friends' brothers so that I could be with my best friend all my life.

Both my parents believed in stimulating a baby's mind, so I was surrounded by mobiles from the day I was born. I had baby books left round my cot when I was one month old and I was forever being shown flash cards, which is probably why I could read by the age of three. I was always under pressure to achieve from my mother, but in a supportive rather than a domineering way. She has always been against me doing holiday jobs because she believes my job in the family is to do well at school.

We used to spend our holidays in foreign cities. Half the day was spent looking at old churches and museums and the other half was spent doing what I wanted to do. There was a certain rationality to this, but the trouble was that I never knew what I wanted to do, so often we would end up spending the whole day looking at museums. If I'd had brothers and sisters, they'd never have got away with this. Recently I spent my first holiday on a beach with a friend. I was really looking forward to it because it was the sort of holiday I'd longed for for years but, to my surprise, I got bored after a day or two. I suppose I've been a bit brainwashed.

I'm getting towards the age of leaving home and what's sad is that my parents are miserable about it. This is another reason I'd like to have siblings, because if there were other children around my departure wouldn't be such a big deal. I've had a massive amount of love from them and I feel bad I'm going to hurt them by leaving home and guilty that I'm rather looking forward to it. It's not that they're trying to stop me - on the contrary, my mother is forcing the separation by encouraging me to travel abroad before going to university - but I know it's not going to be easy for them.

In some ways it doesn't feel like a family. For instance, there is no sense of the family meal. We all have our dinner reading our books in different parts of the living room. I'm at the table, my father sits on the sofa and my mother on the other side of the room. On the rare occasions that the three of us have eaten together I've hated it; it's then that I feel the claustrophobia of being an only child. Three is a bad number in anything and I much prefer doing things with just one parent.


Vicky Dale, 40, has a four-year-old son, Christopher. She is married to a television producer and lives in Willesden.

MY idea of a family is to have more than one child. Of course, I'm grateful to have the son I've got, but why should I give up when what I want above all else is a large family? If things had turned out differently, I would have liked three, or even four, but considering the difficulties I've had in conceiving, I'll settle for two. I've heard people say that with only one child it feels like half a family and although I would never put it in quite that way, I know what they mean, because my family definitely feels incomplete.

People say, 'You're so lucky to have Christopher', but that sort of reassurance doesn't help at all and in fact often makes it worse. I'm well aware that I'm very lucky to have one child, and better off than people who can't have any at all, but that doesn't make the yearning for a second child any less than for a first. On the whole, friends have been very understanding and supportive, but occasionally I feel let down by someone's reaction. For instance, a friend of mine moans to me about the financial and emotional hardship of coping with three young children and I find this unbelievably insensitive.

After trying for two-and-a-half years to have another child, I find that it's becoming more and more difficult hearing of friends who are pregnant. Initially it makes me slightly upset and I feel a pang because it's not me, but luckily, after that first twinge I get used to the idea and I can rejoice in the birth with them.

One reason I want another child is for Christopher's sake. He's an extrovert, intelligent and sociable child who desperately needs the company of other children. I make sure he sees someone almost every day of the week and it's been a project of mine to teach him how to share his toys, but at the end of the day I can't help feeling that while it's fine to be able to share your toys with other children, it's much better to be able to share your life with a brother or sister.

He was a much-wanted child, but I don't think it's very healthy for a child to be the main focus of both parents. Even though we are constantly viewing and reviewing his behaviour and try very hard not to spoil him, the fact remains that because we have no other children we give him more attention than is good for him. It's also very difficult not to be overprotective towards an only child and I know it's going to get harder for me, and for Christopher, if he's the sole outlet for my maternal affections. There's always a selfish aspect to wanting another child and I don't want to feel that awful sense of loss when he becomes independent.

He's just started to ask if he can have a brother and sister because he's aware that all his friends have at least one, if not two. I find it particularly painful when he sees a baby and tries to hug and kiss it. I tell him we're trying to have a baby but that I don't know if we'll succeed.

I believe that sibling company is extremely important. I had only one sister myself and we had the usual differences as children, so I was always wishing for more brothers and sisters to break up the duopoly. I would look with envy at friends who came from large families because they always seemed to be having such fun.

I've met a surprising number of women in the same position as me. My main source of medical information has come through comparing notes with these women. I find it helps to talk to others who know how isolated and miserable you can feel when everyone else around you seems to be having babies with such ease and regularity.

Because I've been trying for so long now without success, I can't help feeling that getting pregnant is an incredibly fragile, unusual and difficult feat which takes the luck of the devil to achieve, but of course it's usually very easy, and people are getting accidentally pregnant all the time.

Wanting another child so badly can put an enormous pressure on a marriage, and even if you're pronounced fit and well, it can put you under real emotional strain and make both parties feel inadequate. Anyone who is trying to have a baby knows that it's a total drag having sex at prescribed times and that the lack of spontaneity in your sex life can make you feel fed up and irritable.

I don't feel I can settle for one and I intend to explore all the avenues, including fertility drugs, IVF and adoption before I give up. I'm not ready to say that Christopher's my only child. If I go down all these avenues and I still can't have a child, then I'll accept it, but I'm a very active and positive person by nature and I'll try everything in my power before leaving it to fate.


Howard Woolfson, 44, lives with his partner, Caroline, in Brent. She is a senior civil servant with the Inland Revenue and he looks after their three-year-old son, Robert.

WHEN people ask me whether I'm going to have another child I usually make the sign of the cross and say, 'Get thee behind me, Satan,' or tell them to wash their mouth out with soap. It amazes me how people assume you to be a breeding machine and immediately after you've had your first child ask you when you're going to have the next. Even at the hospital the assumption of the medical staff was, 'We'll see you in a couple of years' time'. For us, it was a big enough wrench to consider one, and it would require an aching void in our lives to consider having a second.

When we had no children we were told that we were selfish. Now that we've got one, we're still being told that we're selfish. I don't have doctrinaire views about the ideal size of a family but it seems to me that one is sufficient, two is quite enough, three is horrendous and four is madness.

If, later on, Robert says he wants a brother or sister, then of course we'll have pangs, but we'll explain to him why and hopefully he'll understand.

When Caroline and I first started living together we talked a lot about having children. She wanted two and I wanted three. But it was always something we would do in the future and our notion of parenting was a very romantic one. Gradually, however, being a couple became our lives and after about two years I went right off the idea. I could see, from watching friends who had children, that parenting was simultaneously delightful and dreadful.

I positively didn't want a child because I liked the way we were living, but Caroline was unsure and from time to time she would get upset when we visited friends with children because it would awaken her maternal urge. But every time she raised the subject I'd say, 'You don't actually want a child because you're still uncertain', and after much discussion she'd always end up agreeing.

Then, about four-and-a-half years ago, we were on holiday in Yorkshire when one day Caroline raised the subject again, but this time her tone was completely different and I knew instantly that she really meant it. Now that it was obviously really important for Caroline to have a child, I couldn't deny her that right and I was prepared to go along with it and change my attitude.

I was working from home at the time, having tried and failed to start my own publishing company, and was loath to go back into computer sales. We agreed that I would stay at home and look after the baby while Caroline continued with her career.

Once she was pregnant it became clear that, while we were deeply committed to having a child, we were also thinking in terms of having only the one. We discussed the effects this would have on the child, since we knew people who felt deprived because they had no brothers or sisters, but, equally, we had experienced the stresses and strains of a sibling relationship. I even asked a 15-

year-old neighbour how he felt about being an only child and was relieved to hear that he wasn't that bothered. We felt, however, that we couldn't make the decision until we knew who we'd got.

Robert was born in June 1989 and pretty soon we both knew that we wouldn't have any more. On the negative side, the hard graft of parenting made me sure that I didn't want to go through it all again and we felt we just didn't have the energy to endure several more years of disrupted sleep. But on the positive side, as Robert's personality began to emerge and the nature of the family relationships became clear, something very harmonious was established among the three of us.

As a family unit it feels complete and my guess is that this feeling will extend to Robert. Also I think it could disturb him to have this very intimate relationship with us broken by a second child.

Although there seem to be more only children around these days, compared to when I was a lad, we still feel like outsiders. Two is considered the norm in our society whereas one is considered self-centred and letting the breeding side down. Asking if we're going to have another is just a mindless, somewhat pernicious, heterosexual knee-jerk reaction.

(Photographs omitted)

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