I never had a strategy to have an only child. I am the oldest of three married to a third-born of four. We have an only. Well, give or take a cat or two. I don’t think my parents intended for us to be three, but my siblings are twins. Everyone else in my family is a perfect two and there is only one ‘only’. He is my favorite cousin incidentally.
People make the ‘only child’ sound like a convoluted human being, devoid of social skills, compassion, kindness. They are supposed to be maladjusted, selfish and everything wrong with the world. For doing exactly the same thing, they could be branded as attention seeking or aloof and anti-social. Sometimes you just can’t win.
My friend Parul recently popped her third baby. Three is a great number, I always thought. Two is too symmetric, but three? Now that’s a crowd in a good way. When we were growing up, my father would often complain that we all didn’t fit into an auto, and so we would have to divide and conquer the movies. I was cool with that, as I got to go with dad and the siblings went with mom for kiddie matinees. It was the only time I felt like an only child and dad and I grew up as movie buddies.
I was never one of those women who dreamt of a house full of children running around while I fawned over them. I thought I accomplished a rare feat by popping a baby at 40 and that it would settle things once and for all. That it would end all the presumptive questioning (“when are you getting settled?” and “are you planning kids?”). I was wrong. Once Re turned two, it started again, and from completely alien quarters. More than questions, they were opinions cloaked in concern. Theories. Postulates.
“Have the second one quickly. Don’t wait too long. ”
“The first one is for you, the second is for the first.”
“He’d make an excellent older brother.”
“But who will he play with?”
The worst was, “You already have a boy, so it hardly matters what comes next!”
And my absolute favorite:
“Who will take care of him when you are no more?”
I felt like telling them, you don’t have to die so many times before you actually die. So get a life, because your child will eventually have one, and perhaps a better one than you. After all, family doesn’t have to be fate. Siblings are great, but sometimes, it’s a 4 am friend who pulls you together. For all the times my parents thought we would look after each other, well, they are mostly looking after us even now.
But it was as though there was unfinished business, that we were incomplete with just one baby. We also got the “you might not want another one now, but when he gets older, you’d wish he had a sibling!”
Every now and then, I would ask Re, So would you like a baby brother or sister? He thought I was cuckoo. When Re turned a happy five this year, I finally set aside my residual desires or concerns of a sibling for him. He’s winging it. So am I.
I wish people wouldn’t sound so patronising about “only child.” “They end up having a lot of imaginary friends,” they say of them, as if it’s an affliction. Are they kidding? I was one of three and I had more imaginary friends than Re. My imaginary friends had imaginary friends.
I get a lot of “He doesn’t behave like an only child” about Re. Like he has redeemed his ‘only’ hood by being kind and polite. I know that he will always be in his own head to some extent; he is comfortable in there. He knows where everything is, and he is endlessly evaluating his own perceptions of the world outside. I like that sometimes I am his buddy and sometimes I’m his mamma.
He is at an age where he loves board games and I often wonder if a sibling would have been handy. But that’s about it. The feeling passes away quickly, each time I feel like packing my bags and driving off for an adventure. With an only, you travel light. With more than one, I don’t think I could just get up and go the way I have been doing. Going into the back burner seems a necessary byproduct of motherhood for most women and I don’t fancy that happening to me again. It was important to claim me back after I had a child and it was important not to feel selfish about the whole thing. I never ask people why they have three kids, so I don’t see any reason why I have to justify my only.
I wanted a balance between selfhood and motherhood and stopping at Re helped me get that. I can focus on my own pursuits and goals, while I watch him grow, and it is getting more exciting with every passing year. Less is definitely more in our case.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 22nd September, 2014)