The View From Down Here: Being the Mom of an Only

The View From Down Here: Being the Mom of an Only

You may not know this, but a pecking order exists among moms. Though subtle and unspoken, women always know where we stand in relation to mothers around us. A few years ago, I discovered my place in the Mom hierarchy, which is right smack at the very bottom. Why, you may ask? Well, it’s not because I’m neglectful or domineering. And it’s not because I serve snacks with trans fat at playgroup, which I swear I never do.  It’s because I’m mom to an only child.

When I first became aware of how other mothers perceived me, I thought it was a bit funny. Heck, I was even quietly relieved – look how little everyone expects from me! With an only child, offers to babysit children of larger families are met with a chuckle. And nobody wants my opinion about topics such as stress (moms of onlies apparently have no reason to stress), sibling rivalry or even grocery shopping. This, I thought, is fantastic.

But then I realized something. Sure, everyone sees me as “Mom Light,” which isn't a big deal. But the expectations on my daughter are ridiculously high. Her every move is refracted through the lens of The Only Child. She doesn’t share a toy: she’s an only. She’s whining or doesn’t want to participate in an activity: well, duh, she’s an only!

The fact is that all of myths around onlies have been debunked by hundreds of psychological studies. Yet here we are, still judging. I do it myself! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard about a difficult personality and asked if that person has a sibling. Or when a friend complains about her sister-in-law’s selfish behavior, which she’s certain is caused by lack of a brother or sister, there I am, nodding supportively.

What's a mom to do? You’re probably thinking that I should start a national initiative to fight prejudice against onlies, or perhaps a citywide awareness campaign here in Chicago to raise awareness. But the truth is, we’re all judged. Whether it’s over siblings, pant size, religion, geography, hair color, nail color or shoe brand, there we are, dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller units until one day, we look around and realize that we’re all alone, trapped in lonely little cells of our own making.

Perhaps at some point we’ll be ready to poke our heads out of those tiny boxes and realize that the people around us, even the onlies, are more than the myths and labels we affix to them. That my little family of three is still that, a family. It may not be what one envisions during imaginative play in Pre-K or even during the decade after college, but it’s certainly more than outdated stereotypes, lazy descriptive shortcuts and low expectations. In fact, as I picture my husband, daughter, and I dancing around our living room on a Sunday morning with the hip-hop music blaring, I’d even say this: it’s pretty darn amazing.

~By Wendy Widom, Partner, Families in the Loop

Where'd I get the photo?  Here!

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  • I am an adult "only." I was viewed as whiney and spoiled growing up. I got over it. There are times when I still don't like to share. ;-)

    My greatest joy now, is watching my three children interact and forge their bond.

    My only sadness is that my parents are gone and I'm "it." But I'm fortunate to have good friends that are "better" then family!

  • My husband is an only child.. and you know how the word "only child" sometimes would manifest even in their 30s.. sometimes he has this attitude.. so I really encourage being like a parent of 3 even though you only have one.

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    Great article! I'm an only child and I always say I was "Spoiled but not a brat." There are undoubtedly advantages to being an only child including a lot more opportunities for extracurricular classes, travel and activities that my parents would not have been able to afford or manage if I had had siblings. However, I never understood this assumption that onlies have a hard time with sharing. I never felt the need to hoard stuff because I always had plenty so it wasn't a big deal for me to share when I had friends over. I think I would have been much more territorial if I had had a little bro or sis. Of course, I had very smart parents who drilled into me that the best way to make friends was to share stuff with them and who constantly told me what a good "sharer" I was - and low and behold, I was!

  • Thanks, Katie! I'm encouraged by your response!

  • I am the mother of an only as well and I have had such a different experience. I do agree that people perceive only's "faults" through the lens of their sibling-less life but it amazes me how many times I have heard a variation on -- "I wish I had one", "I should have stopped at one", "Here's advice on how to be happy, stop at one!"... after getting over the shock many years ago at hearing these comments from friends and strangers alike, I came to the conclusion that these parents didn't love their 2nds and 3rds any less, they just felt safe to express something to the parent of an only child.

    I have never experienced the totem pole feeling though, as you mentioned. It's a shame that the community of mothers you may be surrounded by are perpetuating such an ignorant attitude and potentially passing it on their multiple children at that! ;-)

  • In reply to nmarie:

    Thanks so much for your comment, nmarie! I, too, can't even count the number of times people tell me I'm lucky to have only one. Funnily, it's the same people who who try to pressure me to have another. Hmmmm....

    I'm glad your experience has been better than mine and that you don't feel other moms and dads think less of your parenting skills because you have only one. That's awesome!

  • Don't want to share? I've an only child and yes she doesn't like to share. But I see the same trait in a lot of oldest children too. Afraid to try stuff? Ditto. Lack independence? Ditto. Whiney? Geez every kid I know. Ditto that on being spoiled with a sense of entitlement. Accept my kid, she can have a great sense of humility because that is what we taught her.

  • Seems like working Mom's are at the bottom of the pecking order vs Moms of onlies.

  • In reply to lpmeister:

    It's so interesting to see your comment. On my Facebook page, a few friends who have 4 or 5 kids said the same thing. Seems like we all feel we're at the bottom of the Mommy pecking order.

  • My daughter is an only. To add to her 'separateness' her father died when she was an infant so she had a single parent. When we moved to a small town in Northern WI, we were church shopping. We'd been invited to one of those pig-out suppers for which churches are infamous. An older woman was grilling me so as to decide where I 'fit' -- or if I fit.
    She asked how many children and I pointed to my daughter and said 'she's my child'. The woman never missed a beat nor turned a hair. The first words out of her mouth were "I bet she's spoiled" .
    So much for 'Christian' charity.

  • In reply to jkatze:

    jkatze, I'm so sorry for your family's loss. I can't image how hard that must be. It's very sad that people can be so judgmental. I hope you find a community where you're welcomed and embraced; you - and your daughter - deserve it!

  • My only child is in college now. Thank God! I don't mean I glad she is gone because I miss her dearly. But I sure don't miss listening to listen to the stupid comments about how selfish I was to only have one child or to work. I also had to listen to women prattle on about how important they were because of their career.

    My point is most people are smart enough not to judge other people on why they have only one child or why they decide to work or stay at home. Remember they are the silent majority.

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    Unfortunately, I think the pecking order you speak of just falls into the "Mommy wars" that we all have come to hate. If it's not the fact you have 1 kid, it's the fact you have "too many" kids, or you work, or you don't work, or you send your kid to school in torn jeans and shaggy hair for picture day, or you won't do cub scouts because you don't approve of the religion behind it... i mean, there are so many things that people like to judge about. I have felt it and as a result, I have almost no mom friends. I always feel like the odd-ball because I have tattoos, I leave my kids for a week every year and go to the desert to play (Burning Man), or because I refuse to let my ADHD son eat junk-food that other parents bring to t-ball games (it really affects him), etc. In my last neighborhood it took me 3 years to make friends with a couple of other moms because we don't go to church and that made me a social pariah.

    It would be great if we all realized that we all do the best we can with what we have to work with. One size does not fit all when it comes to family size or family styles. We (women) could be each other's best resources if we all just put on our big-girl panties and lent others a hand instead of shelling out the judgement. Parenting, no matter how many kids one has, is one of the hardest jobs on earth. It's tiring, and thankless, and we constantly worry if we're doing it right. I'm coming to terms with the fact that I don't do everything right and sometimes "good enough" will have to do.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • In reply to Andromeda:

    So so true. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

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