FACT: I am an only child.
FACT: I am about to be the mother of four children.
The other day, a friend asked me, “How did you, an only child, end up with FOUR children?” And the answer is: I have no idea. When Erick and I were having all those premarital, heart-to-heart discussions about our future, the subject of kids did come up. As I recall, we both sort of shrugged and said, “Yeah, we probably want kids someday — not right now. Probably more than one.”
Once we started having children, the only thing that was important to me was the “more than one.” I had a happy childhood, but I spent a lot of time with adults. I always wanted a sibling. So we gave Fiona a sibling (with a vengeance). Then, after Campbell was born, I felt like we weren’t quite done. Our days in California were numbered, and we wanted the same doctors we’d had for our first two children, so we went for a third without giving it too much thought.
And our fourth, as regular readers know, was a total surprise.
As an only child attempting to raise three (going on four) children, I often feel like I’m missing the playbook.
But the more I talk with other mothers, the more I realize: THERE IS NO PLAYBOOK. It doesn’t matter whether you had no siblings or 44; we’re all running around out on the field with no idea what we’re doing. Do we catch, throw, or pass? What game are we even playing?
That said, there are daily occurrences in our house that I never experienced as an only child: sibling fights, simultaneous calls for attention, vastly divergent food preferences, and — above all — three distinct personalities.
The other day, out of nowhere, Fiona said, “Mommy, me and my sisters are really aliens from another planet. We knew each other before we were born, and then we decided to become babies in your tummy.” (She assured me that they’re planning to stick around for the long haul, though they might go back to their home planet when they’re grown up, “just to visit.”)
This was one of the most helpful things anyone’s ever said to me. It made perfect sense, and it explained a lot; until Fiona laid it all out for me, I had NO IDEA where my children came from.
Oh sure, our children have certain traits that Erick and I recognize as coming from us, or from our parents. (Anxiety and drama, for example, and a peculiar inclination to listen to the same song over and over and OVER). But for the most part, each one of my children is — and always has been — stubbornly, beautifully HERSELF. Where did she get that idea? Who taught her to say that?
Unfortunately, each child’s self is also completely unique from that of her siblings (aside from the shared desire to play with the exact same toys at the exact same moment). And therein lies the rub of parenting multiple children: these three unique individuals are stuck with two parents who are also stubbornly themselves. Erick and I came to parenthood with our own styles, ways of giving love that are natural to us. But having a child is not like buying a pair of shoes; you don’t get to choose what fits you. One child only feels loved through constant affirmation and attention, and another child wants to be left alone, and the third child needs to be prevented from climbing into the medicine cabinet — all at the same time. Needless to say, it doesn’t always work; I can’t simultaneously give undivided attention, grant freedom, and vigilantly tail a determined toddler, though God knows I try! Each of our children needs a personalized parent.
And that’s just what you get as an only child: two parents who can focus entirely on YOU. It’s a blessing and a curse, of course. But I will say this: it’s simpler, and it’s definitely quieter. (Sometimes, when all three girls are clamoring to be heard at the top of their lungs, Erick and I helplessly stare at each other across the dinner table and shake our heads).
Where am I going with this? Well, I’m NOT going to make a judgement about whether it’s better to be an only child or have siblings, or whether it’s better to parent one child or more than one. As an only child, I learned to be happy spending lots of time alone, and I had enriching experiences that wouldn’t have been possible had my parents had multiple children. On the other hand, my daughters have best friends right in their own house, and they’re learning interpersonal skills much earlier than I did. Parenting multiple children often feels like trying to play a video game that’s been sped up, but parenting only one child seems like it might be a lot of pressure.
In the end, you get the childhood you get, and you handle it accordingly. Then you grow up and get the children you get, and you handle that accordingly, too. We all seem to be slightly mismatched, but I’m holding out hope that we’re mismatched for a purpose. To some degree you can plan and “choose” what your family will look like, but to an even larger degree things happen the way they will. One morning you wake up and have four children, and planning had very little to do with it.
Unless you’re an alien from another planet; then you get to choose your host family, or so I’m told.