Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries 26

Being an only child is a disease in itself. G. Stanley Hall

Only child TIME coverThe other day I was surprised to hear from a long-lost friend that she’d given birth to her third child. I never would have taken her for a mother in the first place. When I told my husband about my old friend, much to my surprise he suggested that we have a second child. I find myself astonished that he wants a second child and seems to have kept his mouth shut due to my own opinion on the matter. And now I’m confused, particularly as there is a lot of social pressure to have more than one child in France…likely due to the amazing programs available to help you care for them. On the one hand, despite my flawed relationship with my own siblings, I’m grateful they exist and feel bad that my son will not have this ‘record’ of his early life at home, or camaraderie on holidays or later in life, particularly as my husband and I will likely be dead by the time he has his own family. Moreover, I’ve bought into the stigma around only children as lonely, indulged, and neurotic creatures. On the other hand, the single children I know tend to be rather independent and strong-willed, traits I admire. And, also, there are too many people in this world already. I didn’t have a maternal instinct until I had my own child. In fact, I was skeptical of the whole motherhood route for a variety of reasons. I also had a very problematic pregnancy, and am not too keen to repeat the experience. If I were to try to get pregnant again, and to have a child, I would be doing it for my child and my husband only…I don’t want to be selfish, however, so I started talking to friends here in Chamonix and abroad, and doing a bit of research on the subject.

My friends in Chamonix told me that if there is even a seed of doubt in my mind, and if there is any chance that if the circumstances were different and I COULD have a baby in five years, once I’ve rested from the previous pregnancies, then I SHOULD try to have another baby now and just ‘grin and bear it.’ Two of these friends were only children themselves, and they went on to have three kids precisely because they were only children. Two other friends who were only children told me that they never knew any differently while growing up. Reassuring, except that they have two kids each.

Two close friends in the US who are also only children had a different take on the matter. Both of them say that they love and value their time alone. That they were raised to make the best of their ‘alone’ time or go crazy. Both say that they are self-reliable and self-entertaining. Both say that if there were any ‘problems,’ then it would be that it was harder for them to make friends, be outgoing. Both also admitted that they often wished that they’d had a brother or sister to share things with as they grew older, especially as their parents aged, but both remark that it’s likely that my child will a great spouse and/or loads of friends to share the burden and joy of life with, as they do. Both said that it’s arguable that being an only child results in various traits and issues, such as being headstrong, but who doesn’t have something ‘wrong’? It’s what makes us all special. They advised me to teach kindness and a desire to understand and learn from others, which will counter any negative aspects commonly associated with single children. Interestingly, both posed a question to me: “The real question is, would you be willing to go through all that you did to have another child?”

After much thought, I’m not willing to go through the stress of trying-to-get-pregnant sex, likely more miscarriages, and another difficult pregnancy. Whether my son (and husband) know it or not, this would hinder our relationship now and in the foreseeable future, and I feel it’s primarily motivated by the fear that our kid MAY be lonely and spoiled. I found an interesting article in The Guardian by an only child named Emma Kennedy entitled “Who Needs Siblings?”

She writes: A friend of mine recently sat down with me and asked me in all seriousness whether I was happy about being an only child. It was if she were asking me what it was like to cope with a disability. But she had an agenda. She has got an only child and she is concerned that if she doesn’t have another one, her currently happy and well balanced three year old is somehow going to mutate into a gorgon of bitterness and despair.

My experience of being an only child has been unequivocally positive, and I was happy to put my friend’s mind at rest. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a sibling, of course, but rather than wondering what he or she would have been like, I find myself wondering if I would have turned out to be a fundamentally different person. There is no way of knowing. But there are several things I know about myself and I am convinced they stem directly from being an only child. First, I love my friends beyond words. I have a huge circle of acquaintances, I am an incredibly social beast, but there are a handful of people to whom I am devoted to the point of madness…. Second, because I grew up with no experience of sibling rivalry, I have no professional jealousy. I have never, not once, looked at one of my peers and begrudged them their success…The only negative I can ever come up with when I am quizzed about the downside of being an only child is that, when the time comes, I shall bear the burden of my parents’ old age and inevitable decline on my own. While this will be difficult and stressful and heartbreaking, I can think of no greater privilege than being asked to look after the two people to whom I owe everything… I like being an only child. I am guessing that other only children like being the way they are, too. So, please, stop treating us as if we are birds with broken wings…There is a reason China is now the most successful country in the world. It is because it is run by an entire generation of only children. Coincidence? I think not. Let the world take note.

In a review of 141 studies examining the personality traits associated with only children, the spoiled, selfish, lonely stereotype had no basis in fact. Only children also rate significantly higher in achievement and motivation, due to increased parental scrutiny. Studies also indicate that only children score higher in adjusting to new environments, exerting self-control, and interpersonal skills – all skills I hold dear. But, it was my mother who both made me laugh and made me realize that for-better-or for-worse, my dear boy will be an only child; she told me that my siblings and me always wanted to be only children. Indeed. So, I will pull up my socks, get on with life as I have it, and simply love my single, and certainly singular, child.

 

 



The Pregnancy Diaries – 10

“Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” Erma Bombeck

I recently went to the two crèches in the valley and signed my impending baby up for care – a crèche is a nursery from three months of age till they walk. There are only ten spots in each. Both tell me that their waiting list goes back to 2008!

I said that I’d take anything. I then went to the local mairie and got a list of names for all the certified assistantes maternelles, or ‘nounous’, in the valley. These are women who are certified to take care of children in their homes from zero-three years old.
Because they generally keep these children till they’re ready to go to school at three, they, too, are hard to come by. I called each and every one and discovered that all but one is full up for the foreseeable future and beyond (Chamonix valley could do with some more crèches and nounous, for anyone looking to be entrepreneurial).
Then I started talking to mothers about the childcare that they had for their kids here, or the childcare that they’d like (if they’re pregnant, like me). I’m startled to discover that the majority of women here in the valley have either stayed home with their kids till they were school age, or they intend to stay home until their kids are school age.
A few say that maybe they’ll get them in care a day or two a week. They tend to finish their statements of intent by saying something to the effect of, “but I want to spend time with my baby…”This makes me feel like a monster for already planning on putting my unborn baby in external care. So then I perused online to find other women who are not ‘monsters’ because they put their children in care, but who do want time to themselves to work – I believe that a happy mommy is a happy baby, and this mommy will not be happy if she’s a stay-at-home mom (besides, I suspect it’s harder than work work). In my search, I stumbled across the French author, philosopher and teacher Elisabeth Badinter. She’s written a book entitled The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. I found two articles about her – one in The Guardian and one in The Washington Post. Basically, Ms. Badinter says that more women these days feel a moral obligation to stay at home with their children, despite all the progress of feminist rights.
I quote from her interview in The Washington Post:
For several decades, industrialized nations have been seeing a change in our model of motherhood that is harmful to women. In the 1970s, all the talk was about the rights of women and their vital financial independence…today, the new imperative? To be a perfect mother who knows how to help her child reach his full potential, to raise a gifted, extraordinary radiant adult. Motherhood first, the rest second. The problem is that the La Leche League and a great many experts on childhood have made it their business telling women that they must give unstintingly to their children: their milk, time and energy. Women are urged to reconnect with their supposedly innate reflexes as female mammals to become the good mothers their children need. This good mother gives birth without the benefit of an epidural, sleeps with her child, breast-feeds on demand, and disdains powdered milk and store-bought jars of baby food as harmful relics of reprehensible egotism.
 
Result: The good mother stays at home with her child for the first years of a baby’s life. The main problem with this shift is that it is gradually imposing itself on all women as a moral obligation of the first priority. 
Well, these “modern” practices might suit some women, but not all of them, not by a long shot. 
If I criticize this model of an exclusive and guilt-inducing maternity, it is because the model springs from two assumptions I find aberrant. The first is that the perfect mother is an attainable objective. The second is the belief that women are led by their hormones, just as female chimpanzees.
 
If there were one change you could convince a modern mother to make, what would it be?
I would tell her never to abandon her financial independence. For two reasons. First, in our society, where half of all couples separate, it isn’t prudent to give up one’s job for a few years. 
A single mother raising her child alone is in a very difficult position, and many of them are reduced to hardship. 
Second, I would remind women that they now have a life expectancy of more than 80 years, while the normal activity of motherhood lasts for a decade or so. The children leave home — and then what becomes of the mother?
 
Amen, say I. I’m going to go online and order her book now.