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Spoilt little emperors? Only children aren’t just normal, they are the future

Gaby Hinsliff

“Just the one?” If ever there were three words that most parents of only children would be happy to never hear again, they are probably the ones. They tend to be spoken with ill-concealed curiosity, perhaps tinged with pity, because, well, an only child is still a curiosity to many. A question left hanging, an exception to the cosy nuclear norm, an absence in need of an explanation.

Like single parents, those with only children are ruefully reminded every time we check out the “family ticket” prices at museums – invariably designed for two parents plus two children – that we seem to be missing someone. The nagging feeling that a “proper” family is one that stands foursquare, as reassuringly solid as a table with a leg at each corner, lingers long after the acceptance that it is not going to be that way for you.

And yet, statistically speaking, that image is increasingly out of date. “Just the one” is becoming, if not the rule, then no longer anything like such an exception. Last week, halfway through chairing one of those “I don’t know how she does it” debates involving a panel of hotshot working mothers, it dawned on me that four out of the five women on stage had only one child. Sheer coincidence? Perhaps. But the “one and done” scenario is strikingly common among women at the very top of demanding professions, from Hillary Clinton or the cabinet women’s minister Nicky Morgan to the writers Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker, or the self-made Chinese multimillionairesses increasingly populating global rich lists.
There’s no denying that only one maternity leave means only one break in an otherwise seamless career; it means never having to face the sleepless insanity of the toddler-plus-baby years, the point where many women feel forced to drop back or drop out for a bit. One child is surprisingly portable, adaptable enough to fit around complicated and well-travelled adult lives (well, insofar as children ever fit around anything), in a way that two or three kids perhaps aren’t.

But this isn’t merely about a rarified group of high-fliers. Half of British families now contain only one child, according to the most recent Office for National Statistics figures, the highest level in 80 years. That figure will obviously include relatively new parents who will eventually have more children, or parents with other grownup children and only one left at home. Yet the consensus is that, as the ONS put it last year, families are shrinking; the numbers of permanently only-children have been rising, both here and in the US. Something about family life has changed and it’s happened surprisingly fast.

Eight percent of women born in 1960 had only one child by the time they were 45, an age at which it could reasonably be assumed their pram-pushing days were over. Within a decade, that figure doubled. And as the parent of an only myself – not by choice but arguably not wholly by accident either, given that was always the risk of leaving the whole motherhood thing until relatively late in life – it beats me why people so rarely talk about this as if it might have an upside.

The most infuriating thing about the “just the one?” brigade is that in a way they’re right; behind many such families does lie a story, and not always one you’d want to share with a nosey stranger in a playground. One friend whose child is an “only” because his sibling died never did find a suitably bland answer to the question.
There are few light moments either in confessing to divorce, recurrent miscarriage, young widowhood, crippling postnatal depression the first time round, secondary infertility – including but not confined to the classic middle-class bind of only getting around to it until your late 30s, and discovering that a second sadly isn’t possible – or just not earning enough to cover the cost of two nursery places. Accepting that you won’t be the 2.2-child family still assumed to be average – though in reality the average British family now has 1.7 children – can be an incredibly painful process, even for the significant minority who actively choose to stop at one and promptly find themselves accused of selfishly denying their kid a sibling who will be a lifelong support to them (you know, like the Miliband brothers). The guilty fear for many “only” parents, meanwhile, is of leaving their kids without anyone to share the burden of care when they get old – although perhaps that also means nobody to argue with about doing their bit, or to squabble with over the inheritance.But it’s a hoary old myth to think that more only children automatically equals a nation of spoilt little emperors or anxious loners, given the wealth of evidence now suggesting they grow up to be no less socially skilled, or capable of co-operating with others, than kids with siblings. The frenetically sociable lives of modern kids – many of whom will have mixed with others in nursery from babyhood – bring problems of their own, but they also provide more opportunities for only-children to learn sharing and the dark art of competing for adults’ attention than they would have had a generation ago, as well as fewer chances to be lonely. The social consequences for China of brutally limiting a nation’s fertility won’t necessarily be the same as the social consequences of westerners exercising choices in their working lives, from which only children often flow.

Should we be actively advocating the one-child family, then, rather than apologising for it? I can still remember the startled silence when an eminent female economist (and, oddly enough, mother of one) suggested a few years ago in the privacy of a thinktank seminar that women should be told in no uncertain terms how much easier it is to keep a career going if they just have one child. She was probably right, yet saying so felt instinctively wrong; there’s something about lecturing people on how many children they should have that sticks in the throat, as this government may discover if it carries out plans to restrict child benefit for larger families. Few things are so utterly deaf to reason as the longing for another child.

But if only children are not a panacea then neither do they have to be a source of handwringing national anxiety – or ultimately of private grief. “Just the one” isn’t unfinished business, a job half-done: it’s just a family, as ood or bad as any other.