On Being Enough
Words by Ana Santi
“So, you just have one child?” she asked, optimistically. “You’re not having any more?” I’d been speaking to this stranger—a prospective, senior colleague—about work. But it was over motherhood that we bonded. She wanted to know if I was happy, if I had regrets, if she too could choose this path. She was asking me—someone she’d known for 20 minutes—to validate her choice.
One. Only. Single. When applied to a child, the overwhelming feeling is of insufficiency. Whose heart hasn’t melted, as the four-year-old sister places her arm protectively around her baby brother? As she bends down to gently kiss his cheek? When I was six and being teased by my older neighbour, my three-year-old sister hurtled towards the girl, head-first, and bit her stomach in my defence. Unconditional, precious, sibling love. My parents were (not-so) secretly proud.
What about the stereotypes? Who wants to run the risk of bringing up a spoiled, attention-seeking and lonely child? Despite the lack of credible research to show these traits are linked to only-children, they float in our subconscious, a voice of warning: “I wouldn’t risk it if I were you”.
One mother did risk it, amid the countless, “Oh, you’ll change your mind!” and her own assumptions that she’d have two. An only-child herself, Effie didn’t want to deny her son of a sibling relationship or deprive him of the familial support she was craving as she looked after her ageing parents alone. Effie ticks off reasons for sticking at one—a debilitating pregnancy; breastfeeding her son into toddlerhood (the time when most people consider the second); fear of complications during and beyond birth. But ultimately, her reason was beautifully simple. “I realised we were so happy. We didn’t need anyone else. This was our unit.”
For Juliet, environmental reasons prevailed against her better, anthropological judgement that humans are born to live in large communities. With research that says having one fewer child equates to a reduction of 58 tonnes of CO2 per year, she finds it “reckless, unnecessary and indulgent” to have too many children. In fact, now separated from the father of her 11-year-old, Juliet sees a future where she falls in love with a man who already has children and they make a new, bigger family. Much like the division within feeding (breast fed versus formula) and sleeping (to train or not to train), the environmental battle lines are being drawn.
Women have only one child for different reasons, some of which—biological, financial, the result of relationship breakdowns—do not come down to choice. What unites mothers who have chosen to have one child is the fear of not giving or being enough. A fear that your justifications are not enough. A fear of what might or might not happen. But the only child isn’t lonely; she’s tugging at my dress now, as I write, a cheeky smile spreading across her face. She has cousins to visit, classmates to see, new friends to make.
She is enough.