It is an age-old debate: is it good or bad being an only child? I would argue that the question is, in itself, a moot point. And while only children are no longer met with scorn, they are often still met with surprise. I know, because I am one.
If you have a sibling, it may be hard to imagine life without them by your side. But as one myself, I know no different.
Aside from a fleeting desire for a sister when I was little, so I could play mum, I never felt I was missing out by being an “only”. But parents have long felt pressured to have more than one and stereotypes of only children being spoiled or socially stunted have led the arguments for children having siblings. So is it still controversial?
I know what I want as a future mum: I want an only child. But do other only children feel this way too? Is there a pull to recreate the same childhood you had, or a do you want a large family instead?
According to many an online forum, social media advice group and reddit thread, debate is still fervent. My research could not confirm or deny whether only children are more inclined to go one way or the other. But it did open a can of worms.
Aside from environmental concerns – every baby brings more carbon footprints to the planet – and the rising cost of everything from nappies to childcare, one of the biggest factors in deciding against only children was a fear of them being left alone to care for their ageing parents, and, eventually, being alone in grief at their passing.
It was jarring to realise, in such blunt terms, that no one else will quite know what you’ve lost. It is one irrefutable con, and with it, my desire to continue down the rabbit hole ended.
My parents will definitely read this. And no matter how resolute they were in their decision and how resolute I have been in my love of being an only child, they may question whether they did the right thing. Though back then, it was probably more controversial that they weren’t married. Not that I cared, but a friend did ask me once where their wedding photos were and I had to learn what “de facto” meant when they filled out important forms.
They took me everywhere and I got exposure to things I may not have discovered otherwise. I was the youngest in restaurants and youngest at the cinema. I came late to other things – like Harry Potter – because I had no one else in the house jumping on trends a few years ahead of me. I am used to family dinners of three and Christmases of five. There is a running joke that I better marry into a big, loud family so I get to see both sides. But, as the saying goes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
While exact data on the number of only children is slim, a rise in the number of women having one child is a global trend. In the UK in 2017, 40% of married couples had only children and a 2020 Australian government report showed that women having one child or no children has increased from 8% in 1986 to 14% in 2016.
But the mum-dad-two-children trope of yesteryear is not as ingrained in our society as it was. Smaller families are increasingly common. Recently, there has been even more written on the question of whether to have children at all and in Japan, a concern for the consequences either way.
More women are also having children later in life, something that will perhaps start to creep into our collective consciousness as another debate. In Australia, the number of new mothers aged thirty and over grew from 15% in 1981 to 49% in 2017. My mum was one of them.
For now, in some small way, only children are still outliers – ready and willing to be asked: Did you ever want a sibling? But coughing in public is now far more likely to elicit a raised eyebrow than saying you’re an only child.
Maddie Thomas is editorial assistant at Guardian Australia