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‘One and Only’ champions having just one child

ONE AND ONLY: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One By Lauren Sandler. Simon & Schuster. 209 pp. $24.99.

Is it selfish for a mother to choose to have only one child – or is it a bold statement of feminist self-fulfillment? It’s a debate sure to light up mommy blogs and playground chatter in certain zip codes, and one that Lauren Sandler has been stoking across the web since the publication of her book One and Only a couple of weeks ago. An outgrowth of Sandler’s 2010 story for Time, the book argues that only children and their parents have been unfairly stigmatized: We assume that only children are lonely, selfish and maladjusted and “tend to attribute their negative characteristics to their lack of siblings.” Their parents, meanwhile, are supposedly self-involved, overprotective and weak, lacking “the moral fortitude and ‘pioneer courage’ to breed again.”

Sandler makes her case with zeal. Promoting her thesis in the Atlantic recently, she even suggests that having one kid is the key to being a successful writer and mother. If Susan Sontag “had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the baby sitters,” she asks, “would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction?” (To which Jane Smiley, writing in the comments, says, “I have written 23 books. I won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. . . . I have three children of my own and two stepchildren.”)

Sandler certainly has a dramatic touch with language, and in her book she adduces a prodigious amount of reporting, data and research. Yet it’s hard not to see One and Only as a book-long exercise in self-justification. An only child and a mother of one, Sandler is simultaneously proud and anxious about her childhood and her choices. To which one might ask: Who isn’t?

To her credit, Sandler’s tendency to navel-gaze is mitigated by a sense of humor. “Who else but an only child would have the sense of self-importance to write about being one, much less suggest that other people consider it for themselves?” she asks.

After wondering whether she suffered for her mother’s “relative freedom” and whether her own young daughter will, as well, she announces that the answer can be based only “on information, not fear.” So Sandler interviews singletons around the globe, gobbles up the research and talks to scientists. She travels to China, “a nation composed mainly of only children [that] has succeeded in lifting an impoverished agrarian economy toward the possibility of world domination in a single generation.” She points to a slew of “singletons who have shaped diplomatic affairs, intellectual history, the state of art, the shape of a song: da Vinci, Gandhi, Sinatra.” She looks at work-life balance and the costs of having multiple children (on paychecks, spending, even the amount of housework it creates) and treads – if lightly – in the territory Bill McKibben covered in his book Maybe One, which argued that having one child is better for the planet.

Sandler sifts through the evidence purposefully. In interviews, she finds singletons who are thriving despite the burdens of their status. She tracks down study after study that shows only children to be superior to those with siblings on a variety of fronts – in achievement, IQ, cooperation – and expresses righteous anger at society’s inability to accept these facts. “Singleton prejudice is the lone cockroach scuttling across the postnuclear landscape the nineties left behind,” she protests. “In the case of every group of people I can think of, every subculture, every ethnicity, nearly every diagnosis – from middle children to Inuits to sexual masochists – the culture has recognized and rejected the bias.”

Not so for the poor singleton – or her mother. Might Sandler be a bit defensive?

In biographies of successful singletons from Condoleezza Rice to Lauren Bacall, she finds “themes [that] resonate with what I’ve heard in interviews and what I’ve gleaned from studies: a lack of resource dilution is certainly one, radiant confidence is sometimes another, and both are anchored in parental devotion.” She is not averse to reaching outside the species to make her case: To illustrate the dangers of a brood larger than one, she points to a type of African eagle in which “the elder chick pecks its sibling to death within three days of hatching.”

On its own, the data Sandler cite speak convincingly to the proposition that only children, at the very least, should not be negatively stereotyped. It’s her analysis of the data that is lacking. Her litany of famous people who were only children, for example, proves less than she thinks it does. Of course, there are many successful people who were only children. But there are many others who are not. It’s impossible to quantify the role that family size had in making these people successful or famous, especially if your evidence is a biography.

In the end, One and Only suffers in its hodgepodge of social science, polemic and memoir. Do we really need to know that Sandler still, in her late 30s, cuddles in bed with her parents – a fact she attributes to being an only child? What starts out as an impassioned case built on facts ends as a personal, “emotional struggle that, it turns out, no set of numbers and analysis can erase.” When her husband says he is considering having a vasectomy, she writes, “I burst into tears, run up to our bedroom, and throw myself onto the pillows like a heartsick teenager.”

The reader comes away from the book informed and sympathetic to only children and their parents, but also wondering whether this is really a cause in need of a champion. As Sandler admits, “the whole point is to live the life you want.” If you are lucky enough to be able to choose how many children you can have, savor the choice and ignore the finger-wagging. As my wise mother-in-law, who raised 11 children, used to say, “What do you care what anyone else thinks?” As for the kids, their happiness and well-being have less to do with how many siblings they have than how much love and attention their parents provide. You don’t need a thousand studies or an African eagle to tell you that – just watch the kids when you give it.

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