Thursday, January 8, 2009

you're momma don't dance and your daddy don't rock-n-roll

I just got off the phone with my brother, a single parent (with live-in girlfriend) who has a seven year old daughter. He's feeling frustrated lately, feeling like the bad dad, because he can only handle about 30 minutes of sitting on the floor with his daughter before he gets bored. I had to laugh a little at that -- I'm lousy at sitting on the floor. But I'm lucky to have a spouse with a slightly higher-than-average tolerance for it. We talked about finding a low-cost evening activity for his daughter a couple of times per week, to get her through the long winter. Even with school taking up so much of a child's day, being the only child can be challenging. I'm raising an only, with my spouse; my sister is likewise sharing custody of an only child. We think a lot about what it means to raise an only child in today's culture, where social isolation is much less common, at least in urban Minneapolis and Dallas areas.

There are so many myths, theories about parenting an "only." I've never noticed anything really wrong with my only-child adult friends (nothing easily attributable to their lack of siblings at any rate.) Conversely, as an oldest child, I know other oldest children and do tend to see patterns of behavior there -- so maybe I just lack the frame of reference. I've heard it's selfish to have just one child -- who will they play with? I've heard that in this world, on this planet, the only hope of equitable distribution of resources is for us all to keep to one child in the family. Which is more true?

Certainly my family is one of togetherness and apart-ness; all of my siblings are actually half-siblings, and my father's children really don't know me at all. There's ten years between my brother and I, seven years between my sister and I, and now that Heather lives in Dallas the cousins see little of one another. That grieves me. I'm often surprised at how fragmented we are as an extended family, given the early years of childhood when Grandma was alive and my mother's very large family (ten siblings, each with multiple children) gathered for all the holidays in Grandma's tiny home. All that change when Mary died, and my brother and sister barely knew those happier days of running with packs of cousins.

I think now about the economy, about our money situation at home. Just a minute ago I signed H. up for music lessons on Saturday mornings, just to give him more to do with other kids (and because the class is conveniently located in my workplace.) My brother would like to do something like this for his daughter, but there's not much where he lives that's affordable. It's a transitory society, a conundrum, where our conceptualizations of family haven't kept pace with economic reality at all. There are many examples of this. How long before parents can be assured their children will be guaranteed food, clothing, companionship and safety? How much longer can we wait?


scrivener said...

Jen (wife) is the baby of a complicated family - both parents' first spouses died, she is the only child between her parents, of her 5 older siblings two are adopted... I often think it's a mystery to figure what keeps a family together; hers is pretty tight knit, and the origins don't really show, except that there are extra grandparents.

I've given up thinking about the economy, I won't read the news any more. The serenity to accept what I can't change and the good luck not to fuck up too much, right?

snewmanphd said...

The trend toward only child families is and has been in full swing for decades. Given the economy, I think more people will be holding off on having babies, again increasing the number of single-child families.

30 minutes on the floor is far more than many parents with a housefull of kids spend on the floor. Your brother is probably giving his daughter time in many other supportive ways. Parents of onlies should stop feeling guilty--your child with or without siblings--can't have everything. As I note in my book, Parenting an Only Child, and regularly on my Psychology Today parenting Singletons blog: the one-child family is fast becoming The New Traditional Family.
Susan Newman