When Your Child Is An Only Child

I never intended to be the mother of just one. As the oldest of six preacher’s kids, I was well-schooled in baby-sitting, nurturing and cooking for a whole tribe. I married, taught school for four years and then became pregnant. Nine months later Jason Paul Kent burst into our lives on a Sunday morning in October. Though the labor was long and excruciating, the reward was a perfect miniature human being with little ears, a tiny nose and rosebud lips.

I fell in love. Awkwardly holding J.P. in my arms, I turned to my husband, “Honey, look at him. He’s sooo beautiful.” Outside the window I saw the sun dancing across the red and orange leaves. God’s creation was celebrating with us.

I didn’t know it then, but it was the last time I would give birth to a living child.

A Sense of Loss

When J.P. was 5, 1 became pregnant again. We were excited, but life was busy. I was speaking at women’s groups and retreats. My husband, Gene, and I decided to keep the pregnancy a secret for a short while.

I had some strong cramping, but I ignored it. One morning, as I entered a community center to speak to over 200 luncheon guests, severe cramps racked my body. Halfway down the hall I ducked into a dirty restroom covered with graffiti. Oppressive odors enveloped me. Within minutes, I lost my second child to a miscarriage in a cold, filthy stall.

My first response was devastation. But as a typical first-born, I quickly took charge. I cared for my physical needs and readied myself to speak. After all, I was keeping a crowd waiting.

Without a pause, I stepped up to the lectern and looked out to the audience. Three rows back, dead center, was a young mother nursing an infant. For a moment I couldn’t speak. My mind was shouting, Lord, You are so unfair. Only a cruel God would allow me to come here and lose my baby in such a disgusting and dirty place, and then put a newborn infant in a mother’s arms tight in front of me!

My disappointment with God did not last forever, although my husband and I were never able to conceive again. I finally accepted that there would be other times (perhaps  many) when I would not be able to explain away infertility, pain and disappointment.

A choice had to be made. Though I grieved, I knew I had to move on. Even though I have never had another son or a daughter, I can still celebrate and enjoy the child God has given me.

Unrealistic Expectations

With an only child, we had just one try to be the best parents on earth. We were convinced we could raise a superhero who would love family and country-and in his spare time turn the world upside down for God’s glory!

As I learned more about only children, I discovered that one in five American women at the end of their childbearing years has one child, twice the number of 10 years ago. I also read with great interest about only children such as Charles Lindbergh, Albert Einstein, Indira Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt. But the greatest irony was discovering that Dr. Dobson, the acclaimed expert on the family, was an only child!

I have to admit that I smiled (a bit pridefully) the day I read that only children are disproportionately represented among high achievers: scientists, astronauts, star athletes, Pulitzer Prize winners, celebrated composers, actors and actresses. I envisioned J. P. on the cover of Time or People magazine someday.

Yet friends warned us that only children are selfish, anxious and egotistical, that they have problems making their way in the world. Some told us that only children always have to be the center of attention, and that they are spoiled rotten.

Gene and I were determined not to raise such a child, so we always kept those stereotypes in the back of our minds. If we erred, it was putting pressure on J.P. to perform to our high expectations. As he entered his teen years, he became a perfectionist-and grew more intolerant of his mistakes. We wanted our child to know he was loved by God and us-not for how smart or athletic he was, but because he was our son.

Well, the years have shot by, and J.P. is now in his second year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Part of me wonders if we “drove” J.P. to pursue such a challenging path because he was an only child. But since prayer permeated the process, I trust God opened this door and selected him for military leadership.

Our parenting days are nearly over. As we look into the rearview mirror of time, we’ve learned some things about raising an only child. Here are a few:

Open your home for “sleepovers” with other children. J.P. loved having his buddies come over. It gave him a sense of “belonging,” even though he did not have any siblings. Sleepovers also allowed us to supervise activities, select videos and be a spiritual influence to many young people.

Go to family reunions as often as possible. Since I’m one of six siblings, and my husband is one of three, J.P. has a large extended family who value him. We have always tried to keep his “love tank” full.

Adopt a family. If you live far away from grandparents, find an older couple in your church or neighborhood to include in your family activities. When J.P. was a preschooler, we lived a long way from both sets of grandparents. our favorite baby-sitters were neighbors we called Grandpa and Grandma Kandler. They blessed our lives by showering our son with love and care.

Let go of total control and perfectionism. If I could do one thing over, I would worry less about his wearing matching clothes and having a perfectly groomed appearance. Too many times I upset J.P. because his choice wasn’t any choice.

Give rewards for reading books. Both Gene and I had taught English, so we encouraged our son to fall in love with reading. We realized that loneliness would be less of a problem to a child who loved reading.

Take the phone off the hook for the first 15 minutes after your child comes home from school. If I was on the phone when J. P. got off the bus, I would miss an important opportunity to hear about his day. He would come in filled with excitement and anxious to talk about the challenges or perceived injustices of his day. If I was too busy to listen, I was the loser. Those “fresh-from-school” reflections are never recaptured at the dinner table.

Set realistic goals for your child. Many “onlys” tend to be perfectionists to meet parental expectations. This can cause incredible frustration for a child trying to work beyond his or her maturity or ability level.

When J. P. was 5 yea old, I enrolled him in piano lessons, even though he had little interest in music. Each day, I stood at the piano like an army sergeant forcing him to practice. This only frustrated me and made him feel like a failure. it continued for three years. Then suddenly, after a summer break, something clicked for J. P. His hand-eye coordination fell into place. Over the next three months he made more progress than in the previous three years. His maturity level finally matched my expectation.

Celebrate a good report card without suggesting the child was capable of “all Ns.” Report card day can be distressing for children. Parents of “onlys” have an uncanny way of expecting their children to achieve better grades than they did. I was a master at “miming” approval or disapproval with my eyebrows when the grades came out.

Expect your only child to be a child, not a miniature adult. Because of my husband’s career as an insurance broker and my work as a Christian writer and speaker, J.P. was often the only child at our dinners with friends and acquaintances. He enjoyed talking with “big people” and sometimes entertained the group with his “adult” responses and grown-up behavior.

Though we were proud of his maturity, my husband and I began to see him less involved with young people. We saw we were robbing our son of something he could have only once-a childhood!

In the teen years, choose your battles carefully. We learned to make major issues only over things that were immoral or illegal. When we wasted our energy on the small stuff, we had no clout left for important concerns.

A Postscript

What’s the toughest part of raising an only child? Releasing him or her into the adult world and letting go. After all, he’s my only child. My emotions are still fragile these days, and it’s hard to walk past his bedroom. The house is now silent without the laughter of a teenager and without basketball practice in the driveway. Sometimes I worry that an unworthy woman may steal his affection, and on certain days my heart aches with the pain of separation. But I’m learning to trust God and turn fear into faith.