Having faced the real and agonising possibility of never having a child, the idea of having more than one child was not something I could entertain. It was inconceivable, literally and figuratively. Undergoing IVF, I made bargains with the universe. Give me one baby and I will never ask for anything ever again. I will always be happy. I will always be grateful. I will never complain. To ask for more than once child was asking already for so much, I reasoned that by limiting what I was asking for I figured I would have more chance of getting what I was so desperate to have.
I made peace a long time ago that I would be the parent of one child. I believed that the love my child would get from me would always outweigh the absence of a sibling. For years I embraced his only child status, but as he has gotten older, the absence of a sibling seems more apparent, more weighted, so that peace I found long ago has now since fractured.
Guilt stems from the belief that we could have done something different or made better choices, so it is unsettling to feel it over something I had no control over. Co-existing alongside this guilt is, for reasons I don’t even understand, a feeling of grief. Not a deep and all-consuming grief but one that is gentler and more lingering. I have learnt though that grief is a complex, nuanced emotion so whenever I find myself watching my son play by himself, my heart squeezes tight.
As I write this, I can hear my son Charlie and his best friend playing with wild abandon. Their crazy shenanigans and infectious laughter are what you would expect from siblings but without the infighting and mercifully without the parenting angst. A friendship that my son treasures like a precious jewel and one I am so glad exists. They like to pretend that they are brothers, and this makes me happy and sad both in equal measure. Happy because he gets what I wished he had, but sad because it is reserved only for when his mum and I are organised enough to make it happen.
Recently we were having lunch at a café and at the table beside us sat a mum with her three boys. They were loud and boisterous, competing for their mum’s attention, jostling about, sharing a clear and obvious bond. The chaos caught the intention of Charlie. I watched him, watching them. I studied his face, waiting and looking for a sign, an acknowledgment, or a flicker of something registering that he does not have what it is he sees. I searched his reaction for any indication of envy. These observations have become more frequent and more obvious to me now or it could be that the closer we look, the more we see.
These are the moments when my guilt kicks me in the shins.
To be clear, I love the experience of being the parent of one child. My son is fun to hang out with, providing he isn’t begging me to go into a Beyblade battle with him, when we are spending time together, it is one on one and undivided. He talks incessantly, at ease, sharing every tiny detail in his head. This can be immensely entertaining and wonderfully insightful but also exhausting. At least though I can focus my attention on a single conversation without the need to juggle multiple discussions simultaneously. I have never intentionally put much thought into the pros and cons of raising one child, this is a rabbit hole my generalised anxiety disorder does not need to go down. But if I am being completely honest, I barely survived the making of Wimpy Kid’s paper mâché head for book week, so God forbid if I had to produce multiple costume ideas much less make them. I only have one set of school emails to make sense of and 160 lunch boxes to pack. Regardless, I still feel bad for him. I feel the weight of responsibility for letting him down. On a basic level, Charlie understands why he does not have any siblings and he is very accepting of this. He is a happy and social child and I try to manage his social calendar so that he has plenty of interactions with friends. I keep him busy to protect him from being lonely. My husband and I are frequently requested to ‘play with him’ and though my love for him is boundless, play time is my nemesis. Engaging anything Pokémon related is mind numbingly tedious and honestly, I get motion sickness from watching Minecraft.
Sibling relationships are hopefully lifelong relationships and to think that Charlie will not have this makes me hope that he will not feel like I have failed him. My hope is he experiences the kind of friendships that are as significant and as glorious as what he could have had with a sibling.
In the end what matters is not his sibling status or my internalised guilt, there is no choice other than to embrace what we have and raise him without the what ifs and the wondering. I know I need to find the peace I have had in the past with this and not worry that now or in the future he will think he ended up with the short straw.
And a wise parent once said: ‘you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”