Ask Maxwell: Should I Feel Guilty that I Only Have One Child?

published May 6, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
A mother marks her son's height on the door with a pencil, circa 1950.
Credit: Getty Images/ FPG / Staff

My partner and I have a wonderful daughter, and our family feels complete. However, when we tell others that we’re “one and done,” the reaction is often one of dismay. The message for a single-child household is often one of deprivation; that our daughter won’t have enough family when we’re gone, or we’re keeping her from enjoying siblings. How might you address some of this internal parent guilt (not to mention, the single-child naysayers)?


Dear Cordelia,

I’m flattered that you trust me enough to attempt to answer such a big question. This is far beyond how-to wallpaper a bedroom wall. While I don’t think I have THE answer to your question, here are my thoughts.

First of all, if you’re both happy and feel good about your decision that’s all that matters. That is REAL and your daughter will know that too. We are all primates, which means we model our behavior and feelings completely on our parents’ behavior and feelings. Children are happy when their parents are happy.

We could simply stop there, if we wanted to, but let’s go on in the spirit of this column.

What other people may say or think really has nothing to do with you. It is entirely their projection and speaks more to how they would feel (or how they DO feel) than anything you need to worry about.

Parenting is a super complicated process. It is clouded not only by our own experience with our partners, but also by our experience as children and our parents’ experience as well. And while it can bring lots of joy, it brings up all sorts of insecurities and self doubts that play out in competition between parents and couples, as well as judgement that can be very harsh.

I’ve seen families judged because they have no kids as well as because they have one kid, two kids, or five kids. Look at poor Angelina Jolie and Hilaria Baldwin, who catch judgement for too many kids! The question isn’t how many kids you have; it’s how happy you are as a family. I’ve also seen families judged — more often — for how their kids behave or how well the parents seem to attend to them.

There’s a lot of judgement in the world!

But let’s get down to the root of the judgement. If you have only one child, will that child be lonely without a sibling? I’m no doctor or scientist, but I would easily say, “No way!” As a teacher, I’ve seen how fundamental it is for every child to develop the ability to self-soothe as babies and then to indulge in independent play as children. This ability to be happy in one’s own skin, by oneself is a true gift and something that all teachers aspire to see in young children. To be happy by yourself is the root of happiness and allows you to fully meet others and make good friends — whether they are inside or outside your family.

How many siblings do you know that don’t get along? I know many, so I can’t say that this was an automatic recipe for happiness.

What probably is true is that only children (and I have one) grow up slightly differently from those that have siblings in that they do find companionship more easily with adults. When I was growing up (with a younger brother), I was very shy around adults and preferred to be in the other room with my brother. I was always impressed with how “mature” and able to talk with adults the only children of our family friends were when they came over. As for how they turned out, they are all successful, have many friends and are happily married with kids of their own.

So, I’m sorry that you have to deal with this from others, but don’t feel guilty! Tell the nay-sayers how happy you are and how much cheaper it is to pay for plane tickets, ski-lift tickets, and school tuition than it is for them. 🙂

Best, M

Top 10 Most Popular Questions & Answers This Week
(I keep changing this each week based on your clicks)

Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

Cubby. Real solutions for unreal times.

Join us for a weekly dose of fresh, modern ideas for life at home with your kids.