The reality of life as an only child

Amanda Riley-Jones

What’s it really like to lead a life without brothers and sisters? 

There was a time when being an only child was unusual. But these days, according to the Office of National Statistics, 46 percent of British families have just one dependent child—and it’s predicted that by 2025, more than half the children in this country will have no siblings.

So do solo children tend to be spoiled, sociable, high achievers—or feel they’ve missed out? We talked to five of them to find out.

 

Rod Moulding

“I’ve tracked down 3,800 relatives”

Rod Moulding
Image: Rod and his family

Rod Moulding was a seven-month-old baby when his sister Julia died of pneumonia in 1942. Her absence from his life was compounded when his colonial civil engineer father died as a PoW on the Thai-Burma railway the following year. 

Until he was 11, Rod and his mum lived with her elderly parents in Devon. He recalls happy days out at the beach and visiting Exeter cathedral. “I had cousins I saw every month or so, although I was more at ease with people of the older generation,” says Rod, now 73 and living near Milton Keynes.

“I didn’t find anything difficult about being an only child. I had the run of a large house and garden, and my grandfather’s collection of books,” he says. “Little Roddy” contentedly entertained himself—making model aeroplanes, playing with his train set and reading. A book about his mother’s family, furniture-makers the Heals, ignited a lifelong passion for genealogy and detective work.

“Certainly, being an only child has formed my character,” says Rod, who went to boarding school at 11. “I’m close to my sons and their families, but generally I keep my emotions to myself,” he says. “I like to be solitary and I’m quite self-sufficient”.

Since starting work on his family tree in 2003, Rod has built up a  family database containing 3,800 relatives’ names. “I’ve connected with hundreds of relatives via email and physically met upwards of 50. I feel enormously more part of a family. In retrospect, I suppose tracing my family tree is a kind of substitute for the family members who were missing when I was young.”

 

"When you’re on your own, you don’t know what to make of things. I wished I’d had a sibling so we could help each other out.”

 

 

Tony Sandall

“You tend to feel a bit separate, not one of the crowd”

Tony Sandall
Image: A young Tony by the beach

Tony Sandall was born in the “dark days of 1942” in Woolwich, south-east London. “I don’t think I realised it was unusual, but I did think it would be nice to have a brother or sister to make camps and play with,” remembers Tony, 73. 

A difficult home life exacerbated his sense of isolation. “I was an extremely shy little thing and didn’t show emotions. I used to draw and paint in my room to escape into another world,” he says. “When I was 14, I remember lying in bed, hearing my parents’ row turn into a physical fight. When you’re on your own, you don’t know what to make of things. I wished I’d had a sibling so we could help each other out.”

Tony went on to have a successful 30-year career “toiling in the dark caverns of the MOD”, and was happily married to Pamela for 29 years—although sadly she wasn’t well enough to have children. “She was such a kind, down-to-earth woman. I don’t normally show my emotions but, when I saw her lying in the chapel of rest, I burst into tears,” he remembers.

“Being an only child can be a good thing in that you learn to stand on your own two feet and it gives you freedom from relying on other people. I’m generally a solitary person who tends to do solitary things. When you’ve been brought up as a only child, it’s only natural to step back and be an observer. You tend to feel a bit separate, not one of the crowd.”

 

Beverley Keller

“I was very glad I didn’t have siblings”

Beverley Keller
Image: Beverley with her parents

Beverley Keller was born in Bradford, Yorkshire 60 years ago and describes a golden childhood. “Having only one child meant my parents could afford to give me so many experiences and opportunities,” says Beverley. “I learned to ski, had ballet classes and lots of foreign holidays. Although there was only one other single child in my class, I was always an outgoing chatterbox."

“Weekends were wonderful—browsing for antiques with my father and having lots of ‘girl time’ with my mother, shopping and going to posh cafes. My parents were very social and I was at ease in adult company from a young age,” she adds.

She does admit that “between the ages of eight and 12, I wished I’d had a brother or sister to play with and my parents considered adopting a child to keep me company”. But at the age of 13, Beverley went to high school and made lots more friends. She also noticed that none of them were close to their brothers and sisters. “One friend fought constantly with her siblings. I remember being very glad that I didn’t have any.”

Beverley has one child from her first marriage—Stefan, 30—and explains, “I still wanted to maintain a career and having just one child made it much less hectic.”

She says that being a solo child has made her confident, independent and sociable.

“I make my own decisions in life and my calendar is always full. I didn’t find anything difficult about being an only child, until I was in my 50s and the sole caregiver to my elderly parents. Luckily, my husband and son were very supportive. I was glad I could be there for my parents. It was time for me to pay them back for my wonderful childhood.”

 

“Only children have an unwarranted bad reputation.”

 

Vincent McAviney

“I might not have had as much support if I’d had a sibling”

Vincent
Image: Vincent and his mother

“Only children have an unwarranted bad reputation,” says Londoner and ITV News at Ten producer Vincent McAviney. “People assume we’re spoiled. You do inevitably end up getting more attention and we had great holidays, so I was spoilt in that regard. But my parents were quite strict and made sure I knew the value of things.”

Growing up in Jersey and Luxembourg, Vincent never felt lonely or different. He says, “I just became more outgoing and sociable in order to make lots of friends.” 

He’s quick to describe the myriad benefits. “From a young age, I was aware that I would be my parents’ only child and I wanted to do as much as possible to make them proud,” says the 27-year-old.

“That made me pretty ambitious and I put myself under a lot of pressure to achieve. I studied hard, was head boy of my school and went on to take a degree and two masters. But it was a team effort and I might not have had as much support if I’d had a sibling.

“As I’ve got older, I’ve become proper friends with my parents,” he adds. “It saddens me that, when they’re gone, all the memories we’ve made as a family will only carry on with me. I won’t have a sibling to reminisce with.”

 

Read the full article in the December issue of Reader's Digest