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I, me, myself
When American psychologist G Stanley Hall said that the single child situation was "a disease in itself", he left himself wide open to future pillory. Since then, the myth that an only child is spoiled, selfish, bratty and overindulged has been smashed often enough for it to become a tired joke. The reality is that only children are indeed more privileged, in that they have more resources at their command, more attention since it is not divided and, thus, more potential to develop into truly interesting individuals. There are issues like a lack of competitiveness, a feeling of complacency and some social maladjustment, but those are dependent on the individual. What does seem to be universal is a sense of being alone, a lack of a support structure that a child with siblings would automatically have, never mind that intra-family stress may come in the way.
As N Meenakshi, a single 40-something writer puts it, "My parents chose to have me and no more because they wanted to give me the best. But once I grew up and various crises happened, I realised it was not all joy. " She refers to the time when her mother fell ill, when she herself had to deal with the aftermath of major surgery and then, more recently, when her mother passed away. "Now that there is only me and my father, I get unimaginably stressed when either of us falls ill. And as dad gets older, I worry more about everything, major, minor and silly. If he even coughs, I start thinking of all sorts of horrendous possibilities and I am paranoid that some day he will not wake up - I don't think I have slept well in years now!"
Dancer Alarmel Valli married fairly late and is based in Chennai, while her husband lives in Delhi. As an only child, she understood that, "Ultimately, one has to rely on oneself. " Books ended up being her constant companions. "Only children have to create their own worlds but they don't feel alone - the world of imagination is very real, " says Valli, adding that her imagination helped her dance.
Art expert Ranjit Hoskote has no siblings either. "I found I could live, effectively, in a rich interior reality without being disturbed. " But being the only kid has a downside, he admits, in "a periodic sense of isolation. And, as you grow older, a sibling to share duties with, would be a good idea. As my parents grow older, I feel more protective, anticipating things they might need, ways in which I could help them deal with a fast-changing present. My mother jokes that our roles have now been reversed!" Hoskote's parents react to his occasionally paranoid concern "with patience and very warm amusement, " he smiles.
In the laughter, there is one overwhelming byte of reality that single children in particular become more aware of as they get older. Their parents are also getting older and will not be with them for ever. "A sensitive point indeed, and one that only children will be haunted by but never articulate, " says Hoskote.
According to psychiatrist Dr Ashit Sheth, "A lot depends on how the parents tackle the situation, " Most times, he feels, parents do not address issues that bother single children later in life. "I can understand that the pain-bearing capacity of an only child is less, " Sheth says, "since he or she has not learned to face difficulty, or how to compete (for time, attention and privileges), and may be afraid of coping with responsibility as they get older. "
Insecurity is what dentist Dr Pankaj Mehta, father of an only son, occasionally feels. "We could afford only one at that time, but now I think we should have had another child. " Mehta and his wife are beginning to worry about their son being alone after they're gone. "But he does not really bother. In fact, he is planning to have only one child too!"
The worry works both ways, particularly if the only child - like in Meenakshi's case - is single and has no children, "I worry about dad, but now I find that I am worrying about myself too. In fact, ever since the news of how Parveen Babi died alone came out, I get terribly stressed about how I could die alone in my home and not be found until much later. "
For most single children, friends end up becoming family. "It happened when my mother died - a friend from work came along and became family, " says Meenakshi. "Even today, Anita has a special place in our home and hearts for her unstinting support when we needed it. "
Sheth believes, "In the Indian set up, there will always be relatives, some family, or friends to help in a crisis situation. " Marriage, he explains, is inevitable, with children to follow and this provides a support structure in itself. "These issues are more relevant abroad. In India, we have family bonds that protect single children. "
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