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Our Son Wants a Sibling. We Don't

A Gen X dad struggles with his kid’s yearning for brothers and sisters

Rear view of child sitting in living room hugging Teddy bear

“When am I getting some sisters?” my 8-year-old son Charlie asked me recently.

I knew the question was coming. When you have an only child, it’s only a matter of time before he or she starts wondering about the lack of siblings. My wife and I had rehearsed our carefully worded monologues about how lucky we were just to have him, and how families come in all shapes and sizes, and “Hey, who wants a dog? Let's go get one right now.”

Charlie has broached the subject of siblings before, but never with much urgency. At least until he discovered The Loud House, an Emmy-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series, currently in its sixth season (with a live-action remake premiering this month), about a kid named Lincoln coexisting in a house with 10 sisters. Ten bossy, egomaniacal, exasperating, physically and emotionally abusive sisters. Or, as Charlie has decided, the very thing he's been missing all his life.

“You see what I mean?” he exclaimed, gesturing toward the TV screen in one of our many Loud House weekend binges. “Sisters just make everything better.”

The sisters gave Lincoln strength in numbers, he explained. An opportunity to get both lost in the crowd and emboldened by it. If a toilet got clogged, there were an abundance of likely suspects (or fall guys, depending on your culpability). If Lincoln didn’t feel like doing chores, he could go on strike and his 10 sisters would eventually join him, ensuring that he wasn’t the sole bad guy. 

“But you're missing the larger message,” I argued. “When Lincoln and his sisters go on strike, the house turns into a cesspool. That episode is a perfect indictment of mob mentality.”

“I don’t know what any of that means,” he said with a sigh. “I just want a sister. Or a brother. Whatever you and Mommy can make happen.”

I understood his frustration. I grew up with just one sibling — a younger brother — and compelling TV arguments for the virtues of an unmanageably large family. Shows like Eight Is Enough, Full House, The Cosby Show and The Brady Bunch were irrefutable proof that our parents had failed in their responsibilities to provide us with enough comedy foils. The comforting chaos of a large family looked appealing, at least from a distance.

But when you become an adult, you realize why a big brood isn’t practical. The only way families like the Bradys or the Louds exist is because (a) one of the parents has a ridiculous salary or access to a family fortune and (b) they don’t believe in birth control.

Gen Xers are increasingly joining the one-and-done club. More of us are having kids over 40 than ever, and according to Pew Research, the number of middle-aged parents who opt for just one kid has doubled since the mid-1970s. The olden days when 2.5 kids was the average has been replaced by “The Rise of the Only Child,” as a Washington Post headline declared a few years ago.

But Charlie is unimpressed by statistics. They can’t compete with the emotional power of Loud House, where a sister who seems like your worst enemy one minute can become your only ally and coconspirator the next. I couldn’t tell him he was wrong because I still have those Brady Bunch pangs. I feel the absence of the siblings that never existed — both my own and my son’s — like the itch of a phantom limb. 

I've given up telling Charlie he’s wrong. ’Cause he’s not wrong. Someday I’ll tell him that his mom and I waited too long, and how when you’re in your 40s, you feel grateful just to have one kid as beautiful and perfect and exhausting as he. But that’s a lot to unload on a guy who’s just 8. 

It can wait. For now, we watch Loud House together and laugh at the bedlam of too many people making each other’s lives difficult before they realize how much they love and depend on each other — and we let the cloud of unspoken sadness float around the room.