From Stephen Nolan to Uncle Hugo - Ulster celebrities share their experiences on being the only child
With the number of single-child families on the increase, we ask four Northern Ireland celebrities to share their experiences of what it’s really like to grow up without any siblings
The number of one-child families in the UK is set to be in the majority within the next decade, according to a recent survey. Currently, nearly half of all families have just one child, an increase of almost 700,000 in 15 years.
But the Office for National Statistics believes this figure will rise in the next 10 years, citing childcare expenses and the cost of living as reasons for the decline in two or three children families.
In Northern Ireland, however, where families traditionally tend to be larger, the figure, is likely to be lower.
The Office for National Statistics said the conventional 2.4 children family was under pressure because of “the greater challenge of combining work with childcare with three or more children compared with one or two”.
Many families can no longer afford to have more than a single baby, with most mothers now having to go out to work to pay the bills.
In 1996 the ONS survey found that there were just over three million with a mother, father and one child — around 42% of all families with children.
Last year this had climbed to 3.7 million, or 47% of all families with children.
Some commentators have expressed concern that the deterioration of the traditional family may lead to a generation of “little emperors”, a phrase which originated in China, where the rule of one child for every couple is said to have produced millions of spoilt youngsters.
But leading family experts argue there is little proof of this.
Dr Terri Apter, of Cambridge University, said: “Though children do learn a great deal from siblings, and generally benefit from the co-operation and competition they practise on a daily basis among siblings, singletons also live in a world populated by other people, with whom they learn to
identify and with whom they have to compete and with whom they learn to share.”
We talk to four Northern Ireland celebrities about the perks and pitfalls of life as an only child.
Stephen Nolan (39), Radio Ulster and BBC presenter, grew up in Belfast with mum Audrey and his late father, Raymond. He says:
I’m very aware that as an only child, I got all the attention from my mum and dad. I remember when I was in my early to mid-teens, staying over at friends’ houses, meeting their parents and finding the whole concept of sharing that attention completely alien to me. I’d say that has followed me through to later life. I like to hold court, to be listened to. Mum tells a story of when I was a baby and this one night, I was shaking the cot, going ballistic. They’d always given in to me before but decided to let me scream and scream. So yeah, I like to be heard.
I do think being an only child and being used to that attention probably has influenced my career choice. I sit in a studio on my own, talking. I’ll give you an example, I did try co-presenting and I found that difficult. When I get a thought in my head, I like to drive it through. I prefer to do things my own way than as part of a team.
I was never a lonely child, though. Mum and Dad always made sure I went to Cubs or Beavers, so my schedule was always busy. I was always with them or around other people.
To be honest, if there’d been another child around, I think I would have probably been quite jealous. I would have hated coming down on Christmas morning with another kid there.
When I was very young mum told me I was lucky to be alive. She had lost two babies, one before and one after me, so I was always made to feel quite special. Maybe that’s why mum has done so much for me, has devoted every second of her life to me.
One of the downsides about being an only child, though, is that when you be
come the adult, you have to take responsibility for your parents yourself. That is a privilege. But if I’m away from home, which I will be four days a week, then I worry about mum. That’s when it would be nice to have a brother and sister.
Being an only child has made me very driven. The word I would probably use to describe myself is singular. That’s the way I approach life and I haven’t worked out if that’s a good or a bad thing. But when I get something in my head, I can be very blinkered. I think that’s a result of being an only child.
Losing my dad is another example of when I thought about what it would be like to have siblings. When he died, it was up to me, as the only son, to take responsibility and do the right thing. During his illness I think it might have been nice to have brothers and sisters around. It’s only dawning on me now that as a child, it was not important in my younger life, but as you get older, your priorities change. It might have been nice to have a brother or sister to be close to.
Pete Snodden (32), Cool FM presenter and DJ, is married to Julia and the couple have a two year old daughter, Ivana. He grew up in Bangor. He says:
I never really felt different from other children from bigger families as an only child. Growing up, it was just something I accepted, I didn’t know anything else, it was just my life. What you don’t have, you don’t miss, so it’s not something I questioned. I don’t think I ever asked my parents why I was an only child or if they would have another baby. It was the way things were and I was far from lonely.
I think being an only child actually strengthened my bond with my parents, if anything. I’ve always been close to them. And I always had friends who lived in my streets, the ones I’d run around with, play football with. When
I went to primary school and then secondary school, I had plenty of friends, many of whom I’m still close to. I may not have had siblings, but some of my friends are the closest things to brothers I could have.
And I have a brotherly bond with my dad Jackie. He was always into sport and we’d play football together and still play golf. It’s not like I don’t have anything in common with them. And I’m incredibly close to my mum as well. I know people who don’t get on that well with their parents or have little contact with them. I think that’s very sad.
Being an only child means you grow up a lot quicker too. I grew up in Bangor but went to Inst school. I used to travel up to Belfast by train at just 12 years of age, when there were soldiers around. But I loved it, that bit of independence. So I do think I was fairly mature for my age. My mum has always argued that I wasn’t a spoilt child. I was very well looked after, mind you. They would have given me the shirts off their backs. But I was certainly not a spoilt brat. I think I was very well brought up.
My mum and dad are 64 now and, of course, I think about the future. No-one wants to lose their parents. Thankfully both mine are very young at heart and I don’t see them as being in their mid-60s.
I know it is inevitable, though, that I will have to face losing them at some stage and I guess that will be the time when I miss having brothers and sisters to share my grief with. I try not to think about it too much, though.
In saying that, I have lots of cousins, aunts and uncles and, of course, a family of my own now. Our daughter Ivana is now two and Julia and I have talked about having a second child.
I think anyone who has children is very blessed. So yes, its definitely something we'd think about. And if it happens, that would be amazing.
Yvette Shapiro (47), former BBC journalist now UTV senior producer/presenter, is married to Michael and has a daughter, Cara (9). She says:
In a way it’s a real privilege being an only child. You get the full attention of your parents and more opportunities come your way, too. I think it can be a very positive thing growing up as an only child. That has been my experience anyway.
You tend to live inside your head quite a lot and learn to make your own entertainment. I enjoyed reading, art, anything that was creative really. I was an outgoing child, very friendly and not at all shy. I was also very independent.
It’s not always the case with only children, though. I’ve know some who can be too dependent on their parents and vice versa. Or parents who treat their only child like a little adult. I was never treated like that. I spent a lot of time in adult company and as a result, knew how to conduct myself around adults. I was brought up to be very respectful.
As a child I never asked why I had no brothers or sisters, I just accepted the fact. It was all I knew. I had friends who came from larger families with lots of siblings and could step in and out. It was great fun being with them, their homes were always boisterous and busy. But I wouldn’t have wished for that for myself.
I’ve seen a lot of competition between siblings, with some gaining a higher status within the family than others. You hear about the neglected middle child or the resented younger child, but I had nothing like that to deal with. I also had my own space, which was important to me.
I wasn’t spoiled, I was never allowed to be a ‘little emperor’ but I was showered with love and affection. I was never indulged though. Bad behaviour and rudeness would never have been tolerated.
I’m still very close to my mum Dorothy, which is maybe the legacy of being an only child. Funnily enough, mum was an only child, too. My daughter Cara has two grown-up step brothers, but in a way, she is like an only child. I see a lot of my childhood and characteristics in her. She is also very independent.
Also, as an only child you have no-one else to fight your corner, no back-up team or network. It toughens you up and makes you a self-starter. I was like that and so is Cara.
But it also makes you value friendships more and I always have to be wary to find opportunities for Cara to socialise and have fun with her friends. We do lots of things together but as
much as she loves being with her mum and dad, she lets us know, in no uncertain terms, when she wants to be off playing with other children.
To be honest, I’m not surprised more people are opting for one child families. It’s a combination of the economic climate and also that an increasing number of women are concentrating on their careers, marrying later and starting families later.
My mum is fit and healthy and she looks after Cara, which I think helps keep her young. I know we all have responsibility for our parents as they get older but it does not weigh heavily on my mind.
I do sometimes regret, though, that I didn’t have other children. Cara is always saying that she would love a wee sister, so I do feel a bit guilty. I never wanted a brother or sister, I was quite content as an only child. But Cara does feel the gap. She would love another partner-in-crime but fortunately she has a lot of friends.
Hugo Duncan (63), Radio Ulster presenter — aka the ‘Wee Man from Strabane’ — is married to Joan and they have one daughter, Suzanne, and four grandchildren, Jake (13), Katy Sue (11), Elly Mae (8) and Molly Jay (5). He says:
When I was growing up, I suppose I did wonder from time to time what it would be like to have brothers and sisters, but it wasn’t a conversation I ever had with my mum. I didn’t just come from a one-child family, I came from a one-parent family as well, there was just me and mum, and it’s just not something I ever questioned her about.
Sadly, when I got to that age of being a bit more inquisitive, mum passed away. But it wasn’t something I worried about. I was always on my own and was used to it. In ways it’s like being born without a limb. You never miss it if you didn’t have it to begin with. But of course there were times when I did wonder what it would be like to come from a larger family.
I might have been an only child but I was never lonely. Our house was an open house and we had great neighbours. There were always people just walking in and out the front door. At that time, your neighbours were more like your family. If anything happened mum, if she took sick, the neighbours would look after me.
If I said mum didn’t spoil me, I’d be lying. I was definitely spoiled. And I’d say I was probably a bit of a mummy’s boy. Because there was just the two of us we had a very close bond. When you are an only child all the love goes your way. However, you won’t be long in finding out that not everybody will treat you like that. When you go out into the big bad world you discover you’re not entitled to that level of love and attention.
When my mum died on April 16, 1970, it was very tough on me. That’s probably the one time I might have wished I had brothers and sisters to share the burden with. But I had just got married about two weeks beforehand, on April 2, so I had started a new life for myself and had something to live for or God knows where I would have ended up. Then my wife got pregnant and we had our daughter, Suzanne.
With my grandchildren I make sure to give them all the same amount of love and not to make any of them feel any
different. That’s something I watch out for all the time.
Coming from a single parent family I did wonder what it would be like to have a father as well. I also think that that made me more determined to get on and do well. Being an only child makes you want to succeed, but coming from a single parent family, especially back then, makes you want to prove yourself. It’s only been in recent years that I realise how tough things must have been for my mum and what she must have gone through.