Single / Single Syndrome: Single Parents With Only Children

Mike Peluso
9 min readMay 15, 2023

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There are some big trends that are converging and I’m starting to see the effect in my friends and family. The first big trend is that people are having fewer children. Well it’s a trend that’s been happening for quite a while especially in first world countries. When birth control meets industrialization, then it becomes an easy and inexpensive option for women. Couple this with the trend lines of people getting married less, or not at all, and you start to develop a fairly large population of people with no kids or single parents with a single child. I call the latter the single/single syndrom. In my opinion this makes for a unique situation where both the parent and child are socially challenged in some subtle ways.

I have several single parents, who all have single children, in my life. I’m finding that there are issues with that particular family structure. Well, to be fair, there are issues with everyone, the human condition is flawed after all. But there seems to be bigger issues with single parents and their only children. On the parents’ side, I think the issues all stems from the fact that there isn’t a moderating force in their life. For example if a single parent is over a friend’s house, they may say something that bothers their hosts or does something that annoys them. Where the single parent may be oblivious to it, the odds are that a significant other would catch on. Think of it as two sets of eyes to be aware of social cues. From what I can tell this lack of moderation has a snowball effect on the single parent’s social circle. The cycle seems to be that they make friends, then annoy those friends, then the couple decides to keep the single person at arm’s length. This ultimately results in the single parent developing a smaller, and sometimes socially challenged, social circle.

I’m fairly positive sexuality plays a role in the single parent dynamic. When it’s a couple to couple relationship, as I said, each couple has a moderating force in the significant other. If I were to use the characters from I Love Lucy as an example, Rickey would blow his top if he caught Lucy’s even remotely doing anything with Fred that he didn’t like. For example, If she made an off-color joke or innocent sexual innuendo, I could see where Rickey would blow his top as he did so many times on the show. He’d most likely wait until after the Mertz’s left and they were were alone to read her the riot act about how inappropriate it was. She wouldn’t do it again. What if Fred and Lucy were both into baseball and were planning to go to a game together. I’m sure Ricky and Ethel would attend and by their simple presence any opportunities for Fred and Lucy to grow closer independent of their spouses wouldn’t happen. It’s not to say that members of couple/couple friend groups don’t occasionally dabble in hanky panky. Obviously there is infidelity. But when it’s two couples, there’s always a type of pressure which makes it harder for the infidelity to happen.

Now what if Lucy was single in this scenario. What if it was just her and Little Ricky? In this situation she wouldn’t be getting her intimate emotional needs met by Rickey. She’d subconsciously be looking for those needs to be filled in other ways. Fred would be one outlet. There is no Rickey Ricardo to keep Lucy from flirting with Fred or planning things with Fred even if they were innocent. Maybe she likes that Fred could be a father figure who can show Little Rickey how to fix things. Maybe it’s the baseball thing. Even assuming Lucky thinks it’s all platonic there could be an emotional connection to Fred she doesn’t want to admit she’s starting to feel. Of course, Fred being a normal guy would love the attention. Ethel would pick up on all this. The best way I could describe how Ethel’s would be feeling is that the hairs on the back of her neck would be standing up. She’d be getting a ‘feeling’ and start to resent Lucy. The cattiness would come out and friction would happen. This is part of the friction I was talking about earlier. Yes, I’ve used I Love Lucy as an over the top example, but this doesn’t mean I haven’t seen this situation play out several times in my life which probably isn’t surprising when you consider how relationship dynamics have changed over the last few decades.

I’ve used the salacious topic of infidelity as the main example of friction between a couple and a single person but it goes way beyond that. Without a spouse, a moderating force in someone’s life isn’t there. I used the crazy idea of Lucy Ricardo telling Fred an off color joke as an example. That could be extended several times. What if Lucy drinks a bit too much? What if she stays too late and Ethel is tired. What if she curses too much in regular conversation and Ethel is being polite but really doesn’t like it? Lucy would be oblivious but Ricky may pick up on the fact that Ethel never curses in her regular conversation. There is no Rickey to pull her aside and offer her an alternative perspective on how she should be behaving, i.e. that Ethel may be tired or not be comfortable with all the cursing and is just being polite by not saying anything. Lucy would be so wrapped up in her own emotions that she was blind to it. This is where that second set of eyes becomes so valuable to see social cues.

All of this has a knock-on effect on the kids of the single parent. They don’t have the balance they would have if there were two managing parents. With only a single parent to teach them social norms they have half as many personality traits to emulate or consider in their own social interactions. The net net is that the kids almost always have a very small social circle which is not at all surprising as anyone who has been around for a while knows that many, if not most, kids grow up to be a version of their parents. Now that I write those words I realize it may have been the case for my own childhood. It does explain some things.

I don’t recall seeing this odd couples / single dynamic much when I was a child. There was divorce, yes, but mostly I witnessed couples interacting. There seemed to be fewer families that were always a single parent and there seemed to be much more frequent recoupling when there was a divorce or death. Marriage rates were higher, and my guess is that it’s how people knew to live. Being single was more uncomfortable. So when divorced, they would remarry. If they had children it simply was a blended family. That reality had its own issues yet it was still a traditional family unit. Even if you didn’t like your step parent they did have an influence on you. That second perspective for the children was still there. I know I have been heavily influenced by my own stem mother. Additionally, there was a step sibling who would provide some balance in the life of the child. They were no longer an only child. I don’t know the actual numbers but it seems this is happening less.

Speaking of only children, the idea of only child syndrome is real and it gets much much worse when there is only a single parent. That’s another big negative of single-single syndrome. Being an only child the kids in these families have a stunted ability to automatically think from the perspective of others. Unfortunately the missing perspective from the second parent means there is no cultural emergency break. So, for example, if a child thinks that aggressively belching as loud as he can at the dinner table is funny, and his single parent is ok with the behavior, the missing ‘second set of eyes’ won’t be around to correct the obvious social faux pas. I’ve actually seen this exact example from a number of single-single syndrom situations. Young boys tend to think that belching out loud is funny and the louder the better.

Now, take a moment to think about what would happen if the child acts like this in a gathering with other families, and there is no alternative parent to pull the child aside and correct the behavior? Parents of the other children would understand the behavior, they are parents of children after all, but without the corrective action they would immediately sense something is wrong. They also would reflexively think about the effect the misbehaving child’s behavior would have on their own children’s decision making. This starts the cycle of holding the single parent at arm’s length. There will be less invites to social gatherings for the single parent. The child would get less invites to birthday parties or to spend the night.

But what if it’s not just belching, what if it’s talking back or slamming doors or any one of countless abhorrent behaviors that doesn’t get corrected. If gone unchecked, it will result in major issues down the line when the child enters into their own relationships. It may even be part of a perpetuating cycle that results in single-single syndrom.

I have seen these trends with every combination of single parent to single child. Father / Son, Mother / Son, Father / Daughter, Mother / Daughter. The issues are all similar no matter the makeup of the single-single syndrom family. I personally don’t mind it as I love interesting people and interesting situations and these definitely qualify. I find that I’m alone in this. Most people, especially those that live traditional lives themselves, don’t have the tolerance for challenged individuals and their situations as much as I do. From my own perspective, it means that I can’t be too close to the single-single syndrome families as it will alienate other more traditional families I keep in my circle. I get the irony that giving into this peer pressure is contributing to the part of the social isolation that is a component of the single-single syndrome.

I wish I had an answer to this whole thing. I really do because I do think the single-single syndrome families are getting a raw deal. They are part of a new reality of families. Right now they are in the minority, but considering the trendlines, in a few generations they may be the majority. Those next few decades are going to be very interesting. As a culture we haven’t figured out how to incorporate single-single syndrome families into the fabric of our society so that they can realize all the same benefits and enculturation the world offers to traditional families. Heck, I’m even part of the problem in that I used the term ‘syndrome’ to describe this family structure. The word syndrome is not generally used when describing something normal even though this seems to be our growing reality. You know, maybe I can create part of a solution. I’ll just have to write a sitcom about single parents and their single children. It’ll be about the crazy antics of Lucy, the head of a single-single family that moves into a New York apartment with neighbors who are all traditional families. If I’m right about these growing trends, and I do a halfway decent job, it is bound to be popular. I’ll have to get creative with the name, because even if it’s true, I think “Nobody Loves Lucy” just won’t click with people, even if my title perfectly makes the point for me.

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Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes is about the collision between the professional world and life. Read more at www.pelusopresents.com or listen to the Peluso Presents Podcast