When I was a child my favourite game was making up families in my head. I'd create siblings for myself, spending hours imagining they were right there in my tidy bedroom with me, nicely sharing my toys.
I was never an only child in these fantasies – that was my reality so what would have been the point in that? What I wanted was lots of brothers and sisters, and by making them up I could change the dynamic constantly. One week I'd have an identical twin sister, the next I'd be the youngest of five.
Clearly, I watched too many Brady Bunch episodes. But now, when I look back on it, I feel sad for my childhood self because I can see just how lonely she must have been.
So it's a big surprise to me that a report last week suggests only children are happier than those with siblings. The Understanding Society study run by The Institute for Social and Economic Research concluded that happiness declines the more siblings there are in a household, and claims that sibling rivalry can have a serious effect on a child's emotional wellbeing.
Today, I have four children of my own. I've always known, probably because of my own upbringing, that I wanted a house full of the sound of laughter and children stampeding happily in upstairs bedrooms.
But I had little way of knowing that what comes with this (occasional) laughter and (rare) moments of harmonious play, is the ongoing, relentless power struggle that exists as a daily backdrop to the lives of my darling offspring.
'Her hairbrush is touching my bedroom door.'
'You're letting him have sugar on his Weetabix. Last year, on November 12th, you didn't let me do that. You must love him more than me.'
(In the back of the car) ''Tell her to move her foot. It's brushing against my leg.'
It's a constant source of bemusement to me – this sibling rivalry. I just never thought it could be this bad. Don't get me wrong, I may be an only child but I'm not naïve enough to imagine they were going to give each other goodnight kisses and share pocket money.
But sometimes they can hardly bear to breath the same air. And this leaves me permanently perplexed because, quite simply, my own children have shattered any illusions I previously had about the benefits of siblings. Is their behaviour normal? What would I know? I grew up on my own.
So have I unwittingly imposed years of misery upon my children? Well, if you believe the findings of the report, then yes. But despite everything, I still think they're better off. When I look back and remember how much I longed for company as a child – I even named my bicycle, for heaven's sake, just to have a companion to talk to when I went out to play – I'm convinced my own children are happier than I ever was – even with the fighting thrown in.
Sure, I got to have my own room with no danger of my toys being touched, unless I was the one touching them. But I would far rather had a brother hiding my stuff, or even breaking it, if only for the stimulation of finding him and seeking some kind of sisterly revenge.
And the quiet! It's something, as an adult, I long for more in our house, but how boring for a child. My children live in the midst of banter, leg pulling, laughter and tears. They are stimulated and challenged by each other on a daily basis and, boy, they're going to be experts at winning an argument when they leave home.
They, even sometimes play together. Quite nicely. For about five minutes. I never had anyone to play Ludo with, or build a den with behind the sofa, or be a partner in crime stealing biscuits from the top shelf in the kitchen.
My husband often reminds me (usually in the midst of screeching and door banging upstairs) that they are the only ones in the house who haven't, actually, chosen to live together. Still, I sincerely hope that one day, when they're adults, they'll look back on it all with fondness – and over a glass of bubbly at Christmas, they'll reminisce about the rivalry, share a giggle about the rows. If they're still speaking to each other, that is..
Only child or siblings (squabbling and loving): which do you think is best?
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