Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Only the Lonely

I’m an only child, and I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t think only childhood was either good or bad. Like most things, it was both.

Having one child is viewed with skepticism in America, where three is the new two, and "depriving" a child of a sibling is generally regarded with pity and criticism. Growing up, I would often hear things like, “You’re surprisingly normal and unselfish for an only child!” 

First of all, that’s some rather faint praise, isn’t it? Second of all, little did they know! I have never been remotely normal or unselfish. But I don’t think that’s got anything to do with being an only child.

My parents and I made a good trio. They trusted my judgment and gave me a lot of responsibility and freedom. Without siblings, I had full access to my parents’ limited resources of time, money, and attention; and there was no contemporary in the household to serve as a yardstick for comparison, good or bad.

I begged for a sibling anyway. My mom explained she didn’t want more children. She had watched her mother become widowed and then die of breast cancer while working full-time and trying to raise three kids. My mom was afraid she could end up in the same situation, she said. She didn’t want more children than she could handle all by herself. Also, she wasn’t very close to her own siblings, and so told me (and herself) that I wasn’t necessarily missing out on a crucial relationship.

That’s a false equivalency, of course. Every relationship is different. Maybe if I had a sibling we would hate each other, or maybe we’d be totally indifferent to each other, or perhaps we would be inseparable. Most people I know are somewhere in the middle with their sibling relationships. Watching my own children, I see what appears to be a normal sibling relationship, although I have no way of knowing. I see a lot of fighting and arguments built on a solid foundation of love, affection, and mutual protectiveness. I’m certainly happy that my kids have each other, to make of that relationship whatever they choose to make of it now, and hopefully later as adults.

Although I decided to have two children, choosing to have one child or no children at all, as I wrote about awhile ago, are valid and legitimate choices, both of which are empirically much better for the environment than putting two or more new primates on the planet. 

I think our parenting culture is insensitive to the child-free, and to only children and their parents in general. Whether by conscious choice or not, many people have “just” one child, or none at all. People in America ask, “do you have children?,” whereas in many other countries they ask, “do you have a child?” While working abroad, my mom said she was validated by that question, not realizing that she'd always felt defensive of her choice to have “just” one child, and the assumption that she should have had more (or any).

I don’t question or resent my parents’ choice to have one child. It made sense for them and I respect their decision. Really, it’s mostly as an adult that I feel something like regret about not having a sibling. I worry about my parents getting older and having no one to share that experience with. My “family of origin” feels vulnerable and fragile in its smallness. 

But ultimately, every single one of us is vulnerable in some way. It's only the source of vulnerability, real or perceived, that differs from person to person and from choice to choice.

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