Yesterday as I was eating yet another meal of beans on toast (with parmesan, elevating it to almost a proper meal), I was reading this article by Lesley Thompson in The Guardian, ‘David, my brother for a year.’ As an only child, it was interesting for me to read about Thompson’s experience where she had a cousin come live with her family, and the impact it had on her as, for a year’s time, she was no longer an only child. Some of the things, like her rejection of the stereotype that only children find sharing difficult, resonated with me.
After I was born and had grown past the toddler years, my parents had wanted more children, but it wasn’t to be. So I grew up an only child, which was an anomaly among most of the kids I knew as I grew up on military bases in South Carolina and Japan. We moved around a lot, so I have a single childhood friend (who, I’m happy to say, is still someone I consider a bestie). Other friends from my formative years I never kept contact with, so the shifting countries as well as having shifting friend groups as me or my friends moved away to other parts of the world has probably compounded the feeling of a “lonely only.”
I once read a book called Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo. I really liked it–you can read my Goodreads review of it. It was nice to read other people’s experiences with growing up as an only child. Some people enjoyed it, others found it awkward, still others grew up wanting a brother or sister, but then resolved later to be happy as an only child. It made me conscious of the things I do that may be due to my singular spawn status.
As I wrote in the review:
For those of you who don’t understand the “singular joys and solitary sorrows” of being an only child, I think this excerpt from Betty Rollin’s “You’re It” is best:
What does only childhood do to a person? I’m certainly self-centered; on the other hand, I think I’m less needy of attention that those who experienced the kind of childhood neglect I longed for. I have close friendships, but sometimes I’m too demanding. I give a lot to my friends, but I want a lot back. I want love from them and often I get only like.
I think I tend to rely on friends a lot to cover the void a sibling (or, at least, a close sibling) would otherwise fill. If something is affecting me and I’m down, or if I’m in need of advice or if I just want to share an odd bit of joy, I’ll go to my friends. However, I’m aware of how this might be a bit too much for people, so I tend to have these awkward moments where I want to talk to someone about something, but I won’t because I feel like I’d be bothering them. But it’s hard for me to wrestle with an in-between sense of being friends and my inner desire to create brethren of some sort; to adopt my friends as family, and hope they would want to do the same.
It’s weird to be, by most accounts, a grown adult still desiring an older brother or sister to look out for you, or a younger brother or sister to look out for, a sibling to commiserate with, especially with family issues. Although I try to remind myself that siblings aren’t always great to have–I’ve had more than a few friends and people I know who aren’t close to their brothers or sisters–it’s hard to shake the ideal when you’re on the other side of the fence. The grass is always greener, so they say, especially when there’s a chance I may never be an aunt to someone.
And who would I be, then, a sister to someone or a couple of someones? Would I be the same? Would I be as nerdy, as introspective, as excited to make new friends, as thrilled to be around the friends I have? Would I reserve this warmth I want to share with my good friends only with my family? Would I treasure the friendship I have with my 7 year-old best friend who became someone important to me again in our late twenties? Would I have been so insistent on being pen pals with each other while I lived in Yokosuka?
Would I be as weird as I am? Would I be as emotional? Would I be tougher and more accustomed to disappointment?
I would be, undoubtedly, a different person if I weren’t an only child, and, in the end, I don’t think I want that. Although I wonder a lot about what my life would be like if I had a brother or sister, the reality is I don’t and I won’t. If I really think about it, I may not have the wonderful, amazing friends I do if I had a sibling or two because I might not have reached out to them in the first place, or may not have reciprocated when they reached out to me for friendship. And would I trade off these friends for a phantom sibling who might be running a meth lab in Arizona, might’ve set our house on fire when I was fifteen, might’ve given my parents hell as a teenager, or might’ve teased me during my middle school years?
No. I wouldn’t.
But I really look forward to eventually getting a cat. Actually, two cats. So they won’t be lonely.