As a devoted follower of NPR and the reading recommendations of Tina Brown, I was intrigued by this morning’s review of an essay by Geoff Dyer entitled “On Being an Only Child.” I wonder if the lack of siblings with which to compare myself has led to my intense interest to read articles like these, if for no other reason to compare my own experiences as an only child to someone else’s. I suppose everyone wants to know if their own hang-ups, regardless of cause, are shared by others.
I would like to begin with a disclaimer. Too often, people write essays about their childhoods as some kind of personal therapy session with the reader, discussing the fault of their parents or situation as a direct cause of their current problematic circumstances. I hate that kind of bitching. I discontinued my subscription to Oprah Magazine because the “woe is me” articles made me want to slit my throat with a plastic knife. We all have something – our parents were too strict, too lenient, too pushy, or too lazy. We were too poor, too rich, too sick, or too encumbered by annoyances to lead a perfect life. I am encumbered by the annoyances of people who bitch-write about how being an only/middle/tenth child has led directly to their own parenting/relationship/heroin issues. I promise this won’t be one of those pieces.
Although our circumstances growing up were quite different, I found many similarities between Dyer’s childhood experiences and my own. While his parents were working class people generally devoid of culture or charisma, my parents were middle-class educators who pushed college, IRAs, and masters’ degrees. Although unquestionably loving and intelligent, they were unimpressed by anything considered (by them) irresponsible, like homemade wine, tattoos, or elaborate travel any further than the allotted two-week vacation most full-time jobs might allow. Although I don’t advocate irresponsibility, I feel I am a free spirit in the emotional sense (not the sexual sense), and that assuming you can take care of yourself, travel and new experiences are as essential to life as employment. My parents are wonderful people who raised me as best they knew how, but they don’t always agree with me on these ideas. After one conversation on an impending trip to the Greek Islands, my father informed me that I needed to acquire several volumes of Greek architecture and philosophy from the library first, because if one wasn’t fully briefed on potential sightings of historical significance, there was no point in taking the trip. These characteristics led to a pattern of “stability” that was probably considered positive in my development, but led to very little excitement being inserted into my life by others. I suppose it’s not your parents’ job to make your life exciting, and I soon realized that if I wanted my life to be exciting, I would need to do it myself. My continuous attempts at making my own life exciting (including this impending trip around the world prior to our move to Australia, is probably fodder for another story altogether).
One unavoidable fact of only-childhood is that regardless of how many friends or neighbors or cousins the only child has, at some point everyone must go back to being alone in the house with only parents as sources of entertainment. Geoff Dyer’s parents had similar social habits to my own, which generally meant little to nil. My dad’s idea of a fun evening was reading “The Economist” while Mom confronted the next brain buster in her puzzle-book. Since we also lived in a very quiet area, devoid of neighborhood kids, I often had to search for ways to entertain myself. The boredom that encompasses many only-childhood afternoons is eliminated during high school and college when course loads and extracurricular activities fill in the hours, but eventually returns as its much more welcome cousin, “alone time.” Now, I relish nap time, prep period at work, even the morning commute. As a new parent, I wonder if this “alone time” that is often coveted by so many of us once children are in the picture, is any more important to only children. If you were one of four or five kids in a household, you were probably never alone growing up, especially if you had to share a room with a sibling. Do you get used to that, or yearn more for the opposite? Those of us who grew up hating and squandering ‘alone time’ as children, not appreciating it, are we the ones who need it more now, or are we quicker to get lonely or bored? Do people from big families feel strange if they’re not surrounded by others? Time that was spent carefully re-dressing my Barbie dolls or arranging my books on the bookshelf by binding color (in a repeating rainbow pattern) is time that could have been spent avoiding, fighting with, or bothering siblings. Which is more productive? As Dyer unsurprisingly describes in his essay, sharing is a struggle for most only children, and I was no exception. Not that I was spoiled. My parents seemed to be aware of many only-child stigmas and (with the exception of the boredom part) did a relatively good job of trying to avoid spoiling me, but……
It was natural, since I didn’t have to share my toys with any siblings, that I became a collector (and) I loved arranging my things—whatever they were—and putting them into some kind of order. I still love doing this.
Me too! I’m not so much a collector, (constant moving and traveling have a way of limiting that, unless you love packing boxes too), but the arranging thing (see rainbow book-binding reference above) is almost a hobby, and, it seems, a classic only-child trait, observable at all ages. I once took my daughter (then 1) to visit a friend whose son (age 4) is an only child. My friend herself is one of five, and seemed oblivious to her son’s demonstration of overt only child behavior, namely when my daughter came crashing through his meticulously arranged set of dinosaurs. The horror of seeing his display so carelessly destroyed by this small interloper caused him to go completely to pieces, having no idea why or how someone (forget she was a baby) could destroy his stuff like that. His mother’s explanation that Lily was little and didn’t know any better brought a blank stare as a response. My friend found my analysis of the entire situation remarkable, as she had never noticed such things before. When you have siblings, especially younger siblings, no one has the ridiculously unrealistic notion that your stuff is ever safe from borrowing, sharing, or detriment by tiny running savages. If you are the youngest, your stuff is probably hand-me-down crap that you don’t care about anyway. With only children, one’s own belongings remaining exactly the way they were left is expected. You like your stuff a certain way, and messing with other peoples’ stuff is off-limits. Even now, without conscious mental coaching, I have trouble re-grouping from organizational disasters. It’s easy to take something small and work it up in your mind into something much larger. It’s also harder to disregard comments and criticisms and to not take things personally. The only child never had to learn to brush off sibling roughhousing or name-calling, so the first altercation with a bossy schoolmate brings a “What? I’m a stupid nincompoop? But…..but……I am? I mean…YOU are! Bwwwaaaahhhhhhaaaaa.”
The lack of sibling teasing often leaves only children with a thinner skin when they eventually encounter the inevitable “cruel world.” The only preparatory advice you got were from your parents, and unless they were insane, didn’t do too much to build up your personal reserves. Complain complain. Bitch bitch bitch. Sorry. I’m done.
Several girlfriends have said that I am a terrible hugger. Basically I just stand there, draped like a coat around the person I am supposed to be hugging. (At some level I assume that I am the one who needs to be hugged, comforted.)
I’m not a cold, impersonal malcontent by any means, but I’m also not a huge fan of random hugging, and never really thought about it until I read Dyer’s take on this. Reading these kinds of things can really mess with your head! I always assumed that because I went to Montessori school and then taught outdoor experiential education surrounded by hippies that I was normal and they were roll-your-eyes touchy feely. I generally approach hugs from loved ones or people I haven’t seen in a long time with joy and acceptance, but hugging or kissing as a form of casual greeting with people you see all the time or don’t know that well is odd to me. I generally play along with an air-kiss of my own, but I don’t think people are fooled. They keep doing it though, perhaps feeling satisfied they’re helping to fill some emotional void I clearly have as a result of my hugging ineptitude.
So all of these quirks and hang-ups have manifested themselves into the fact that I now find myself the parent of a single, wonderful, independent two-year old daughter. I adore her to the moon and back, and I debate with myself every day about whether or not to give her a sibling. My husband, the oldest of three, sees this as a no-brainer. She needs a brother. And if she doesn’t get one the next go round, we should try again. No worries. Ha! Although I have a fiction-book fantasy of myself as the parent of multiple children, enjoying family time on summer holidays, friendly reunions, and boisterous, entertaining Christmases, I’m not sure if the reality quite fits. It’s hard enough to be a parent of one kid. So, in my mind, there are a million logistical and personal reasons to stop right here. Lily is perfect, and why mess with that? On the other hand, I’m obviously neurotic and I don’t want to impress that melodrama on one tiny pair of shoulders. Parents, by some kind of law, seem to become more relaxed as the number of children in the household increases (as so many youngest children have happily experienced). Believe it or not, I also want to experience the uncertainty of parenting more than one kid, but I really have no idea how to break up arguments, deal with rivalries, or (God forbid) encourage sharing in small children, and it’s not like I can ask my mother for real-life advice. She’s the epitome of playing it safe. I think the most risky thing she’s ever done is carry a black bag with brown shoes.
My parents kept telling me that patience was a virtue. I have, as a consequence, turned into a raging inferno of impatience.
I just think this one statement is really funny, one of Dyer’s true quote-ables from this essay, and encompasses most of the aggravating advice our parents gave us as kids. As a result, we tend to subconsciously do the opposite forever, just to demonstrate how tough and independent we really are. Dyer goes on to actually turn impatience into a virtue, as demonstrated by his intolerance of people who are irresponsible or dishonest. I too have a low tolerance for people who are phony, consistently late, and bad listeners who then ask stupid questions. So I became I high school teacher, so I could, on a daily basis, deal with teenagers who are phony, consistently late, and bad at listening. I don’t think this has much to do with being an only child, except that I hope teaching preps me a little bit for parenting multiple kids. I have come to realize that teenagers and two-year olds have a lot more in common than originally thought. Perhaps if I can handle a room full of lackadaisical teenagers, surely one boy and one girl won’t put me too far over the edge of a cliff, provided there is some ‘alone time’ in the turquoise waters or sandy beach at the bottom. Creating a different kind of environment for Lily, full of travel and new experiences, hopefully will deflect some of my parental neuroses and increase her perception of the world as a large, interesting place, regardless of sibling existence. And while she figures that out, I think I’ll go have a glass of wine and some stinky cheese on the hotel balcony.