How I learned to love being an only child

When I was around eight or so, I desperately longed for a sibling. Each year, all I asked of Santa was to bring me a sister for Christmas (and also some toys). As an only child of divorced parents, I split my time between two homes, which didn’t much bother me — I kinda dug my separate lives — but traipsing from house to house each week would have been a whole lot more fun with a younger sibling. She would regale me with stories and occasionally get on my nerves, but not really, because she just wanted my attention, which I would secretly love. We’d be witches casting spells on my teddy bears or explorers searching for hidden treasures in the airing cupboard (translation: storage space). Then we’d spend hours braiding each other’s hair and trying on makeup, and we’d learn all the dance routines to S Club 7 (translation: British pop band), which, once perfected, we’d force our parents to watch.

Of course, my dream would never be reality. My parents’ relationship had long been over. When I was six, my mom had a hysterectomy as part of her cancer treatment. I hadn’t known much about it at the time, but if I raised the subject of siblings, she’d tell me firmly that it was not possible. My dad, on the other hand, said he had no interest in fathering another child. “I got it just right with you,” he’d tell me, and that was that. Not understanding the complexities of adulthood, I felt it was rather selfish of them to deprive me of something most of my friends had. Baby brothers and sisters were popping up all over town, and that meant a never-ending wealth of company for all of the children in those families. Me? I had a cat.

Growing up as an only child can be an isolating experience. I spent a lot of time reading, playing video games, and talking to my parents. Yes, I had their undivided attention. My dad and I would sit for hours at a time playing whist and rummy. We’d go for walks together and take trips down to Cornwall every year, where we’d eat ice cream and watch the gulls steal people’s food. At mom’s house, I’d look forward to Friday nights full of chocolatey treats and American sitcoms. She’d always let me choose the music in the car and we’d usually spend journeys singing along to Shania Twain at the top of our lungs. I was probably closer to my parents than most everybody I knew. At the time, though, I wanted a companion my own age.

Which is probably why my dad got me that cat in the first place — my first real pet that wasn’t a stick insect. After months of pestering, my tenacity was rewarded when, as an early Easter gift just after my 11th birthday, I received a little gray kitten that I promptly named Dusty. She was to be my sidekick, and I imagined that we would embark on many misadventures together. I’d dress her up, tuck her in a wicker basket, and hit the streets. She was supposed to be the Thelma to my Louise, the fish to my chips. Unfortunately, she was neither. I soon found out that there aren’t many games you can play with a cat — at least, not any that the cat will partake in of its own free will.

In high school, things got a little easier. I made a few close friends, joined a drama group, and after school, spent so many hours on the phone that my parents had to clock me so that I didn’t run up a massive bill.  For the first time, I forgot how desperately I once craved a sibling. I’d come home from school, eat a dinner that always accommodated my fussy appetite, and then disappear upstairs to my room, where there was no one to invade my privacy, taunt me about my crushes, or ruin my favorite sweater, which had been borrowed without asking. On weekends, I’d journey into the city, because by this point, my parents trusted me to travel independently, and I enjoyed a freedom that few of my friends did. Finally, I’d found the upside to being an only.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized lacking siblings wasn’t just a fact in my (as yet unpublished) biography. There’s a stigma attached to only children. When I told people I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, they were often surprised, and I soon began to intuit what they were thinking: that I’m spoiled, self-centered, and determined to get my own way. And I admit, at times, I can be all of the above.

I went from living with just my parents to sharing a tiny flat with five other girls. Having to wait 20 minutes to wash up in the morning was so unfathomable it left me practically unhinged, and getting ready for a night out was just as bad. I loved my private rituals: listening to music while I applied eyeliner and singing along while I curled my hair. But with one tap on the door, this turned into a social gathering. Nothing was out of bounds, and everything belonged to everyone. At one point, one of the girls laid all her best dresses on the floor so that we could take a look and tell her what worked. The others were delighted to participate and gleefully made their way up and down the hall, critiquing each outfit, but it was too much for me. They were lovely people, but I had to sometimes shut them out when I needed my space. It made me realize how lucky I was to have so much of it for all those years.

But I wasn’t alone in my personality quirks. Everybody’s either an only or an older or a younger or a middle. One of my flatmates was used to sharing a house with three brothers. For her, the challenge wasn’t so much learning to cope with being around people, but learning to cope with being one of the crowd. She missed being the only girl in the house, the status and singularity it brought her.

Now, at 25, I have a hard time feeling anything but happy about my onlyness. When I met my boyfriend, another only child, we naturally bonded over our similar upbringings, and on our first date we talked for hours about it. He’d longed for companionship (in his case, an older brother), and now we have each other. Being with him has taught me to appreciate my childhood for what it was. Sure, I don’t have an unbreakable sibling bond, but I have incredibly close relationships with both of my parents. I’ve enjoyed many frank conversations with each of them, wine-fueled and otherwise. I’ve been so fortunate to always have their support, and they’ve helped me through every trouble that’s come my way.

Do I still wish I had brothers and sisters? Yes, at times. Recently, for example, I found out my cousin was pregnant. I went around for a week telling everyone who would listen that I would soon be an aunt, and it wasn’t until someone pointed out my mistake that I realized I was about to become a less-impressive sounding second cousin once removed. (I’d truly thought aunt referred to any older female relative.) I suddenly had the awful realization that I would never be an aunt, at least not in the strict blood-relative sense of the word. For a while, that really hurt. But definitions are porous. If I spoil that kid with treats and take her to see The Nutcracker at Christmas, then dammit, I’m Aunt Charlotte. My upbringing as an only child informs who I am, but it doesn’t dictate it anymore than the shade of lipstick I choose to wear. And after years of wanting what could never be, I understand that I had what I needed all along.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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