What it’s really like to be an only child

When I think back on those nascent days of self-awareness — when grown ups ask you what you want to be when you grow up, and you declare your favorite color at semi regular intervals— I remember understanding that there was something strange about being an only child. It was a fact of life that almost always required explanation, to grown ups and kids alike. Grown ups would ask if I wished for a brother or sister (answer: sometimes), and kids would ask if my parents gave me everything I asked for (answer: definitely not).

In kid pop culture, only children are spoiled silly; think Richie Rich wearing a waistcoast and owning two of everything money can buy, or Eloise rollerskating her way down the hallways of the Plaza Hotel. There is something decadent and sad about the projection of only children — they lack kid-friends and are perpetually lonely, and are surrounded by the very best toys with no rules or parents in sight. A particularly “only-child” scene from Eloise spells it out rather perfectly: “I always say, ‘Hello this is me Eloise and would you kindly send one roast-beef bone, one raisin and seven spoons to the top floor and charge it please, thank you very much.’ Then I hang up and look at the ceiling for a while and think of a way to get a present.”

My only childhood was nothing like that. My parents were both very much around, I had lots of friends, and I hardly ever rollerskated down the hallway. Still, I lived with the shadow of those sad, spoiled fictional faces, their stories clearly popping to people’s minds every time I mentioned mine. Because of that, I started to build a defense into the very introduction of my only child status. “I’m an only child,” I’d say, figuring that they instantly pictured me in a bedroom filled with Beanie Babies, stacking chocolate coins into money piles and ordering takeout while my parents spent the evening at a gala. “Don’t worry,” I’d add. “I’m not what you’re thinking.” I always took it as a compliment when people said they couldn’t tell I was an only child. “You seem so normal for an only child,” they’d say. And I’d beam with pride.

At home, all of that defensiveness fell away. I lived with both of my parents and from my earliest memories the three of us always felt like a team. Yes — I was their child and they were my parents but there was, and is, a level of camaraderie and closeness that I do thank my single child status for. Without siblings to play with, my parents were my companions, and because grown ups don’t want to play as much as other kids do, the time at home was a fairly even mixture of playtime, grown up conversation, and hours spent by myself (or with my imaginary siblings). It was happy and imaginative and I never wore a waistcoat.

Of course I do remember occasionally wishing for siblings — particularly when we went on vacation and I’d fall in with other kids and their brothers and sisters, realizing what a close bond they had and what fun it must be at home. I also continue to have a fondness for movies about enormous families, Cheaper By the Dozen style families with kids hanging from ceiling fans and someone always in tears, someone else covered in mud, and family wars and truces forming on the regular. The reality is though, I likely would have enjoyed that kind of childhood less than what I had at home. As a kid I wasn’t lonely, I wasn’t sad, and I appreciated that the house was quiet, and that when I got home at the end of the day I was the only kid there.

As an adult, I sometimes feel that familiar flutter of fear when I first tell someone that I’m an only child. The utterance is still met with a disappointing level of judgment and a flurry of questions: “Are your parents still married?” (Yes.) “Did they want more than one kid?” (No.) “Were you totally spoiled?” (Were you?)

Research has come down in favor of us only children, saying we’re not nearly as spoiled and crazy as everyone seems to think. As studies prove, “only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else.” The belief that only children are always living amongst riches is also a misconception. Many people opt to only have one child for financial reasons in addition to, or perhaps over, sentimental reasons. People aren’t always having one child to spoil them rotten, sometimes it’s the only way to have children that makes financial sense.

Sure there are symptoms of my only child kidhood that I can tell impact my grown up life — I don’t know how to respond to being teased, I prefer reading to board games, and I get a little weirded out when my belongings are moved. But there are things I am so thankful for too — my parents mostly, for making me a part of the team, and having me sit with the grown ups, and asking my opinion on issues before I was even old enough to know what those issues really meant.

As I’ve gotten older I no longer wish to defend being an only child, I just am one. People still inundate me with questions when they find out, but I no longer feel pride if they say they “couldn’t tell.” Instead I feel a strong defensiveness for all us only children out there. Just because we don’t have siblings does not mean our lives are incomplete.

The only child stigma prevails in pop culture — hey, Chandler is the sole only child on Friends and they make fun of it mercilessly — but the reality is being an only child is really just like being any other child. I’m here to say we only kids aren’t nearly as spoiled or sad as stigma says, and I truly have very little in common with Eloise. Though I do agree with her opinion that, “Kleenex makes a very good hat.”

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