Me opening a box wrapped in yellow with polka dot wrapping paper

The (Dis)Advantage of One Child Families

When people learn that I’m an “only child,” their response most often takes the form of one of these:

  1. “I would never have guessed that!”
  2. “Do you wish that you had a siblings?”
  3. “Me too!”

First, let’s be clear, I had zero sway in my parents’ pursuit of child-rearing. According to my mom, her pregnancy with me at age 34 was a welcomed surprise. After more than a dozen years of marriage and subsequent efforts to procreate, the attitude shifted from “when” to “if” to even allow such possibility to remain a hope.

And then, here I came, tumbling out after 22 hours of labor and delivery (still sorry, Mom), ready to take my throne as the “only child.” My existence bucked the trend of my parents’ families (both had four siblings; my mother the oldest, my father the baby). Moreover, we fell below-average in comparison to the standard 2.5 American household. At least we had two dogs.

Where did the phrase “only child” come from? How does my existence as a fully-formed human being still put my family in a state of scarcity? Do families with two or more children take reassurance knowing that if something happens to one child that at least the others will make-up for it? No doubt that line of justification provided “relief” during much of our human evolution. In modern day, such an approach doesn’t lend itself well to social graces.

Child crying
Oh, your parent said no to something? Time for the only child waterworks show.
Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Here I am, the only child. How should I be perceived as acting? Pop culture has not been kind to us only children. We’re portrayed as petulant, spoiled, and greedy. At least, that’s the narrative embedded in historical texts, film, and throughout other creative mediums. (Fear not: there’s a host of strong protagonists that may bring the selfish, bratty only child trope to its demise).

Let me get one thing clear: I was spoiled. Without question. I had unfettered access to attention from two individuals who loved me. My family’s racial and class privileges also afforded me with access to the material goods most often ascribed to only child status. Did I get everything I wanted? Absolutely not. Did I get to do things that may have been diminished or even non-existent if there was a sibling? Probably. Finances and time often dictate choice; I had the luxury, for the most part, of living a free range life.

However, no amount of stuffed animals or books could ever fully fill the void of loneliness. I did want for a sibling many times growing up. Perhaps it was less about having a sibling but having a companion, blood-related or not, to be a part of play. If a parent wasn’t home or preoccupied (or couldn’t take one more round of Candy Land), I would play board games by myself. Yahtzee and Parcheesi were easier to manage; Clue proved more difficult. [Side story about Clue: the red pawn representing Miss Scarlet disappeared from our set. Now, I have a visceral connection between cherry chapstick, which served as Miss Scarlet’s surrogate on the board, and the potential for murder in the conservatory with a candlestick.]


White car with four people-shaped game pieces (two blue, two pink) on the Game of Life board

There’s a touch of irony playing the Game of Life alone.
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Fortunately, I found friends whose family sizes more than compensated for my solo existence. I participated in a combination of group and individual extra-curricular activities [classical Millennial!] and tried to establish a core group of playmates to quench my appetite for socialization (and to make playing Clue much easier).

Did not having siblings stunt some of my abilities to relate to another person? I think so. I never had to share a bedroom before moving into a dormitory at the University of Arizona. I lived among piles of clothes, toys, and books; I affixed glow-in-the-dark stars to my ceiling after graduating from a nightlight. To help me fall asleep, I would talk aloud to myself, scheming scenarios that I hoped to see again in my dreams. [I freaked out several sitters over the course of the years because of this behavior as their minds thought someone had broken into the house.]

Arriving to campus in the fall of 2007 to share a confined space with another human being brought waves of excitement and nerves. Alas, whatever hope I had for such a union to manifest in the perceived camaraderie that may befall siblings who share a room, particularly sisters, disappeared quickly. Our personalities clashed; our sense of space did not jive. Upon deeper reflection, I think I was disappointed that she wasn’t who I wanted her to be. Perhaps that’s what truly tainted what could have been a more positive relationship. Me and my expectations. They are far too often the source of my own pain and disappointment rather than any sort of satisfaction.

I do feel instant connection with another “only child.” Granted, our living situations could look vastly different. Yet, that common bond isn’t concerned with those externalities. You and me, we have to push back against the stereotypes placed at our feet. Your status as an only child doesn’t keep you from being selfless, compassionate, or grateful. Your behavior doesn’t rely solely upon whether or not you had a sister or brother. At this point in our evolution, I think most of us know that, right?

Still, I had a friend confide in me that she was concerned because her and her partner had decided to only have one child. When I reminded her that I was an only child, she expressed her relief. And she asked:

“Were you lonely?”

“Sometimes,” I shrugged. But, as a person without siblings, I am curious to know: even with a house full of people, were you ever lonely?

Wide pan of shelves full of books

Knowingly breaking the rules…thrice.

Using the word “rules” sounds much more punitive than it really should be.

At the start of 2018, I set an intention to not purchase any books in the year ahead. I own too many already; I have access to a wealth of books through the public library, not to mention family and friends.

Still, I knowingly and willingly broke my “rule” three times. Here are my confessions.

Stacks of books where titles are visible.

All three transgressions took place in the last quarter of the year. The first occurred in the most capitalist way imaginable: utilizing Amazon Prime for that free two-day shipping of “The House on Tradd Street.” Why did I knowingly participate in the transgression? My reasoning was two-fold:

  • First, the Durham Public Library did not offer a non-digital version of the novel. I know myself well enough at this age to recognize the need for paper.
  • Second, I wanted to have the book ahead of my air travel to and from Phoenix. I did check out the online search options for the local Durham bookstore; alas, it came up empty. Thus, you find me opening my Amazon app (so dangerous) and securing a used copy of Karen White’s novel in advance of my vacation.

In my opinion, this is the most egregious, blatant disregard for my own modus operandi. If I had planned better, taken a bit more time to seek out alternative sellers, I may have easily avoided the online megalopolis that is Amazon. But, I didn’t. And I panicked. And I didn’t have any credit card reward points available.

So it is written. So it is done. Perhaps I would feel less guilt about this transaction if I had found the book to be remarkable/life-changing/enlightening. Unfortunately, I found none of the above. A mediocre story to appeal to mass audiences narrated by an unlikable protagonist whose doughnut lifestyle never seemed to manifest in any negative repercussions in her form or fitness.

Spare me.

In contrast, the other two times I knowingly broke my own prescribed rule failed to invoke the same level of guilt/shame. The main difference: partaking in said purchases through local, independent bookstores.

It requires little effort for me to justify spending money at Changing Hands in Phoenix or Letters Bookshop in Durham. Both offer incredible selections that complement each shop’s physical space. Additionally, both house new and used titles, giving this avid reader opportunity to cash in her own books that have been read and shelved in the home library. Store credit? Yes, please.

Also, when Michelle Obama drops a book where she unveils her journey through infertility, how could I not want for those words and emotions to hold in my grasp? Each reveal in this space is so precious, so meaningful. I don’t want to share it with strangers in the public library system. Nor do I selfishly want to wait for it. I am no Aaron Burr. When it comes to the quest and quench for writing, consider me a modern day Alexander Hamilton.

I will experience zero consequences for my defiance (outside of the financial investment). At this point, I do not anticipate engaging in this behavior anymore in 2018.

How formal I’ve become with myself. Establishing rules. Holding myself accountable. Purging my guilt through a public admission. Where do all of these feelings live during the day-to-day of life? Do they bury themselves deep within the self or stay closer to the surface, at the ready to reveal themselves at a moment’s notice? I like to think of my guilt sitting deep in an internal well; but as often as such emotions arise, it seems hard-to-believe they could resurface so quickly, and so often, unless they set up camp just underneath the skin.

I should not feel guilt in my hungering for the written word. I should not feel shame for indulging in the brilliance of writers who inspire me. I feel guilt for hungering for the written word. I feel guilt for indulging in self-satisfying transactions that remind me the number of opportunities I chose not to engage in furthering my dream of authorship.

Would I have the courage to speak up?

The #MeToo moment continues. Instead of proceeding in a way that vindicates the countless individuals who have been sexually abused, raped, assaulted, and violated, we have found ourselves wading in mud passed our knees, submerging our beings at a standstill. Our hands can still clutch at our devices so we send out cries for help over social media, begging the rest of the world to wake up and see the raw, ugly reality that we have endured — pardon me — endure amid threats of violence, accusations of lying, and questions about our moral compass.

Would I be as brave as the Anita Hills or the Dr. Christine Blasey Fords of this world? Electing to bare my soul, exposing my very essence because I could not allow someone who took power from me to ascend to levels even more powerful?

Blood boiling.

It started off so innocently. A small crush on the barista at my favorite coffee shop over the summer after high school. Encouragement from friends and some unexpected bravery resulted in an exchange of telephone numbers. A time and a place to go out soon followed.

The events of the early evening are more fuzzy. We went to a movie. He did not seek my consent as he violated me in the movie theater. He pulled over in my middle school parking lot. He did not ask my consent to my body.

He told me that he was a youth leader in his church. Someday, he wanted to be a pastor.

I remember the fear. Moments of absolute paralysis. He kept repeating himself, murmuring garbage into my ear as I squirmed underneath his weight, knowing this was not how my first experience with sex would be. Why wasn’t he listening?

It seems crude now. “Let me feel your warmth.” I laughed about it later. But I wasn’t laughing that night. I said no. I said no. I said no.

Boys being boys.

Was this my fault? I was (am) a human being who craves affection, love, touch.

But I wanted those to be my choice, not his. And he didn’t allow me to make it.

Maybe he’s a youth pastor now. Would there be a list of character witnesses lined up to defend his honor? How could I prove what happened 15 years ago? There’s no physical evidence. I can’t remember if I told friends or not. I was supposed to be better than that. I was supposed to fall for men who were kind, caring, and respectful.

The bravery I have seen from my closest friends and beloved strangers is inspiring and gut-wrenching. This isn’t my only story. That moment didn’t define my self-worth or value.

But, it did remind me that I’m a survivor. And I’m not alone. The more people listen, the more people wake up, perhaps there’s hope we’ll finally get unstuck and back on the path to a different future

 

 

Things I Don’t Understand – Elevators

I’m not curious about how they function or lack understanding of their purpose [though I do have a slight fear of being stuck in one, hence one of the reasons I opt for the stairs 99% of the time — AND GOTTA GET THOSE STEPS].

No, it’s us, the people who ride them, and our bizarre culturally-conditioned behavior once inside one. While waiting for our elevator to arrive, we may be carrying on a fantastic conversation, all jovial. Then, the doors open, we step inside, and it’s like we’ve entered the chamber of our death.

Silence. Staring blankly at what often is a reflective surface. Are you looking at yourself? Or are you checking out who the person standing shoulder to shoulder with you?

Thank goodness for smart phones, am I right? The solution to abate the awkwardness of those 10 or 20 seconds of gravity-defying momentum. No signal? No problem. I am going to pretend to look busy on this here device until I hear the ding that indicates it is my turn to exit this failed social experiment.

Who decided that elevators equated isolationist policies? Why do we choose to not engage with the people riding up with us? Do we think it’s too short of a time to really get to know someone? Is it an inconvenience?

I can hear some of my introverted friends decry the “small talk” default situations like riding an elevator invite. Still, there’s something inside each of us that yearns for that acknowledgement. See me. Even a simply volley about the weather brings us back to the often forgotten reality that we are both of this world, in this world.

We just happened to be in this strange moving box together, at this present moment in time. What could happen if we broached the invisible divide?

Who knows what could transpire in those seconds. A new friendship? A future romantic interlude? An awkward exchange with one hand over our mouth to mask the 20 cloves of garlic in our lunch.

Today, I got in an elevator (28 floors seemed ambitious, especially when running late) and intentionally turned my shoulders to the center of the elevator.

Yes, I was that person. Feel my energy, other elevator riders. I see you. We don’t have to talk. It’s okay. But we can share in the silence together.

The sounds of idealism

Young and hopeful,

Dissecting public policy decisions on a Sunday train trip.

‘We know solutions’, their conversation exudes.

Buzzwords aplenty: Medicaid, Medicare,

Space X.

The privilege of Amtrak: Time to berate funding priorities for public goods on public transit.

I sit amused and reflective.

How many of these moments have I initiated or participated in?

Gucci. Versaci.

Did he mean to rhyme during his tirade against the fashion moguls, whose designer shades continue to cast long shadows on the inhumane practices their corporate values gloss over?

If we took action on a fraction that frustrates us about the world we live in,

What would the world we live in look like?

Will these two young people be the catalysts?

I look over my left shoulder: both are now on their phones. Conversation paused.

Redirected to the distraction of now.

And so it goes. The sounds of idealism succumb to our soundtrack of life.

Easy.

Breezy.

Beautiful.

Right?

But, I wanna be productive! Don’t I?

The return trip back from any time away from home, whether a week or a long weekend, sets my brain and heart into motion. The parts of me I allowed to unwind begin to tightly coil once again.

I anticipate all that must happen in the next ten minutes, even when I’m still 30 minutes away from home: the unloading of the car, unpacking of bags, washing of clothes. The watering of plants, wrangling of cat fur tumbleweeds taking over the downstairs. The emails to respond to; the calendar plotting for the week ahead. Do I need to get groceries today or can that wait?

All of this is self-inflicted. And unhelpful. Remember how much fun we just had on vacation, Katie?

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Warning: that’s a genuine smile. Because I was having fun in the woods.

After spending the past two nights in the North Carolina mountains, I sit at this laptop with the goal of giving myself the gift of grace. Do what truly needs to get done in order for you to feel prepared to take on the week ahead. But, leave the “shoulds” out of the conversation today. BUT IT IS SO HARD!

Those “shoulds” are loud, often. Deafening at times, in fact. I will be the first to raise my hand and admit my cultural adherence to the notion of “productivity.” I prove my worth through tasks and outputs. Spending time on creative exercises, even writing this blog post right now, can provoke that small inner voice to speak up. “Psst, Katie, shouldn’t you go vacuum right now? The kitchen floor needs to be wiped up. And, why don’t you just check your work Inbox for a few minutes? You’ll feel so much better tomorrow…”

Will I, inner voice? Or will the small pool of “shoulds” morph into a tidal wave of anxiety, sweeping me into a vortex for the next two hours and then I look up and Sunday is over?

Do I sound like I am speaking from experience? Absolutely. Frequently. It has been a goal of this year for me to intentionally shift how I value myself and my time. Because, if I don’t, I will continue to miss out on opportunities to live fully.

Isn’t the notion of retirement weird? Our culture dictates that you have to earn your time to take adventure, develop hobbies, give back,etc. But, we have these mortal bodies that wear out over time. It becomes a heck of a lot harder to do all the things we may have wanted to do 30 years prior. (Unless you’ve developed erectile dysfunction. Then we’ve got a pill for you!)

We ran into many (perceived) retirees while hiking in the mountains on Friday. Of course — it’s a WORK day [note: “work” day in the dominant narrative of what constitutes “real” or “professional” work in a white supremacist society but NEWS FLASH: people work EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY and many of us take their schedules for granted — things still get delivered to ours doorsteps; our loved ones in the hospital are receiving care; office buildings are cleaned; fields are harvested; passengers arrive from one part of the world to another].

Back to my Friday morning hiking rumination. Aaron and I stuck out like a bit of sore thumbs as the youngest climbers of that time slot. Why would people of working ages be climbing a summit at 11:30am unless they were:

  1. Retired
  2. Vacationing
  3. Stay-at-home parent
  4. A person who takes time during their day to go hike a trail

Yes, number four is an option. (And no doubt there are a slew of other options so excuse my lack of inclusion. It is not meant to short-change anyone’s reason for being on a hike at 11:30am on a Friday. If you are on a hike at 11:30am on a Friday, you’re a badass. Period.)

Taking the time to make these moments happen, for me, can be so hard. Guilt of not feeling a contributing team member with my colleagues; fear of not being able to respond to the needs or questions of board members, donors, other stakeholders who are working on a Friday at 11:30am.

I like me some routine. I like me some dependibility. Funny how life provides neither of those. I can feel like I’m in a groove, that I’ve got things figured out. And then:

BAM.

A new opportunity. An illness. A phone call. An injury. A ticket to a sold-out show. Whatever it is, the exciting and excruciating, serve as reminders that change is constant. Which I know I know, but it doesn’t really sink it. I can still sing every lyric to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” as proved on our drive home today.

But, I refuse to grant space in my heart and mind that my perception of routine is false. Things are happening behind the scenes. It’s our own Upside Down from Stranger Things. Hopefully with fewer horrifying creatures.

stranger-things-upside-down

That’s essentially the face I make when confronting anything outside of my routine. IF IT IS NOT WRITTEN DOWN, I AM NOT SURE IT CAN HAPPEN. (Photo credit)

Here we are: on a Sunday afternoon, fretting about living up to standards set by society and me. The shadow of having to justifying taking a Friday off, of not doing another load of laundry today. One could be done, sure. There are a thousand things that could be done; there are a dozen tasks that I could list as “should be” completed.

Today, I started my morning, sipping hot coffee while leaning on a window ledge as a fog swallowed the homes, farms, and gardens enclosed in our valley. I heard the call of the rooster, alerting the masses that it was time to stretch our limbs from a good night’s rest. I smelled the rich earth, dotted with dew, and breathed in the cool, crisp air one would never expect in a North Carolina August.

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I should sit in that memory for a bit longer. It will fade, in time. But the feeling it has imprinted will serve as a reminder of why I choose, today and each day, to live. Productivity, be damn.

The other kitchen sink drain

It doesn’t look like the epicenter of frustration and tears, does it?

Alas, this spot marks the culmination of epic arguments between Aaron and me. Most have been borne from an off-hand remark and then spiraled off into a platform for unloading the real issue that had been simmering under the surface for hours, days, weeks, or months. (Note: if your panties have been in a wad for months over something a partner has done to you, you’re the only one experiencing that level of chaffage. Unpluck the wedgie by working through that concern pronto — nobody likes surprises or Desitin).

The kitchen should be a place reserved for the creation of comforting, creative dishes; for laughter and a few spills. It’s the siren’s song, drawing people into the home, whether a long-time resident or a random Tuesday dine-and-dash. This one space offers gifts for all five senses (but it can also be the place to get burned. Ouch).

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Maybe if I had a kitchen that looked like this, things would be different? Damn.  Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Our kitchen does take on these positive qualities most of the time. But, every once in awhile, this room morphs into our own version of a WWE Raw event. And it most often begins when one of us is standing at the sink.

WWE

A fairly accurate portrayal of our culinary-centered verbal smackdowns. Photo credit.

A few months ago, Aaron pointed out: 90% of our arguments start at our kitchen sink. (My husband loves him some percentages. Next time you see him, ask him if he is a vegan). Back to the kitchen: There’s nothing that sparks anger or annoyance than feeling the pulsing vibrations of a nearby garbage disposal, am I right? It’s true: the rectangular section between the island and washing station appears to channel dark energy that worms its way into a host and expels itself through the mouth in the form of a snarky comment, criticism, or passive aggressive non-verbal behavior.

Observe:

Me watching Aaron load the dishwasher: “Instead of putting those on the bottom shelf because they could melt, can we shift those to the top rack?”

Me upon discovering a bowl crusted with dried food left on the counter: “In the future, would you mind soaking this dish in the sink?”

Me washing dishes after cooking dinner: “Can you DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING, I JUST COOKED DINNER AND WHY AM I WASHING DISHES? OH AM I YELLING AT YOU NOW? I AM TRYING TO SPEAK SOFTLY BUT PROBABLY DON’T PUT A STICK IN MY HAND RIGHT NOW, NO MATTER THE SIZE.”

What did those three scnarios have in common? 

I am the instigator.

Am I always wrong in my instigation? Not from my perspective. I HAVE CONTROL ISSUES. This is when I force myself to reflect on my own experiences around the kitchen sink growing up. I was raised in a home (and mom, please correct me if I’m misconstruing any of this) where dishes were not to be left in the sink or on the counter overnight. There was a dishwasher. Use it. Put dishes in said dishwasher in a logical manner. Make sure they are rinsed first because the dishwasher isn’t magical. Wipe up excess water around the sink. Every once in awhile, wipe out the sink because it is a breeding ground for serious funk.

Perhaps I set the tone early on in our relationship when I instructed Aaron to get out of the kitchen as I was preparing a special dinner.

It was Aaron’s kitchen.

We all have idiosyncrasies. There are processes we prefer to see unfold, methods that soothe our spirits. None of them are inherently wrong. When it comes to merging your preferences with that of someone else’s, that’s when each of you might reach for your battle axes or boxing gloves.

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Or just bare-paw it like these wallabies. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

It is not easy to live with someone else. Feel free to disagree. Feel free to throw the “you’re an only child” card in my face. I’ll eat it for breakfast. Because I firmly believe that maintaining your sense of self in shared space is harder than we assume — or how it can be portrayed in pop culture. Our baggage alone can crowd our closets. Remember all of those things you used to do as a single person that you would never do in front of a partner/roommate? (Future blog post for sure).

The kitchen, in particular, also screams to me the place to buck gendered household roles. I resent feeling as if I’m the sole cook and then the sole cleaner. I’m not good at asking for help; or, if I do ask for help, I struggle letting go of dictating how a process gets done. Would I have preferred that a larger colander was used rather than filling the brim of the small one? Sure. Does it really matter in the preparation of this meal?

No. It doesn’t.

In the same breath, I do want to engage in a real partnership, not just give lip-service to one. I have to be able and willing to speak up and express when I’m feeling like the balance of shared responsibilities is lopsided. I want my partner to understand that it’s not about me versus him; it’s about the “us”, this modern take on establishing a household where each of our parts plays an instrumental role in creating the atmosphere that fills us with satisfaction, connection, and joy.

Perhaps it’s best if such conversations start far away from the kitchen sink.