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?