Birth order has always fascinated me. The responsible, smarter more mature oldest child. The zany, always posturing for fairness, one of a kind middle child. The laid back, usually funniest one in the family baby.
Of course all of those are subjective and can switch around depending upon personalities and throwing in a fourth kid or a set of twins.
What doesn’t seem to sway public opinion is the role of Only Child.
Being an Only Child I’ve had a lifetime of hearing these precious gems shared by strangers:
“Oh I bet you are spoiled!”
“Were you such a handful they didn’t want another?”
“You must get everything you want.”
“I bet you have a tough time sharing, huh?”
And if not directed towards me then looking back it seems like my Mother did her fair share of hedging rude questions better answered with “none of your business.”
“Why did you not have any more kids?”
“Was she such a brat you didn’t want any more children?”
“Boy you must have so much extra time on your hands?”
“Do you ever wish you had more kids?”
And yes. I was capable of hearing all of their questions right there in the grocery store line.
And yes. I completely picked up on their suggestions that I wasn’t enough or somehow just me could be a disappointment.
Luckily I had parents who poured into me that I was more than enough, that they never wished for more kids and that I was the perfect one God had sent their way. Whether they believed that or not they sold it hook, line and sinker!
It wasn’t until years later I learned about my mother’s decade of infertility and three miscarriages before me that were all far along pregnancies. But back in the 1970’s none of that was discussed. No IVF chat boards or miscarriage support groups. Mother simply asked her baby shower be held after I was born – she had lost too much to risk getting excited until I had made my grand entrance.
Yet my parents never let on that they might have wanted more kids. They never allowed me to feel less than.
However right now, I’m really wishing I had a brother or sister to talk to as health issues with my parents are now a constant reality in our lives.
You’d think as an Air Force Brat I would have been a sullen Only Child moving around the world – even 13 schools before college didn’t do me in tackling the “new kid” role over and over again on my own. I had plenty of friends and quite honestly I was ready to go home to my quiet house to play with my toys exactly where I had left them last. No brother grabbing my stuff or sister raiding my closet.
And side-note some Only Children are spoiled rotten, as are some kids with siblings. Just because we didn’t have to share our toys doesn’t make us selfish. It just made our toys last longer!
With other Only Children the whole “you must have been spoiled” is pretty much the number one thing we hate hearing strangers or those with siblings say. OK, off my soapbox. That was for all the other OC’s out there who cringe upon seeing that face when they find out you were an Uno. So annoying!
So yes, you might think that as a kid I felt the loneliest, but you know what’s great about kids? Their experience is their norm. Being an Only Child was all I knew. That was my normal. People asking rude questions or watching other siblings interact was me looking outside the world I knew. It wasn’t heartbreaking or a burden. It was just my life.
But now. Wow have I felt lonely this year. My parents have experienced health issues for the last quarter century. I’ve gotten good at jumping on planes for open heart surgery or staying with Mother after her mastectomy. Any health hiccup that comes with age is addressed and we move on in the way our little nuclear family does. Prayers, talk, openness, inappropriate humor and love. My husband has been added to the fold and my kids bring joy to my parents only grandkids can.
But when my parents send notes about their last wishes or remind me where important documents are kept, being the Only suddenly feels lonely.
And yes by all means some of you have jerks of siblings who basically have made you an Only to care for your parents. Brothers who never call, sisters who can’t be trusted with checking on aging parents, siblings who take cash over giving care. God bless you for carrying everyone’s burden.
What I think I’m missing now is the story telling piece to share with someone else who was in the trenches with me. I have a bit of that with my cousins, but I was the oldest so usually I’m reminding them of the silly or scary things they did from covering their bodies with Vaseline or putting cats in microwaves.
Yet cousin stories are not the same as sibling stories. Nobody to beat up on you is something I can live with missing out on. But now as my Mother battles memory loss it’s crushing to my daughter heart because the unknown is terrifying. And if I’m honest without sounding selfish (a lifetime fear of Only’s), it grieves me when I realize my person, my story-teller, the keeper of my life tales can’t recall them all.
Reminding Mother of my little quirks or my big wins in life – heck, even the big losses – leaves me hanging up the phone strong for her, but then quickly a pile of tears for me. That’s when I realize the beauty of siblings to share the burden of aging parents and the future reality of life without them.
This is when One truly feels like the loneliest number.
So if your family is made complete with the blessing of an Only Child either through choice, loss or just life in general then know that the path of an Only Child is a truly amazing experience. From being raised around adults, these kids are usually most comfortable speaking with older folks or on more mature topics. The friendship with parents is strong as the family unit can be tighter knit since you just have each other. Only Children treasure friendships and perhaps may want to be the “alpha friend” however they will treasure their relationships.
Now that the chips have fallen and it is what it is for your family of three, or two if you are a single mom (and may I add a profound “God bless you friend” right here), there are some practices you can put into place now to hedge a border of care around your single. Hopefully a long long time down the road, the preparation now will pay off in a strong community of support for your child when your time to be their aged parent begins.
1. Build up “framily” now. I’m an Only of an Only so that side is slim pickings, however my Air Force family is the real deal because my parents believed in “chosen” family. It’s the folks you want to do life with. Plan outings and events with those you want in your child’s life. Set up trips or an overnight visit if the people you want influencing your child live far away. Buck the tradition that holidays must be with relatives and start a new chosen family holiday to impart on your child that these people matter even in the future.
2. Assure your Only he or she beyond the shadow of a doubt he or she is the right one. It might be obvious in your mind, but a daughter’s doubt if Dad really wanted a son can creep in. And let’s be honest, some rude person will probably point that one day. Just find opportunities to weave in how grateful you are they are your child and how they fill your heart up many times over. You don’t have to bash the idea of siblings, just share the special reasons why your Only is more than enough to complete your family.
3. Have a script ready for strangers because you know the questions and statements are coming. As your child gets older you have every right not to engage or even put a hand up and say “this is a mind your own business zone thank you.” But if you are a little sassy and quick on your feet, have a zinger or two ready for rude ones. Judgement free zone here friends.
4. As for those blood relatives, encourage aunts, cousins, etc to reach out to your child in the future. You want to get it in the head of family now to include your child years down the road when you are gone. For your own interest then you know the oral stories and family funnies will include your child and be told to him or her to carry forward with their family.
5. Clean it up and get organized. Yes it’s a give the Only will get all of your stuff one day, but please people learn to use a Sharpie and write on the back of important stuff to keep or the details around the item. Having an Only is no excuse to live like a hoarder and even worse keep every art project, homework assignment, sports uniform or tooth of your sweet Only. Speaking from experience here of one who will have to back up a dumpster to my parents’ home one day, do us all a favor and streamline your things now!