People are having fewer kids these days, and only children are becoming more common. Katharine Coldiron shares what is was like growing up an only.
Some years ago, in the supermarket, I passed a Time cover graced by two adorable little children in a nest. The accompanying headline was “How Your Siblings Make You Who You Are.” I instantly felt excluded, because I didn’t grow up with any siblings. Going by the headline, I had no identity at all. (Thanks a bunch, Time.) That exclusion, that rare-bird sensation, is a feeling I haven’t had much in my life as an only child, because for me, being an only is normal.
Although it may be changing as families shrink in the new millennium, siblings seem to be more common than not. Some onlies I’ve known report that they are indeed seen as oddities, that curious strangers want to hear more about their experiences—as if they are paraplegics, or vegans. People even assume that all onlies are self-centered or difficult or introverted (or, perhaps, a bit defensive).
I can’t say that questioning or stereotyping has happened to me frequently, but sometimes people have asked, as if I had visited the moon, “What was it like?” My stock answer is: “You get all your parents’ attention, but then, you get all your parents’ attention.” It’s nice to have devotion, but it’s not nice to have scrutiny. That’s a summary of 18 formative years, so naturally it leaves a few things out.
I think the critical item that affects me today is that I never really learned to fart proudly. I never had to deal with a sibling who was annoying me or whom I was annoying, so I never had to stick up for my right to be obnoxious or retaliate against someone for the same crime. It was just me, and my parents were the ones in charge, so I had to try and keep out of their way. I didn’t have one of those creepy childhoods with a clean, silent house, ticking grandfather clock, no wire hangers; but I was expected to be courteous to my parents and to respect their privacy to a degree that would have been unrealistic with a sibling.
So I never grew a thick skin in order to deal with conflicting preferences. I just backed quietly away. Today, when I’m driving someone else around in my car, I sit there on pins and needles worrying that the music I’m playing is bothering them somehow. I’m terrified of being too much in someone else’s space, that I’ll overstay my welcome in others’ homes—or even in their company—and they’ll be too polite to say anything. I need over-reassurance that the restaurant I’ve selected is really OK with my husband. All these symptoms boil down to excessive anxiety over making choices that affect other people in my immediate orbit, an anxiety that I never ditched as I grew up.
Some of this is personality, of course. I know I’m a sensitive soul. But if I’d had a big brother down the hall blasting Depeche Mode while I was trying to play with My Little Ponies, I’d probably have learned to barrel into his room and yell at him to shut up once in a while. And I would’ve blasted Nirvana in turn, annoying my own little sister, a few years later. I would have invaded a sibling’s privacy mercilessly and had mine invaded, too. That isn’t positive socialization, exactly, but learning how to clash with other people in order to enjoy your time on this earth is necessary to live in the world. Coping with confrontation is one of my worst weaknesses, and I think it’s one that’s mostly derived from not having grown up shoulder to shoulder with anyone.
In 2009, my father and his new wife had a baby. After 28 years as an only child, I wasn’t one anymore; I had a new normal, one that more closely resembled everyone else’s. It’s been four years and I still haven’t sorted through what this massive shift in identity means to me. Possibly, my identity as an only child is so fixed, since my childhood is over, that it just means my family is bigger. I don’t really know. The word “brother” feels ungainly and incorrect coming out of my mouth when I refer to him.
I’ve also had a little grownup sibling practice with my husband’s brother, who is so brotherly to me that I can hardly imagine my life without him. But I still sometimes feel the urge to sit down with my siblinged friends and quiz them for hours. As if they’d visited the moon. What was it like?
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in The Escapist, Route, JMWW, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.