The Perk of Being an Only Child

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Photo by rihaij via Pixabay (CC0)

Much has been said about the importance of socializing children, and rightfully so. Learning how to effectively and safely interact with other humans is one of the most foundational and necessary skills for human happiness and survival. To this end, many parents try to have at least two children, with some insisting on participation in team sports or other social activities. But another important aspect of socialization is letting children learn how to be alone, something that we don’t talk about as much. Whenever I hear about someone “learning to be alone,” it’s a middle-aged recent divorcee in a movie using the settlement money to “be alone” in a villa in Italy, deriving erotic stimulation from the scent of peaches and oversize sweaters before a kindly older man with a dog makes her feel beautiful and reminds her what love “really is.”

Since everybody is alone sometimes, the stated goal of “learning to be alone” sounds like the vague, hyperdramatic whim of an overly sensitive person who wants an excuse to brood and be selfish. However, people who use this phrase are referring, not so much to the physical state of being alone, but the ability to be emotionally, mentally and, to the extent possible, physically dependent on themselves. In this ideal state, external human relationships remain important, but are no longer the foundational element to one’s well being. The state of solitude becomes, not one to fear, but one to accept, then find comfort in — then, perhaps, to relish. Once a person reaches this self-development Holy Grail, the stakes of human approval are vastly lowered, empowering one to reject relationships and philosophies that are hurtful.

One would think that the introverts of the world, for whom copious alone time is necessary, have a leg up on this. I, an introverted only child who has also battled with social anxiety, thought for sure I had this market cornered. I always felt smug whenever the Oprahs of the world serenely grasped their guests’ hands and told them to learn to love being alone. NOBODY does alone better than I do! I spent my formative years making improv reality shows with my Barbies, reading newspapers and books, building forts, and drawing shitty comics. As I got older, I taught myself how to knit and make beaded jewelry. I fell down oddly specific historical rabbit holes, reading everything I could about Titanic conspiracy theories and Louis XVI’s real sexual orientation. And, not to sound like your grandpa, but I did all this without internet access or cable TV.

So how come my chest tightens whenever I think about being single in five, ten years? What was I supposed to be figuring out in my relatively solitary youth, other than how to make the most of social isolation and public libraries?

Frankly, I would have liked the company of siblings. From ages seven through nine, I had five imaginary brothers and sisters, similar to Mallory in “The Babysitter’s Club,” and I cried every time my parents came to pick me up from my cousins’ house in San Jose. Since I couldn’t have what I wanted, however, I had to be resourceful. I figured out how to identify what was available to me — my imagination, writing and drawing tools, a library card, old toys, an older radio — and use it to pass the time until I grew up and could create my own life and community.

Today, I sometimes feel weird at parties, but I know how to pass an afternoon or weekend alone without getting antsy. I know how to develop and nurture interests. I know that I have the ability to create something meaningful with whatever I have around and within me at any given moment, even if that doesn’t include other people. This knowledge is easy to lose amidst the noise of external needs, desires, fears, and insecurities, but it is never fully forgotten. Some of my most profound memories are the rare moments of mental and emotional clarity I find in the middle of a long solo drive, after hours of drawing, or in the triumphant minutes after escaping a crowded, careless room.

Human connection is rad, and I hope to enjoy much more of it, in all of its depths and forms, in this lifetime. But if that doesn’t work out…well, that’ll be okay too.

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