The Only Child as Adult

Let’s talk about imagination for a moment. Suppose you were an only child and never had anyone to play with. What would you have done? Would you have spent every night praying for a brother like I did? Probably. Would you have pretended you had an invisible twin brother like I did? Probably not. They say there is always two sides to every story, but for this story there is only my side. Why? Because I was an only child. There is a bright side to this story. There is only a bright side to this story. At least in my story there is.

Those of you who have put thought into whether or not to have more than one child, take notes because I’m going to tell you the truth. There will be no embellishment here. I don’t need to stretch the truth to make it more interesting or frightful because I have the only thing I need to complete these next few thoughts: my memory. Unlike my adult memories which can be stretched and examined according to mood, my childhood memories are untouchable. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in or where I am in my life, the adventures I’ve experienced with myself and the odd pet toad have been engraved in my mind and I have no interest in ever moving them. But anyway, here is my guide to sibling substitution as I experienced it. This is one of the many stories I often think about whenever I come across a book or website that tries to demonize parents for choosing to only have one child.

I guess you could say that I had a dog who was like my brother. He protected me from bullies better than any human ever could. He name was Major and he was a big German shepherd who slept outside in a doghouse like all tough dogs at the time did. He was the kind of dog who waited at the end of the driveway for you to get off the bus and then sat there as the doors opened and you came out.

He was also the kind of dog who would protect you from bullies. There was a kid named Joel who tried picking on my once. Just once. I was around eight or nine and what he did really crossed the line. My cousin Dan and I had spent the summer building this excellent cabin in the woods near my house. We hauled a lot of scrap wood into the forest to build that thing, and the end result spoke for itself. This thing even had a basement which, by the way, took a week to dig out. That’s how amazing it was.

Well, getting to the point, once summer ended and we were back in school, one of us told the wrong person about our amazing cabin and just like that our dream home away from home was taken away from us by these older kids. An ideal older brother would have jumped onto the scene, kicking and punching his way into savior status, saving the day and our cabin, but I had something better: a big German Shepherd. I should probably mention that back in those days, you were allowed to sick your dog on people if they upset you and you were eight. And that’s exactly what I did. Though I did have enough common sense to come up with a plan beforehand to make it look like an accident. It wasn’t a very good plan, and it didn’t work, but at least I tried. Isn’t that what they say matters? So, simply put, I went to my cabin with a bunch of dog bones when no one was around and buried them in and around the place. That was the easy part. The next day I went back with my dog when I knew Joel and his gang would be there. There were only three of them there. Two of them took off running when they saw Major. Joel decided to pick up a stick and act like he was going to use it. Of course he was all talk and my dog tore his shirt to shreds before sending him off crying like a little baby. This is one of the reasons I didn’t mind not having a brother. Did I mention that I ended up tearing that cabin to bits and using the wood to build a better one closer to my house?

I think it’s important to mention here that even though I grew up ‘alone’ and have nothing but fond memories concerning my childhood and upbringing, I would never wish that upon my own children. Even when my daughter was two years old, I remember being able to see the envy in her eyes every time she saw other siblings together and the obvious bonds they shared. And sometimes, late at night, when it’s quiet or raining, I can sense a patch of what it felt like to do the same thing when I was her age.

*UPDATE: I think it is fair to mention here that as of nine days ago, my 3 year old daughter is now in possession of her very own baby brother. His name is Donovan and she loves him to pieces. I must admit that even though I always planned for her to not be an only child, it took me a while to warm up to the idea of doing the whole baby thing over again. Being responsible for such a vulnerable little being was very stressful on me and I wasn't sure that I wanted to do it again, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I did decided to let it happen for the sake of the rest of my family than myself and that the biggest thing I was worried about was that having another child would change the dynamic we currently had that I cherished so much.

There is one thing I never thought about when I was growing up as on only child: how did my parents feel about it. What were their motives? Did they even have motives? Unfortunately, I am not able to ask my parents about it anymore as they are both deceased, but there are a few things I can assume for the most part. My real father was never in the picture. As far as I know, he was gone before I was even born, so this gives my mother a valid excuse for not having another child with him.

You always hear about how being an only child affects the child, but what you rarely hear about is how it affects the parents. Of course, when I say this, I mean when it is something that is beyond their control. After searching for more information on the subject and having only minimal luck, I was forced to turn my attention to China, and their famous ‘one child only’ policy that has been in practice since the 1970’s and has since become the norm. And even then I had a difficult time finding the specific things I was looking for.

What does it mean for a family that isn’t allowed to have more than one child? For a moment let us pretend that America had just decided to implement this rule. One child per family, no exceptions. How would our society deal with the sudden crisis this would create? If we were to believe even a fraction of the many theories we have now concerning the numerous only child syndromes, we would probably manage to convince ourselves in a hurry that we, as a nation, were heading down a dark path. Now think how the parents of all these children would deal with this policy. It would surely be heartbreaking for the mothers and fathers alike.

According to Darrell Sifford, who wrote a book being an only and collected many of their stories, the world can be a lonely place, during childhood and adulthood alike. He says that his parents were always there for him, and maybe a little too much, even if it meant that they had to take away from the things that they needed to do. This, he theorized, was because they felt guilty about him not having anyone to play with and felt the need to remedy the situation themselves. Whenever he wanted to play catch, his father would drop whatever he was doing and play with him.

In a way, I felt sad when I read that because I couldn't imagine, if true, the amount of complex guilt his parents must have been feeling. Whether intentional or not, it is likely not possible to ignore that fact that your child is alone and is aware of it, even from an early age. Another article titled “One and Only” by Lauren Sandler, she writes “ If parents no longer felt they had to have second children to keep from royally screwing up their first, would the majority of them still do it? What if, for those who didn't feel otherwise compelled to have more kids, they decided instead to opt for greater pleasure and autonomy, for other opportunities for personal advancement and self-fulfillment?”

It’s easy to see what kind of dark path this would lead us down. I also imagine a type of unspoken resentment associated with the one child policy. Fathers who always dreamed of little league with their sons might not be so warm with their daughters if they knew that their dreams would most likely never happen. Mothers who dreamed of playing dress up with their little girls might be disappointed if they gave birth to a boy. It’s also possible that having only one child would cause the parents to fight for their affections.

I imagine this type of thought can get really depressing, but as the population of the world grows, and resources run low, we should be aware that something like this could happen, if not to our generation than to another in the near future.

But if finding solace in statistics isn't an option for you, there is no shortage of books being writing about the plight of only children. I've happened to have read a few myself, and let me just save you the trouble and time by telling you not to waste your time with the opinions of others concerning this subject. It doesn't take much to reinforce an idea, and this rings especially true when that idea was planted without knowing. There are also countless blogs that deal with this issue which I found less than enlightening, at least through my own interpretations of them. It is possible that I am at a loss for thinking I could find something, an answer to a question I’m not even sure exists in my own mind or it its relevance can even be expressed in words, but I've try nonetheless. Reading these books and articles led me to realize that even though the concept of growing up alone has so solid value as an idea, there was no real way to relate that effect to a concrete foundation that could be used to express what my real mentality was at the time of my growing up. All I had to go with were a bunch of distorted memories that I wasn't even sure were relevant to anything, only that I picked and chose them for one reason or another to build a concept of what I wanted to remember of what my childhood was like.

With that said, I would be naive to think I had this mentality going into this project; it was quite the opposite. There was definitely some hope there, a lot more than I usually give to things. Just being aware of this made me wonder if perhaps my childhood was responsible for giving me the insight of lack of to dissect this project and give it the fairness it deserved. As you can see, there is no real way to distinguish the difference here and the fact that I even tried gives me all the proof I need to accept the evidence and deny myself the courage required to believe otherwise.

Being an only child and what causes us to be what we are can seem like a great mystery to the people who grew up surrounded by siblings in large families. This especially rings true with the few authors I've read in the last few months concerning this subject they found interesting enough to write about. Countless blogs giving countless opinions about countless causes and countless effects. It was enough to make me even more confused than when I started researching what I thought was a very lighthearted topic that I should have easily been able to relate to because I was the one who grew up without siblings. What was most surprising to me was many of these books the world could do without. In Carolyn White’s book, The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child, she talks about several topics that I believed I would have been wise to learn before my own daughter was born. I was also hoping to gain a little insight into my own childhood. It was only after I put the book away and found it again a few years later that I realized how unnecessary most of these books were to me as a parent and how potentially dangerous they were if I got myself obsessed with their material as I sometimes have known to do. At first, many of the topics in her book seem like solid advice that could be given without fear to any number of first time parents because the subjects in my opinion could be considered border line common sense to most people. With innocent and direct-sounding chapter titles like “Over-protection of Child” and “Seeking Perfection from your Only Child,” it is easy to understand how a new parent could be assured that the potential problems they may face could by avoided or at least taken care of by simply reading a book. The problem I had with this book is that it could be tweaked with little effort and made into a simple book about regular parenting. I found this especially troubling because I knew that there were parents out there who had actual concerns about their only child growing up without siblings and didn’t have many places to turn concerning advice about matters that could pop up. Making parents with only one child to seem like overly-stressed out perfectionists doesn’t always seem fair to me. One example is in her chapter involving overprotective parents where she writes: “With their total focus on one little creature, who might have come into the world with difficulty, only-child parents are often obsessively committed to making sure that everything goes well. Even the slightest mishap can seem calamitous until they get some experience under their belt.” As an only child myself, and friends with a few who were also, I can tell you that my parents were not much different than anyone else. Without diving into their psyches and analyzing every detail of the parenting techniques, you would have seen that there wasn’t a way to point them out in a crowd.

Now I know that this doesn’t seem like something the average person would be concerned about. My real problem with it is that I was looking for a book that would give me some kind of useful information about what it would mean if an only child decided to raise an only child and also maybe find something about my own childhood in there that I could use to help tune up my own parenting skills. Instead what I found was a lot of common sense advice that didn’t really say anything. I know as an author it’s required to make an observation and then come up with what you think should be done to make it different next time, and oftentimes that’s the point, but an entire book on it seemed a little too much to me, especially when the only true point of view you can trust is your own. Other advice in her book just seems destructive to me in ways I can’t even acknowledge: “Only children can often sound so sophisticated and deep that they frequently seem older than their years. Their vocabularies and mannerism may be more advanced than those of other children their age, but parents should not be tricked into thinking that their only child is some kind of prodigy.” Overall, I guess I can say without a doubt that none of those books I’ve read have helped me come to terms with being an only child and I’m not sure there were any terms that needed coming to, but in my journey so far, I’ve become certain that every situation is unique in its own way no matter how many times it repeats itself. It would be very naive for us to believe that there is one book that can really get in there and fix us. And unless we learn to read and interpret our own life stories, and evolve what we’ve read in the past using our own perspective, which, in my opinion, is the just the building blocks to common sense, we will never truly understand why we are qualified to know our selves and what we deserve to represent.

“Tell them you came & saw

& look’d into my eyes

& saw the shadow

of the guard receding.

Thoughts in time

& out of season

The Hitchhiker stood

by the side of the road

& leveled his thumb

in the calm calculus

of reason.”

-Jim Morrison, Paris Journal

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