For the most part, every firstborn spent some portion of his or her life as an only child. Some - like me, just 19 months older than my sister - don't remember much about that time; others, like my stepdaughter, who is five years older than her brother, recall it well. (And a few of us have probably taunted our younger siblings at least once or twice with the fact that we were here first...) And then there are those like my son, who has remained an only child for nearly 24 years; the younger step-siblings he acquired at age 22 live across the country and aren't a daily factor in his life. As it happens, I'm not just the parent of an "only," I'm the daughter of two of them (although my mom became an older half-sister when she was almost 17).
I decided quite early on that I only wanted one child, and I've written about that before. My son has never really seemed unhappy about his singleton status, but when the opportunity to read the essays in Only Child came up, I was very interested in other perspectives, especially since I have the impression that he's a bit of an exception in his contentment with it. I'm also a regular reader of Deborah Siegel's blog, Girl With Pen, so I was aware her work on the book.
The book contains 21 essays organized into four sections - childhood as an "only," significant others and friends, parenting, and losing a parent. As might be expected with an anthology, some of the pieces are stronger than others, and different readers will draw different things from it. I was interested in comparing the writers' perspectives and memories of only-childhood to my understanding of my son's, and curious about how they might address stereotypes about onlies. These are some of the impressions I take from the book:
Some of the writers were very content to be only children, while others begged for siblings - and some went back and forth.
Only children seem to have particularly close and open relationships with their parents. Several of the writers talked about the "triangle" of their family, and that was expressed in a positive manner - that is, as a "stable" shape. At the same time, they recognize that in such a small family, the members can be strongly invested in one another, perhaps too much so. It occurs to me that this makes the temptation toward "helicopter parenting" particularly strong for parents of an only (which makes me even more glad I resisted it with my son, pretty much). But for the most part, the closeness is seen as unremarkable within the family - but quite remarkable from the outside.
I got the sense that, at least among the only children who contributed to this book, the absence of sibling rivalry and closeness with their parents helped them grow up with more security and self-confidence than average.
Most of the only children here seem to deny the "spoiled" stereotype, at least in the material sense - they'll admit to being spoiled by parental attention, though. As far as the "selfish" designation often applied to onlies - because they "never had to learn to share" - some of the contributors feel that because they didn't have to fight siblings for attention, toys, or space, they're actually more generous and giving. (I think there's something to that, in not having a need to define and defend "turf.") However, sometimes that can lead to real problems with boundaries, or lack of them - an observation which actually gives me a little better understanding of my dad.
My favorite section of the book is the second one, "We Are...Family: Significant Others and Friends." This portion contains the editors' own contributions; Siegel's essay talks about her hopes of finding a partner who will "complete" her family, while Uviller's story imagines what life might have been like with a sister. Both are among my favorite selections; I also enjoyed Molly Jong-Fast's piece on growing up as Erica Jong's daughter. Sara Reistad-Long's "Separation and the Single Girl" and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn's "Becoming an Only Child" - a fairly uncommon experience resulting from the death of a brother - were particularly moving. The "parenting" section is titled "A Sib for Junior?" and I think that's telling; it's very interesting that only children frequently don't want to replicate that experience with the next generation, and that may be one way to learn how they really feel about it. (I'm waiting to see how that plays out with my son - and I'll be glad to wait a few more years, thank you.)
Only Child contains some fascinating reading and interesting stories, whether you grew up "only" yourself , are the partner of one, or are considering whether to raise one (just one).