“You’re one of those lonely children, aren’t you?” he said.
We were on the bleachers of the soccer field. The cold metal burned under me as I watched the high school game with some friends.
I corrected him, “No, I’m an ONLY child.”
I can’t remember what we were talking about or why we talked about my sibling status—but his odd phrase stuck in my head.
Lonely child. Lonely child. Lonely child.
His description was more accurate than I would have liked to think. Although I had a magical childhood, spent lots of time with cousins and friends, I always felt like I was missing something. I was lonely for a sibling.
When I was in 4th grade, my parents became foster parents. My older sister came to live with us for over a year and became a permanent part of our life. Through her and other foster brothers and sisters, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to have shared experiences with siblings.
I like to think these experiences balanced me: having foster siblings and spending lots of time with cousins. But in my pre-marital counseling session, I was reminded, “Your formative years were spent as an only child. It doesn’t matter how many sibling experiences you had. You are an only child.”
Exasperated, I point out to Mr. Marriage Counselor that I’m not the stereotypical only child—I don’t suffer from the only child syndrome. I wasn’t spoiled or ill-adjusted (or so I hoped).
“There are still things in family life you will struggle with because you are an only child,” he says.
Thank you, Mr. Marriage Counselor, for your inspiring words.
Married with Kids
Fast forward eleven years, and here I am: An only child raising siblings.
Thankfully, I have my husband to counteract my inadequacies.
I watch as my husband carefully splits the last piece of dessert into two pieces, something I would have given the first kid who asked.
My husband finds ways to include both kids in activities.
He encourages our children in their family roles: the importance of being either the big brother or little sister.
My husband is not an only child. He has two older sisters, and I know his compassion and generosity can be attributed to them. He and his siblings were separated by years growing up, and now they are separated by miles. But his sisters are the most supportive of him and our family.
On the Outside Looking In
Growing up, I was enchanted as I watched siblings. Like a cultural anthropologist observing a new culture, I looked for common traits among them. What confused me the most was how sometimes siblings seemed like best friends and other times like enemies.
Why could my friend make fun of her little sister but then get extremely offended when anyone joined in? Why did my cousin want to exclude her older brother from any of our hide-n-seek games but only want him when she got hurt?
Then there was the sibling rivalry.
I watched in horror as my cousins fought—kicking and screaming at each other.
When I became pregnant with my second child, I thought about this memory a lot. How will my children get along with each other? How do I help them establish a positive relationship? What do I know about sibling bonds?
If I have more than one child, does it automatically mean my house will be full of chaos and spiral out of control? Will I pull a Home Alone and accidentally leave one kid at home because there’s so much noise that I can’t think?
(These, of course, were silly thoughts induced by pregnancy hormones, but they were real to me.)
As my belly swelled, I stood at the front door of my house with my neighbor. Warm light pooled on our conversation, and I knew it was getting late. My neighbor needed to go back to her house with her family. But I stopped her anyway with one more question.
“You have three grown children who seem to like each other still. How does it work?” I asked.
She could see the nervousness etched on my face, and she smiled encouragement.
“You get to decide what is okay and not okay in your house. If you don’t want the kids yelling at each other, you teach them how you want them to communicate,” she said.
It was all I needed. My fears assuaged. I could be the mom to siblings.
Being an only child shaped who I am today. Despite feeling inferior at my premarital counseling session, I know that I bring a unique perspective to family life.
Because I was an only child, I’m good at finding things to do. “Bored” is not a word that easily comes into my vocabulary. This is something I want to teach my kids. Feeling uninspired can lead to creativity and wonder.
Another thing I will instill in my kids is rhythms of play and rest. Naptime is sacred at our house. And even if the kids don’t nap, we have that time for quiet play. Whether this is an “only-child” trait or not, I know myself enough to know that I need those times to refresh.
With my neighbor’s advice, I know that my husband and I get to dictate our family’s culture as parents. Parenting is a balancing act. It’s figuring out what you’re doing well and what you need to improve on. I know sometimes I have blind spots, and I’m not afraid to ask for advice. This is true no matter what family structure you came from and what type of family you are creating.
I’m mesmerized as I watch my children interact.
The big brother volunteers to get his blood drawn first at the doctor’s office to show his little sister how to be brave.
The little sister saves a piece of her cookie to give to her brother, who is away at school.
They play together. Read together. And, of course, argue over who has to do what chore.
Even in the arguing, I know that they are learning valuable lessons from each other.
I’m not sure what their relationship will look like in the future, but I’m so glad they have each other. And I’m so glad that I get to be their mom.