As the oldest of five children, I was the fledgling occupant of what would too soon become a very cramped nest. Up until I was 18 months old, I was the lone star in my parent’s firmament. I’ve heard Mom reminisce many times about those months, about how my arrival grounded and focused the giddy thrill of their teenage love, while providing more than enough leeway for them to dote on me like a precious doll. Once the other’s started coming – Mom was just 25, Dad 26, by the time they had five children under seven years old – there was no time for doting or even undivided attention. Though any memory I hold of the period is pre-verbal and wholly inaccessible, I can’t help but feel that it set me apart from my four siblings in some small way: for a brief time in the history of our family, I was an Only Child.
For those of you who are an Only Child, the daily – nay, hourly impact – of having a brother or sister may be difficult to conjure. I know every holiday season my daughter would often fantasize about a soft-focused, Kincaid-limned tableau of a serene Christmas morning, children seated like little ducklings in a row, wholly engaged in watching each successive sibling open a present in turn, celebrating each one’s unveiled treasure, beaming a glow of happiness at the others’ bounty. A tray of cocoa sits steaming on the coffee table (which was somehow mysteriously prepared before said children awoke) and each child, universally pleased with their handful of gifts, serenely occupies themselves for hours with imaginative play and convivial banter before transitioning sedately to the breakfast table for a leisurely feast.
Sorry – doesn’t happen that way, I’d tell her. Instead, imagine Walmart opening its doors on Black Friday: around 5am, after three hours of restless sleep, when the parents give up trying to get the kids back in their respective bedrooms, there is a mad dash and chaotic dive under the tree and all those carefully wrapped presents are transformed into vast mounds of shredded paper, cast off ribbons, torn up boxes, their contents disgorged into an indistinguishable mound of plastic, fabric, metal, and wires within two and a half minutes. The parents, still dazed and sleep-befuddled, are simultaneously trying to understand how Zoe ended up with Chloe’s Barbie Doll, why Justin is having a meltdown over his new bike, and where on earth Ziggy disappeared to, all while snatching microscopic components from Ziggy’s Lego set from the baby’s fists, fending off ill-timed calls from curious grandparents, and holding back the cat from chasing flying embers into the fireplace. Within ten minutes everyone is done playing with their toys and screaming for breakfast. Merry Christmas folks.
And it wasn’t just Christmas. On one particularly memorable occasion, my mother’s first cousin (tellingly, the mother of an Only Child) thoughtlessly placed a bowl of potato chips at the center of the lunch table for us kids to share, inadvertently launching a blur of scrabbling, grabbing fingers and fists that resulted in one bloody lip, a significant clump of torn hair and a general miasma of grief and outrage. There was the time mom realized that she had left two children at school only when the carpool kids were dropped off and the noise-level in the van ratcheted down to silence. Or the countless instances when me or one of my siblings would run through every room in our 1100 square foot house bewailing our victimhood and vowing to “tell”, only to find it unaccountably empty (Mom disclosed, years later, that she would hide in the closet whenever she heard the pitch of our wails approaching from outside.) There were nights at the dinner table when the level of teasing, complaining, and arguing reached such a crescendo that Dad would slam his fists down on the table, rattling flatware, spilling milk, and roar “All of you, QUIET or I’m getting the belt!” (More on that in a future post.)
It was situations like these that led me to fantasies of solitary refinement. My daily life was so replete with chaos and noise and internecine feuds that the only respite I could imagine was to erase my siblings from the equation. When you are an Only Child, I imagined, daily life proceeds in a calm and orderly fashion. There is no jousting for the front seat, or squabbling over the last of the Trix, or straining to hear the TV, nor any need to contort into a pretzel in the back seat during vacation trips. Your bedroom is completely and wholly your own. You can leave your Halloween candy on your bedside table and it will be there when you get home from school. No one is wearing the same outfit as you on Easter. You won’t ever have to take the blame for something you didn’t do because mom is tired of hearing excuses. No one else is going to ride your bike, take your roller blades, run the battery down on your radio, “borrow” and lose your favorite jacket, steal your allowance, or fling sand in your face at the beach. There is nothing added, extraneous, or superfluous to derail one’s sense of agency and control.
I grew up fantasizing about this ideal state and, to a large degree, made the choice to have an Only Child based on what I believed to be the most enviable permutation of family life. She would always be the only star in my firmament, the rich recipient of every ounce of undivided attention I could provide. I truly thought I was conferring a lifelong advantage on my daughter by precluding her from ever having to anticipate, acknowledge, or consider the variable preferences, needs, demands, and complaints of a sibling. Even writing that last sentence causes me embarrassment now, of course. What was I thinking? Thirty-five years later, I understand that it is primarily through repeated, unavoidable encounters with the other – having to comprehend and integrate the reality of multiplicity, learn and incorporate the lessons of cooperation and empathy, forcibly shift one’s perspective from “I” to “we” – that we mature from ego-driven toddlers into caring, sharing adults. My daughter is the one who ended up revealing the truth that siblings gave me.
She was in junior college when her oldest half-brother, one of three boys her biological father subsequently had with his wife, found her on Facebook and initiated contact. Over the next couple of years, she met him and, eventually, her two other brothers in person. I still recall her telling me, unadulterated wonder suffusing her voice, of staring across the restaurant table at a male version of her own face. . Because, appearance-wise, she inherited more qualities of her father’s than mine, she never had occasion to witness her own reflection spring independently to life, or caught the shared gestures and facial expressions that genetics often bequeath to siblings. But, even more than in the physical similarities, was the relief she experienced in finding sympathetic personalities, ways of being and reacting to the world that resonated with familiarity. All of her life up until that point she had been a set of One, unique and alone. Then, she became a member of an interrelated unit and experienced the psychological stickiness between the disparate elements of a family dynamic. Perhaps books like Angela’s Ashes and The Great Santini and films like The Royal Tenenbaums are so successful because they portray the indiscretions, vulnerabilities, crimes and misdemeanors that family members perpetrate on each other without sacrificing the bonds that unite and define them.
If your dad is a work-obsessed megalomaniac, or a disconnected truck driver on the road three hundred days a year, or a high school English teacher forever correcting your grammar; if your mom is a melancholy aspirin-eater living in the rear view mirror, or a liberated authoritarian with zero tolerance for bling, or a soccer club coach singularly focused on your scholarship prospects, how – if ever – do you come to understand that you’re not a forlorn misfit in this world, that all the confusion and awkwardness, anxiety and compulsions, dread and mania you might evince is not inherent but a behavioral response to forces clashing and conspiring outside of you? By what mechanisms does the Only Child grasp interpersonal dynamics, up close and personal? How does she learn about The Other? Granted, most people gradually encounter challenges and obstacles in the wider world and can apply the lessons learned to their parental relationships, given the successful acquisition of reason and objectivity and, in some cased, a healthy dose of therapy.
But, generally speaking, children who share parents with a sibling or two or five have the advantage of witnessing the dynamics at play between them and another person who isn’t You. Parents don’t even need to be particularly twisted or deranged or socially inept to visit great insecurities or guilt on their progeny: if you’re an Only Child, with whom can you commiserate about your mom’s tone deafness or your dad’s perpetual recapitulation of the obvious? Who will be affected as deeply, show up at the hospital for selfish reasons, vigorously debate treatment options with the same degree of personal investment when dad has a stroke? Who can remind you what garish color the bathroom wallpaper was in that 1100 square foot house after mom dies? Shared memories and experiences are amplified, orchestral, drenched in coloratura. Siblings add context, explanation, justification, and a very real validation of the circumstances of our lives.
More importantly, though, they offer us the opportunity to see the world aslant, from a slightly different angle. It’s the same view, only 2-3″ or six years off. As children with siblings, we are exhorted to share, to wait our turn, to compromise and let things go, and end up, more often than not, just ceding our desires rather than fight what are usually losing battles. There is nothing that will try a seven- and five-year-old’s patience more than having to wait for a toddler to be diapered, changed and fed before departing to Disneyland. By the time they are teenagers, though, they may have gained a shared resiliency and camaraderie through weathering the familial frays that will translate into a greater tolerance for inconvenience and irritants.
Especially in a world that is increasingly globalized and interconnected, the ability to bear differences, to countenance multiplicity over monotone, to let one’s proclivities to take a back seat to presenting circumstances, are valuable survival skills. Growing up in a clamoring, raucous group of siblings all trying to meet their own needs ingrained in me the realities of diversity – we are all competing, each moment of every day, for attention and validation and sustenance – and inevitably our wants and desires will sometimes be thwarted. How we deal with those disappointments is often predicated on how, when, and where we have encountered social hierarchies and networks in the past. The family environment is usually our first training ground, the place where we test out our eventual coping skills.
So let’s hear it for siblings and the myriad challenges they bring. I’m glad to be one of five and am thankful my daughter is no longer an Only Child.