Growing up as an only child in a very Catholic post WWII neighborhood, I was quite the anomaly. Viewed with a mixture of awe (by my peers) and pity (by their parents), I rather enjoyed my somewhat exalted status. In fact, I enjoyed being an only child so much that I married one, and then became the mother of one.
Which may be the reason some of my younger friends consider me an expert on the subject. Apparently it’s becoming quite popular to have just one child, I recently read that over the past 20 years, the percentage of families who choose to have only one child has doubled. Yet, some of these young mothers appear to harbor lingering doubts about their decision, and seek out my opinion.
“Tell me what it was like being an only child,” they’ll plead. “Was it really okay? After all, you and Jim and Brian all turned out fine, didn’t you?”
Next time I get this question, I’m going to offer them a copy of Only Child, a selection of essays edited by Deborah Siegel and Daphne Uviller. These two women, both only children themselves, solicited writers to “reflect on transformative episodes that defined them as only children.” These twenty essays explore not just childhood experiences growing up as an “only,” but also the way this has shaped the writers relationship with friends, their own parenting experience, and finally, coming to grips with their parents aging and death.
So we have Peter Terzian, writing about himself as a 10 year old who developed an almost personal relationship with his postcard collection; Sarah Towers, who at age eight was so desperate for a sibling she was “ready to settle for a chimp”; Betty Rollins who, until she was 15, didn’t realize her “birthday wasn’t a national holiday.”
And there’s John Hodgman, who decided to have two children of his own, since, “like a farmer who needs two children to till the soil and cannot risk having but one, so I need more than one child to lower my risk of absolute awful heartache.” And Penn Jillette, a professional magician who learns to practice a different sleight of hand in caring for his aging parents. “If you’re an only child, and you love your parents, and your parents need you, well, what do you do? You help them while pretending not to help. You lie. And you think you fool them.”
By turns poignant and humorous, the collection provides valuable insight into the psyches of only children. Nearly every essay contained a nugget of truth so close to my own experience that I found myself nodding in affirmation, or shaking my head in wonderment. Yes, exactly! I might think, comforted to know there were others who had felt the same way. Those hot button issues that only children face in spades – creating boundaries between themselves and their parents, learning to express anger, conquering loneliness – are tackled in this group of essays.
Whether you are an only child, the parent of one, the spouse or offspring of one (or, in my case, all of the above!) these essays will touch your heart, make you smile, and offer valuable insights into navigating the waters of this life experience.
edited by Deborah Siegel and Daphne Uviller
published in 2006, Three Rivers Press
review for Mother Talk