Thursday, April 29, 2010

Five Truths About Only Children

There are more of us than there used to be.  Among my friends growing up in the 1970s, I was a novelty, an only child.  My mom's childhood, which included an older sister born blind and deaf (a fact she discovered, not until I was well grown, was due to her mother's contraction of German Measles during her first trimester) kept her from having more children.  I was a breech birth and quite tiny, but made it through well. She wasn't about to push her luck.

It's a circumstance that defines one's life.  One of the kindest things I've heard on the matter was from my friend Joanne, who spent a summer in Belgium and told me she loved their term for only children: un enfant unique. If you've got a good friend or a significant other who is an EU, this list of our quirks may help you interact with him or her just a little more gently.

We worry that we're living up the stereotype.  If you've been married to an EU for any length of time, you know you can instantly win an argument by saying, "Well, clearly your upbringing made you selfish. You never had to consider anyone else."  No matter how hard we try to be thoughtful, considerate people, we always worry that everyone assumes, correctly, that we are spoiled.  (Hint: if you want to be happily married to an EU, don't trot this one out often. Eventually we realize you care more about being right than you do about us.)

We worry that we're needy.  Because we've been the center of the universe for a couple of decades at least, it's hard to know what to expect or ask from friends and spouses.  As a friend married to an EU told me, "I once saw his parents crinkle their noses over something he said."  She is the youngest of six kids, so sitting around watching the sun shining out of his butt, was, well, a bit annoying.  We don't always know when we are supposed to cede the floor--we assume, from experience, that what we have to say is endlessly charming to all--or how to return favors.  Please give us very gentle pointers in this regard.  I would be insufferable if not for my university housemates.  Thanks, friends.

We're jealous of people with big families.  So many of the friends I was attracted to in high school had large, loud families.  I loved spending time at their houses, listening to the banter and watching the brothers throw things at each other and the sisters scream about borrowed jeans that were never returned.  And then, exhausted, I would have to go home to my perfectly tidy, quiet room.  As an adult, I know lots of people who say their families are strangers and their friends are the people they count on.  I want to believe them, but am still painfully envious of them for all the people to whom they are bound by blood.

When we have a fight with you, we feel like it's the end of the world.  I watch my children have big, loud arguments and, five minutes later, be talking about what's happening at school.  They are very close (my fondest wish, not surprisingly) and seem to just know that the bond between them can't be broken by garden variety conflict.  For EUs, there is no garden variety conflict.  In the workplace, I am not afraid to wade into differences of opinion, but in my friendships and romances it's profoundly difficult.  There is no peer bond like that between siblings I've experienced, and even in my longest, strongest friendships, I assume if there is a fight that the relationship is over.  Conflict is of course inevitable, but us EUs think that if you're mad, you've written us off forever.

Our friendships sustain us.  When I got divorced, my father told me his greatest worry was that, "when your mother and I are gone, you'll be all alone."  I felt bad for him, but the notion that I am all by myself seemed rather funny.  EUs don't take friendships for granted, and we do our best to stay close with those we care about.  So when we really need others, we know the people who will be there are with us not because they are obliged to love us, but because they have chosen to do so.


  1. Sue, you make me grateful for my large family. Although I am now close to my brother, he ws enough older and went away to school early enough, that I was raised as an only child and recognize much of what you say.
    But rest assured, you have a large, noisy, welcoming family on Park Place Avenue.

  2. "I would be insufferable if not for my university housemates..."

    You're STILL insufferable. Maybe taking in some more housemates would help.

  3. Not sure it would help at this late hour.