The innate loneliness of being an only child

The innate loneliness of being an only child

By Andrea Butler

As my parents and I get older, the reality of my lack of siblings begins to set in.

My lack of siblings was never something I thought much about as a young child.  It was just simply the reality of my family, like how we went to church every Sunday, and how I am the youngest of the grandchildren on my mother’s side. 

In retrospect, much of my early years were full of only child hallmarks:  I had two imaginary friends, Isla and Amy. We played together every day, and when I was punished for misbehavior, they were as well.  My dolls were my prized possessions, demanding seats when we went out for dinner, and my very patient father to carry them when I decided I didn’t want to anymore. Trips to the zoo always came with an open invitation for me to bring a friend, and I had a very busy social calendar for a preschooler, our house a popular playdate spot, due to our background, and eventually, a dog to play with.

As I got older, though, and my reality was shaped less by my family unit, and more by the outside world, I realized what I was missing.  

In adulthood, when I’ve told people I’m an only child, they usually respond with a smile, never seeming shocked.  I’m not surprised by their lack of surprise, either.  I, still, have many hallmarks of an only child.  I am quite independent.  I can entertain myself easily. I have a very strong sense of self.  Receiving all of my parent’s affection and attention has been wonderful for my innate self-esteem, but bad for my work ethic.  I still struggle with accepting people won’t adore me simply because I exist.

Not a choice 

Being an only was less of a deliberate decision on my parents’ part, and more how life panned out.  My mom was 45 when I was born.  She conceived naturally, less than a year after my parents wed, and had a complication-free pregnancy, culminating with a successful, drama-free C-section delivery. In many ways, for a woman who thought motherhood wasn’t available to her until she met my dad at age 40, I was a miracle baby.  Her adoration of me resulted in my inflated sense of self-importance, but also the warm, soupy feeling of a mother’s unconditional love.  I recognize many are not so fortunate.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was eight years old.  It was at this time the reality of my lack of siblings began to creep in.  My young mind did not understand the gravity of my mother’s diagnosis.  Mommy is sick, I thought, the doctors will make her better. And they did. 

Yet as anyone who has watched a parent battle a serious illness knows, it doesn’t go away even after treatment ends.  My mom has had numerous health concerns following her immune system-weakening cancer treatment. This included a shocking return of her cancer after 15 years of remission, which, fortunately, she beat, too.   

Facing your parents’ mortality is never easy.  But for me, and for all those without siblings, it includes an even deeper, more painful reality.  One day my parents will be dead, and there will be no one else to hold witness to my childhood.

I’ll never get it

My mother has nine siblings; my father has eight. They are a psychologist’s dream for analyzing how birth order influences personality, a middle child and eldest child, respectively.  

My mom has been in a bit of a rough patch in her relationship with her closest sister.  I tried to offer advice, calling upon my own interpersonal conflicts. “She’s not a friend though, Andi, she’s my sister,” my mother said, rejecting my advice.  The subtext was clear: you do not have a sister; you cannot possibly understand this situation.

I mourn my non-existent siblings, knowing there’s an entire type of relationship I’ll never understand.  It feels strange to miss something I’ve never had, and never possibly can have. When I took the train home from campus during university holidays, I often stared out the window, imagining what it would be like to have a sister at home waiting for me. I tried to picture her face.  Would she look like me?  Would we be close? I could never create a clear image of her.  I still can’t.

As the pandemic has forced many of us back into our nuclear families, I’ve been musing a lot more on my lack of siblings.  I picture myself as a small child, stuck at home for months on end, unable to see friends or interact with anyone my age.  I can’t imagine how sad I would have been, how damaging it would have been to my social development. Even as an adult, as many have flocked back to the nest during this time, I’ve watched friends socialize in their home with siblings, as I desperately wish I could hang out with someone who isn’t my mom or dad.  Many of my friends are becoming aunts and uncles.  I’ll never get to be, at least not by blood. This hurts too.

Anticipating future heartache 

I’ve told people that if I were to lose both my parents tomorrow, my immediate instinct would be to have a baby, so that I could have a family.  I am only half-joking.  Thanks to my parents’ very stereotypically large, Catholic families, my extended brood is quite large.  I know once they’re gone, I won’t be alone.  

But no one will be there to remember our favorite dinners to make, or what it was like when we put our beloved dog to sleep, or how my dad, bizarrely, wears jeans when home sick. No one else will remember the lullabies sung before bed, or the smell of my mother’s perfume wafting through the house, a scent marking a celebration. Our little family routines, my dad the first one up every morning, taking the dog for a walk, mom’s meticulous Christmas baking schedule, evenings spent watching home shows and British murder mysteries.

Years ago, my dad and I were sitting around a campfire at my aunt’s house, the zaniness of a large family get-together underway.  He turned to me, undoubtedly made pensive and honest by a surplus of red wine, and said he worried about me, if I was sad that I would never have this, reconnecting with adult siblings, recollecting childhood stories. 

I said no, I was fine. I, of course, was lying. 

I love my family.  I love my parents.  I would not change a single thing about my childhood, and I am proud of the adult I have become. But knowing that one day my parents will be gone, and I’ll be the only one to know what it’s like to be their child? It lingers in the back of my mind, constantly, only becoming louder as the clock continues to tick and my parents’ imminent mortality seems less like a nightmare, and of an intrusive daydream.

Most of my recurring painful thoughts can be dulled out when I remind myself that my brain is irrationally intensifying the hurt.  When it comes to my only childness, though, there is no irrationality, and rather, a very real, rational truth.  One day my parents will be gone, and no one else will know what it’s like to be their child.