One and Only

When you’re the only pea in the pod, your parents are likely to get you confused with the Hope Diamond.~  Russell Baker, journalist, and author of Growing Up

We were joking around about only children at work the other day.  My boss’ husband is an only child, as is her six year old grandson.  “We all know only children have their quirks!” my boss said affectionately.

Indeed.  I certainly know about the quirkiness of only children.  As you probably know, I’m an only, who has the interesting distinction of being the daughter, the wife, and mother of an only.

A bunch of solitary peas in the pod, this little family of mine.

I loved Russell Baker’s statement, and I think he hits the nail on the head.  As only children, we are the priceless gem in the setting of our parent’s universe.  How can it not be so?  Only children are often born to older parents who have waited a long time to have them, so they naturally become the intense focus of those parent’s existence.  Much loved, much anticipated, the expectations of the entire family get laid upon their shoulders.

It can be a burden sometimes.

I’ve taken Baker’s quote a bit out of context.  His family of origin includes two siblings, but also more aunts, uncles, and cousins than he can possible count.   In a family that large, individual children do not garner a great deal of notice.  “When the grown ups in a family as big as our said that children were born to be seen and not heard, they weren’t just exercising the grown-up right to engage in picturesque speech and tired old maxims.  For them, holding down the uproar was a question of survival.”  So, Baker continues, “you might as well learn to listen, because they’re not going to give you much of a chance to talk.”

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, circa 1960, in a neighborhood freshly built for baby boomer families.  On my half of the block lived five Catholic families, who were raising anywhere from five to seven children in the cookie cutter style three bedroom brick ranch houses that lined the street.  As an only child, I was not only an anomaly, but the envy of all those other kids.  I had an entire room to myself, plus I had the undivided attention of my parents.  (It wasn’t until adolescence that we all realized what a mixed blessing that focused attention really was.)

But when I talked, my parents listened, with bated breath.  Every word out of my mouth seemed to be pure gold.  Looking back, I wasn’t much different with my own son.  I admit, I found him fascinating.  He was so bright, and creative, and unusual, why wouldn’t I be smitten with everything he had  to say?

There is definitely a flip side to all this attention.  When you’re in that kind of spotlight, you feel constantly on display, you feel a tremendous responsibility  to maintain not only that level of fascination,  but also your good reputation.  God forbid you should mess up in front of this captive audience who hangs so breathlessly on your every word and deed.

But we all mess up.  Fumble a line, forget an entrance, show up late to the party.  When you’re all alone on that stage, it’s harder to hide those inevitable faux pas.  Nor do you have anyone to foist blame upon.  ( I recall trying to blame our dog Ginger several times, but it didn’t work out.)

Luckily, the parents of only children are only too willing to forgive.

After all, we don’t have any “spares” in the offspring department, so we have to do whatever we can to keep that one precious diamond firmly ensconced in the ring.

15 thoughts on “One and Only

  1. So fond of this post, for as you know, I’m an only, too (as was my dad). And you are so spot-on with your observations… the good, the bad — none really ugly. Sometimes I think being an only made me push myself more — I had to live up to what they thought I was — and after all, they HAD to love me, didn’t they? Who else was there!

    We put ourselves through some interesting mind trips, don’t we. And sometimes, we do fumble that entrance. But yes, forgive they do (did). I miss them both. It’s hard to be loved that much. But it’s wonderful, too.

    • Jeanie, you certainly understand the kind of “broth I was simmered in” – growing up as the center of attention does have it’s benefits 🙂 I did (still do!) feel a responsibility to be everything they expected me to be. After all, there was no one else to fulfill all those dreams! Sometimes I’m not sure if I lived up to it.

      My mother told me the other day that all she really ever wanted was for me to be happy. Of course – that’s what we all want for our kids. But sometimes we’re not crazy about their version of happiness, I think!

  2. My son is an only, and I’ve often wondered if his intense drive was born from so many expectations. Parents of the only child have all their dreams in one basket. I always worry that my son’s success robs him of balance and precious time with his children, but he recently told me that if he was gone tomorrow he’d feel like he’d won the lottery, and he wasn’t talking about his career. So, I guess all is well.

  3. I’ve raised an only child. My son is now in his fourth year at college away from home. Last year during reading week, all his three housemates had gone home leaving him alone during the week-long holiday. I asked him whether he felt lonely. His reply: “What kind of question is that? I’m an only child.” Truth is, I haven’t asked questions like that before… sometimes feeling ‘guilty’ for his only child status. But, guess I worried too much.

    • Only children rarely suffer from loneliness – at least not those that I know! That’s one of the perks – we know how to amuse ourselves 🙂
      When I was growing up, people sometimes felt sorry for us only children. There are drawbacks, certainly, but in general, I think I’ve turned out pretty well.

  4. As another “only child”, I can’t help but think of two pivotal moments in my life.

    In one, a person of some status with some control over my professional life asked, “What do YOU want?” I didn’t have a clue. I’d spent so much time wanting to please others, I didn’t have a clue how to please myself. (Echoes of Rick Nelson and his famous Garden Party.

    In the second instance, about two years later, another professional colleague asked, “What do you want?” This time I snapped back, “I want to be ordinary!”

    It’s interesting to me that the two most fertile times in my life have been times when I was nearly completely hidden – in the African bush, and out on the docks. In both situations, with no one paying a lick of attention to me or able to impose their expectations, I finally was able to set a course for myself.

    If I ever did write a memoir, “Seeking the Ordinary” might not be a bad title. 😉

    • ” I’d spent so much time wanting to please others, I didn’t have a clue how to please myself.” Boy, do I get this!! That’s one of the biggest problems of all, I think. We tend to shoulder the weight of responsibility for family happiness, and that carries over into the rest of our lives.

  5. Hello from another mom to an only child!
    And wow, how different it is being that I grew up with a brother and sister. My sister now has 3 girls (who fondly call my daughter “sister” instead of cousin).
    Much of mine & my husband’s attention and thought focus on our girl – she’s like, the center of our universe. The drawbacks I’ve noticed are that she’s not quick to share her things (toys, books) and she pouts if she’s not first or the winner within a group (where at home, she totally would be). Other than that, she is so kind, loving, and thoughtful.

  6. I notice a big difference between my one niece+ nephew and my other niece and nephew that are both single children in their family. they are all in their pre-school age and there’s a huge difference in independence from the adults when playing, in mingling in adult conversations etc etc.

    • Only children (at least in my experience) are a lot more independent earlier on than other kids. And that fierce desire for independence lasts throughout life.

  7. ONe of my dear friends is an “only.” Her bedroom, growing up, was a palace of pink and plush toys and loveliness! She was so cool, always included, we never noticed she had no siblings. (we lived in a small town and everyone hung out together.) sometimes, she would complain about being an only. This was remarkable to us, that it could be a problem.
    Then my brother went off to college.
    It was just me at home for three years. In my adolescence! and the focus shifted to me…yikes. Sometimes I basked in the limelight of my parents attentions (and concerns!) and sometimes, yikes, I would call my brother and tell him to get home and shift their attentions! It was funny, ultimately. My parents were sympathetic, too. The dynamics of family and friends are marvelous, the stuff of books and memoirs which is, in part, why a lot of us are so fond of the memoir.
    And you have yours ongoing, here, sharing with us. And it’s wonderful!

    • I think most of my childhood friends were very envious of my “status.” I never yearned for siblings when I was a kid. Now, though, I wish I had them. Because soon enough, there will be no one left of my family of origin.

  8. “When you’re in that kind of spotlight, you feel constantly on display, you feel a tremendous responsibility to maintain not only that level of fascination, but also your good reputation.” Yes. You have described my daughter’s personality to a T. She is a wonderful person–smart, compassionate, dedicated–but she is also far too hard on herself (and occasionally, on others). No one has ever pushed her harder than she has pushed herself, and it has gotten her into difficulties. I’ve tried to reduce the glare from that spotlight–get her to relax, breathe, accept mistakes as part of life, but it’s tough. Like Arti, I’ve felt guilty–and worry too much.
    Soon, I’ll only be able to cross my fingers and hope…
    See what a Pandora’s Box you’ve opened, Becca?

  9. Your love and unconditional support will help her balance that perfectionistic streak. That, and the growth which comes from age and experience. She will be just fine 🙂

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