My One and Only

I was an anomaly in the neighborhood where I grew up during the early 1960’s. In suburban Detroit, where the streets were lined with three bedroom brick ranch houses, there just weren’t many like me around. Physically, I was a perfectly normal specimen of the average female child. Although my teachers told my parents I was “bright,” there was never anything extremely unique about my intellectual abilities. Still, I was unlike any other child in the neighborhood, and my peers never let me forget it. I was an only child.

It’s hard to imagine a time when being an only child was so unusual. But it was the 1950’s, after all, smack in the middle of the “Baby Boom.” The country was freshly victorious from a period of deep depression followed by a horrific war. The world wasn’t ending after all, the future looked bright, and everyone felt hopeful and optimistic. Young people wanted big families, and began producing them in droves.

In the little houses on either side of ours lived a family of five and seven children respectively. Across the street were a family of six boys, whose names all began with the letters DJ. (Douglas John, Donald James, David Jack…) When their mother (Donna Jo) gave birth to a girl (Debra Jean) in the summer of 1965, the neighbors heaved a huge sigh of relief. Surely that would be the end for that family.  (It wasn’t.)

At the end of the cul-de sac were my best friends at the time, a small family of four – three girls and a boy. The size of that family seemed manageable to me, where the huge conglomeration of our immediate neighbors was overwhelming enough to be downright frightening. My mother grudgingly allowed me to go inside their house to play. With the other children in the neighborhood I was allowed to play outside only, and I was not to invite them into our house either.

Although I was definitely a different animal in this tribe of children, I was not shunned. Far from it. In fact, I was quite popular, and I don’t believe it was because I had the best (and most) toys. Although I had many of the stereotypical traits of the only child – I was spoiled, overprotected, and sheltered – I was never selfish or bossy.  But my quiet agreeableness made me a prime target for the older kids in the neighborhood, who knew I would hand over any of the toys they asked for. My mother played referee many times, and usually had to make a trip to someone’s house every afternoon and request the return of a Barbie doll, a board game, or even a bicycle.

Although basically shy and retiring, I recall secretly savoring the feeling of uniqueness my birth status provided. As I grew older, my closer school friends would retreat to my house after school where we could closet ourselves in my bedroom, one that I didn’t have to share with a demanding older sister. We could listen to 45’s on the record player without fear of waking the baby brother who was down for a nap. We could always cajole my grandfather (who lived with us) into driving us to the mall or the library. I became the de facto leader of a small group of girls, and it gave me a feeling of quiet power, one I came to enjoy and seek out in future relationships.

So what made my parents exempt from the popular desire for a large family? My father, a second generation Armenian whose own father fled the Turkish genocide in 1915, fell somewhere in the middle of a family of six. His Depression era upbringing meant there was rarely enough food on the table. His mother was chronically ill, and was notoriously controlling. She died long before I was born, but my father often told stories about the way she would hunt the children down if they were out past their curfew and drag them down the street by their earlobe.

Still, my father and his siblings were always close and enjoyed one another’s company. Most of my aunts and uncles had large families too, so within my group of boisterous cousins, I was once again the odd one out. I imagine my father would have liked more children. In fact, he has hinted as much now, many years later. But it was always clear to me that my mother was perfectly happy with her one and only.

My mother is an only child herself. And although being an “only” was rare in the 1950’s, it was even more rare in rural Kentucky in 1927 when she was born. Both her parents were from large families, all of whom lived in the small town where they were born. She had more cousins than she could name, and they were almost as close as siblings in both physical and emotional proximity. I have heard her say on more than one occasion how much she loved her cousins, enjoyed playing with them, walking to school with them, having them at her house. But I have also heard her say that she loved her animals more – the dogs, cats, and ponies that provided her companionship in the quiet refuge of her home.

My mother was an only child, because - according to my Grandmother who was the eldest of seven girls - she had helped raise her siblings, and she was “tired of taking care of children.”  When my mother came along, quiet and sweet tempered though I’m sure she was, I imagine my Grandmother decided she had done her duty by procreating once, and that was enough. And when my Grandmother decided something, well, that was it. In that way, she and my mother were very much alike.

So my mother was an “only” by choice, as was I. Choosing to have one child was not only sociologically unusual, it was somewhat difficult to accomplish in eras where birth control options were limited. Certainly in my Grandmother’s day, having a large family was often less a matter of choice than serendipity. Limiting the size of your family usually meant severely limiting your sex life as well. Physical frustration, damaged emotional intimacy, infidelity  - all likely segues from the decision to limit family size.

My own very first love was an only child too, and our uniqueness certainly attracted us to one another when we met on the playground in fourth grade. That and our perfectly matched clothing. While most of our classmates were relegated to their siblings already worn and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, his pants were ironed and creased perfectly down the center, his matching shirts were neatly buttoned, and my plaid, pleated dresses with starched white collars hung at the perfect length for me.  Our polished Stride Rite shoes were carefully fitted to our feet at the children’s shoe specialty shop on the corner. We were a matching pair.

Our mothers were friends as well, making our budding romance easier to navigate. I think each mother was secretly relieved that her child had chosen so wisely and well. Probably both had been plagued by nightmare of future sons and daughter in laws that were “tacky” – one of the worst descriptions my mother could think of in those days. I’m sure they realized that our little love affair was only childish and would never last into the future, but this first attraction gave them hope that when the time to choose a life partner actually arrived, we would each have the good sense to pick someone equally as appropriate.

What I really liked about Gordon was his gentleness. The other boys in my grade were loud and rough. They liked to pull my hair and push me into the mud. They enjoyed hearing me scream when they waved frogs in my face. Gordon was happy to ride our bikes peacefully side by side, or play Gin Rummy or Monopoly. He appreciated the quiet pursuits of which only children are fond.

So it was no surprise that when I really did fall in love, it was with a quiet, sensitive young man whom I met in the basement of my piano teachers house. He was a profoundly talented musician, polite, reserved, shy. He enjoyed taking walks, going to concerts, and long drives in the country.

He was an only child.

When we started dating, and especially when it was clear that our relationship was serious, people in our families (meaning parents and some well meaning aunts and uncles) began to express concern. “Two only children together,” they said. “That sounds like a recipe for disaster.”  We would each be too selfish, too controlling, too independent. After all, everyone knows only children don’t play well with others, and two of them stuck in a relationship meant to last for eternity did not bode well.

Still, we were determined. We felt our comparable birth status helped us understand one another better. Although our family experience was completely different, and the personalities of our parents were diametrically opposed, we had turned out to have strikingly similar personality traits. We respected each other’s need for space and independence. We both craved a quiet, family oriented life style with time to pursue our favorite hobbies. We liked to travel, and enjoyed the same kind of travel experiences, preferring to travel alone or with another couple.

We have been married nearly 40 years.

We would joke, in those early days, about the two sets of elderly parents we might one day have to care for. And of all the difficulties that have arisen from our double status as only children, that has been - and continues to be -  the most problematic. Only children and their parents cleave together in ways that are often unhealthy. As different as our relationships with our parents were, the final result was again the same - an enmeshment that has directed the course of our life in far too many ways.

But in the early days of our married life, all that was far in the future. We began building our little nest, happily enjoying the ultimate independence we had craved for such a long time (I was 20, he was 21). Neither of us had ever been away from our parents for any extended period of time, which was another red flag to the naysayers in the family, and our first year of marriage was like an extended vacation in an adventure-land of our own making.

Before we got married, we never talked about having children. Truthfully, our focus had been on avoiding pregnancy for so long that it was difficult to conceive (pardon the pun) of purposefully seeking it out. Contraception was easy to obtain and use, and we drifted along in our happy, tiny little world of perfect couple-dom. Jim had a good job and worked a lot.  I was lonely quite often, but being an only child was good preparation for loneliness. I went back to college, and filled the time with books, playing the piano, and the cocker spaniel puppy we had just brought home.

And then, in 1979, I got pregnant unexpectedly. Nonplussed at first, we both adapted quickly to the idea of being parents, and when our son was born in February of 1980, we were instantly consumed with love for him. I threw myself completely and utterly into motherhood. Brian was my project, my passion, my reason for being. Extremely bright, he soaked up everything I gave him, which were all the things I loved – books, music, creative pursuits like writing and art. While Jim worked more and more hours, began traveling for extended periods of time, Brian was my job – motherhood was my career. And I decided (I decided, rather unilaterally) that if I were to give Brian everything he needed to succeed, if I were to continue devoting myself to him in the way he deserved, then I could not have any other children. Besides, I reasoned, Jim and I were only children and we had turned out just fine.

So here I am, an only child who is the daughter, wife, and mother of only children. This peculiar status has shaped my personality, affected my life in a myriad of ways, and now hangs like a sociologic and psychological sword of Damocles over my head. My husband’s parents are long dead and buried, and, although mine are still living, they are in the mid-80’s and becoming more frail by the day. With their passing, our already tiny family will shrink to miniscule size.

Although I knew very few only children when I was young, I’ve met more of my compatriots during adulthood. Recently I met a woman who had the exact configuration of my family. Only child herself, she was married to one and had given birth to one. Her daughter was the same age as my son, and she was expecting her first grandchild in the same month mine was due. The difference was she was 20 years older than I, and had given birth for the first time at age 42 (instead of my 22). Her biological clock had simply run out before she had an opportunity to have more children.

I was a young mother, healthy, with a stable relationship, good family support, and financially secure. Why not have more children? I thought I had good reasons for it at the time. I wanted to devote more time to the child I had, my husband worked and traveled a lot, so I was a de factor single parent much of the time.  I had questions about my ability to parent more than one child – how did you share the love equally? How did you handle sibling rivalry? How would I  - who so loved peace and quiet  - survive the sheer noise and confusion of another small child around?

From this vantage point of years, I now see it as a completely immature and selfish decision. In those days I justified my choice with the adage that “my husband and I were only children and turned out just fine.”

For the most part, we did. And so did my son.

But now I consider my decision not to have more children as one of the biggest mistakes of my life.  It was a disservice to my son, who as an adult will have the sole burden of care for both of his parents. It was a disservice to our marriage, because we didn’t allow ourselves the pleasure of other children to deepen our relationship. And it was a disservice to our family as a whole, because we limited it in scope for future generations.

For much of my life I have been preoccupied with only children – with being one, living with one, raising one. It has made me curious about the experience of being an only child from a sociological and psychological standpoint. How does this unique birth status affect personality development and emotional health? How have only children been viewed by different societies and cultures over the course of history? With more and more people opting to have smaller families these days, how will a culture of only children change the world? How can parents of onlies (or singletons as the new literature calls us) best cultivate some of the positive characteristics only children tend to develop while doing their best to minimize the negative?

By studying current research on the subject, interviewing experts and only children of all ages, and calling upon my own experience and memories, I aim to explore the ways being an only child effect an individual’s personality, development, and emotional well being.

“You are my one and only,” my mother often told me with a sense of pride. Those words made me feel special and unique and very, very loved. But they also made me feel afraid. It was a huge responsibility, being the “one and only.” Even as a young child I knew my parent’s happiness was in my hands. One wrong move and I could devastate their entire world.

So it was a fine line I walked, and a lonely road sometimes. This book is a way of finding others to walk with me.