Once a month, the cooperative preschool we take our daughter to requires parents to attend a three-hour meeting, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. My daughter had woken me up at the crack of dawn, to share her fascinating discovery of having two feet, and I had been running on fumes since midday.
Sheesh, THREE HOURS? Would it really run until ten at night? Picturing myself squirming in my seat as parents discussed scheduling minutiae and debated the hot issue of bringing snacks whose ingredients once shook hands with a tree nut, I grabbed a pen and notebook.
I figured having something to doodle into might keep me from melting into a drooling pile on my metal chair as everyone droned on. Asking my husband to keep an eye on the kids while I took one for the team, I headed out to my first meeting.
And I was pleasantly surprised. Turns out, the bulk of these meetings are spent discussing parenting theory, which is fine by me since I’d far rather meander through academic abstractions than do anything smacking of practicality. The topic for the evening was birth order, which Freud apparently believed is the most important element of personality development.
First, they asked for a show of hands for all the Firstborn attendees, and many of the about six hundred hands proudly shot into the air.
Next, they wanted to see all of the Middle Children. Another wave of hands flew up before the Youngest Kids had their turn.
Finally, they asked to see how many Only Children were in the audience, and I was surprised to see only three other hands besides mine in the air. They told us to break into groups according to birth order for the next exercise, advising the Only Children to decide amongst ourselves whether to merge with the Firstborns or the Youngs.
Finding my group, I smiled to see Jimmy, a friend from my section, along with two women from other sections. After briefly debating whether only children are more like firstborns or the babies of the family, I started pushing to keep our group separate.
“You know they are going to treat us differently, “ I said. “So why shouldn’t we keep our own group?”
Everyone smiled, knowing nothing further needed to be said regarding any potential merger. We were Onlies, damn it, and for once, we were going to own it.
Being an only child is hardly a source of pride in this country. People have nothing good to say about us and we’ve heard it all a million times: we’re spoiled and self-centered. We get all of our parents’ attention and never had to share our toys. We are bad team players and socially retarded.
When people ask you if you have brothers or sisters and you respond that you’re an only child, you can count on responses as seamlessly automatic as hearing about French people eating rich food or no one sleeping once babies are born: “Ah, you never had to share.”
People react as though you personally made sure your parents never had more children. Part of you longs to point out that you’re not the one fantasizing about trading siblings for extra toys, but witty retorts like that wouldn’t improve our PR, now would they?
So when we were given the task of writing down everything we would bring on a fun camping trip, the Only Children immediately jumped to figuring out how our answers could potentially be used against us.
“We should say ‘our kids,’” Jimmy suggested. “At the end of this, they might say ‘Notice how you forgot to bring your kids’ and then the whole point becomes how self-centered we are.”
“Well, why don’t we just save everyone time and write ‘a bunch of selfish crap’ instead?” I offered. “ Let’s give the people what they want.”
The Onlies went into hysterics. We had nothing to lose, so we just started giggling and joking around. We wrote things like “Cool Ranch Doritos” and “baby wipes” to clean our fingers after Dorito-eating. We bonded over our black sheep birth order status, having what seemed to be a much better, and sillier, time than any of the other groups.
Returning to our seats afterwards, one of the Firstborns pointed out that we had only filled up a single page, whereas they had two. Freakin’ know-it-all firstborns…
Group leaders were called to the front to read off their lists. Youngest children tried to make everyone laugh by including alcohol and condoms on their list, the middle kids were vague, and the firstborns were practical.
The lecture went on to describe birth order qualities. Firstborns are supposed to be responsible, competitive, and have trouble lightening up. Middle children are the best team players because they receive, and later require, the least amount of individual attention. Youngest children are supposed to be the most charismatic, but also the least likely to follow rules, and parents are supposed to make more of an effort to keep them in line for their own future good. Only children were said to be mature for their age (since they socialize more around adults than peers) and the most accepting of authority.
We then broke into a group discussion about birth order, during which only children were predictably targeted. One dad raised his hand to talk about how only children have no empathy, since one of his only-child cousins used to play too rough, and another talked about how only children don’t play well with others.
It’s interesting, really, how much weight we give to theories like these. General patterns can be useful, but they hardly tell the whole story. My husband and I were both only children, for example, but behaved very differently growing up.
John was a rebel, and I was a good girl. He ran around getting into trouble with his friends and making his teachers wring their hands at his untapped potential, whereas I was the straight-A student always cutting the class curve and collecting awards. And ironically, John grew up to firmly support a solid hierarchy and the strict adherence to rules, whereas I am now suspicious of all authority and arbitrary procedure.
And because we were both only children, we wanted to have another child after our first was born. Both of us wanted a brother or sister when we were growing up. I’ve never met another only child who didn’t.
Because being an only child means feeling alone. You’re one powerless, flawed kid against two Titans.
The closest thing I ever had to a sibling was my cousin, who was roughly my same age. We spent a lot of time together growing up, sometimes playing together and sometimes fighting viciously, as siblings are said to do.
Our relationship was a bit like countries throughout the Middle East: we fought amongst ourselves until joining in solidarity when threatened by an outsider. No matter what arguments we were having, once our grandmother stomped forth to paddle us with an orange plastic pancake-flipper, we’d start holding hands and scheming.
There is great intensity to being an only child: yes, you receive all the toys and attention, but also all of the expectations. If something goes wrong, there is no one else to blame it on. If you’re in parental crosshairs, there’s no one else to take the heat, or provide any distraction.
No one gets born to chill out your nervous, first-time parents, and the weight of all of their ambitions rests squarely on your shoulders. You’re their only shot, and if you don’t turn out well, you’re burying all of their hopes and dreams. It’s a lot of pressure.
So we dream of sharing the responsibility: of having an older sibling to protect us, or a younger one to look up to us… someone to make silly faces at while our parents are trying to be serious, someone who might come to our defense in the jungle brutality of the schoolyard. Someone who occasionally screws up, so don’t always feel like the weakest link in the household chain.
And of course, these are fantasies, the dream version of what having a sibling is really like. In these fantasies, we are best friends forever, pinky-swearing a private truce against adult authority and keeping each other’s secrets against all odds. I’m sure these visions are as unrealistic as the pretend version of onliness, the world of nonstop validation and ponies.
If siblings are so awesome, then everyone wouldn’t be jealous of only children, right? I don’t know… I’m inclined to think it’s all yet another example of the grass being greener in someone else’s yard.
I suppose my husband and I are about to find out.