The View from the “Only” Side

It just so happened that both of my parents died in the month of September. My mother passed away in 1998 (over Labor Day weekend) and my father followed her this past year. Now, as September rolls around again, I start to think about the family I grew up in. I’m the only one who can. You see, I have no siblings. Not only that, but my mother was also an only child, and my father had just one sister. I haven’t seen my two cousins since we were all in high school; we were never all that close.

It bothers me that no one else knows what my childhood was like. No one else knows the family stories, the special memories, or the little peculiarities that were uniquely ours. Sure, I’ve told my husband and daughters some tales of my growing up years, but I’m sure I haven’t told them everything. Now no one is going to remind me of the ones I’ve missed.

I remember when our daughters were young and fighting all the time. At one point, my husband (who is one of six children!) took them aside and pointed out that they had better learn to be friends now, because when they are all grown up, no one else is going to remember their childhood the way they do.

Growing up as an only child was terrific. I had all the attention I wanted, and plenty of toys to share with the other kids on the block. We were able to take vacations that many larger families wouldn’t attempt. My parents could afford music lessons for one child. I always got pampered on my birthday. Life was good.

It’s only now, as an adult, that I wish I’d had some siblings. Why do I wish I’d had to share the spotlight?

As I just mentioned, I received my parents’ undivided attention. Sometimes this was annoying (usually when I was trying to get away with something), but for the most part I just assumed that I deserved their attention. After all, wasn’t I the center of the family? Now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser) I realize that I’m no more important than anyone else. Furthermore, I’m supposed to treat others as more important than myself, and let God take care of my needs. (See Philippians 2:3) I would have liked to have learned that lesson as a child!

(Many people, especially those from large families, assume that only children are lonely. As an introvert, being by myself doesn’t bother me. And with all the attention from my parents, I never had time to be lonely, at least not for long.)

Being the only child in a household with two adults, I also never learned to fight. Wait a moment, you say. Who should be fighting? Well, fights are inevitable when two or more people live together, and there’s a proper, non-destructive way to go about resolving differences. And sometimes, we need to fight for what is right!

With no siblings, the only people I had to fight with (at least at home) were my parents. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to win those battles, so why even try?

As a result, I never learned the lessons taught by sibling rivalry. Instead, I abhor confrontation. Growing up, when I would have differences with my friends, I simply let them win. I had never learned to stand up for myself. Even now, I find it much easier to just give in, even when I disagree. That’s fine when the decision is about which restaurant to go to for lunch, but what happens when it’s an important issue? What if, in a given situation, God wants me take a stand for Him?

I’ve been told that I’m lucky because I can choose my friends, whereas we’re stuck with our siblings, whether we like them or not. It’s true that I have some pretty awesome friends, but how does that teach me to get along with all sorts of people? Thankfully, God created the church, our brothers and sisters in Christ. I readily admit, some of these faith-siblings drive me crazy. I wish I’d learned the lesson of “getting along” many years ago at home.

Finally, I wish I’d had a sibling or two when my parents were getting elderly. There were so many decisions to make—how aggressively do I treat this or that health issue? Should my dad have his own house, live with us, or move into a senior living facility? How should I handle his finances? And on and on. While my parents were wonderful parents, they still had needs and made demands that I had to shoulder as the only child. For example, rather than make friends of his own, my dad depended on me. We took him out to lunch every week, and I even accompanied him on an Alaskan cruise, but I had other responsibilities, and wasn’t always available when he wanted company. Having a sibling would have helped immensely!

I am so grateful that I have an incredible husband who pitched in and helped in so many ways. Not every only child has that kind of support.

Having, or being, an only child isn’t the end of the world. As I mentioned at the beginning, there are many advantages. One of our sons-in-law is an only child, and we think he’s just about perfect. (You’re welcome, Ian.) There is no ideal, and all family sizes have plusses and minuses. It’s just that if you have siblings, you may not have considered the view from the “only” side.

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3 thoughts on “The View from the “Only” Side

  1. Leslie, this is a great piece. My half sisters were already teens when I was born so I was raised pretty much an only child and really concur with what you have written. I also feel very upset by conflict and controversy. If my parents argued, my world was very threatened. I also keep looking for ways to agree with people and steer conversations and activities towards commonalities (trying to kiss up to my big sisters whom I adore). This is somewhat useful in developing relationships; but I find it very hard to share the gospel one-on-one with people who have a different framework and beliefs, because that requires a focus on how we think differently, not how we think the same.

  2. Leslie, thank you for writing my same experience and thoughts so precisely. I too am challenged in the ways you and debralinnea have described. God sure blessed us with loving parents who first showed us how to love which was a foundation to believing HE loves us even more. Thank you for being my kind and faithful faith-sister! I am grateful God brought us together.

  3. I too am an ‘only’, and identify with all that you say, except we did fight, my parents and I! Dad and I enjoyed nothing more than a good argument over the dinner table (though my Mum didn’t always cope too well).

    Then I married a man whose family didn’t do conflict … it’s been an interesting relationship these past 20 years!

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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