The air is bitter and the streets are lined with crushed ice, meaning it’s almost time for me to leave the bustle of Boston and travel home for Christmas. On the topic of family tradition, my friend asks what I usually do for the holiday. I tell her that I’m in charge of cooking Christmas dinner. “By yourself?” she asks. I nod. Then after a moment, she says,
“Damn, you really are an only child.”
An article about my mom in the paper
Only child stereotypes have surrounded me for as long as I’ve had consciousness. They’ve always been something I immediately refute, but I often wonder where they come from and if there is truth to any of them. Being an only child has influenced every part of my life. As I get older, I notice how aspects of my childhood affect the person I am now. Yes, I am an only child, but I also grew up in a single-parent household for the majority of my life. Both of these factors have made me exceptionally resilient and independent.
As a kid, I was very close to my parents. Not only because I was an only child, but because of my unique situation: My mom was born with a rare congenital heart defect in which one of her many diagnoses occurs in less than 1% of the population. Against all odds, she continuously surpassed the doctor’s expectations.
When she was born, the doctors gave her only a few hours to live. A few hours turned into a year which turned into two, then three, and four. She lived to 39. They told her not to have kids, that her body couldn’t handle it. But her desire to be a mother was stronger than the threat of their warnings.
As a child, it was normal to me that my mom had to take fifteen pills in the morning just to stay alive. It was normal to tag along to the cardiologist every month. It was also normal for me to get EKGs and echocardiograms during adolescence to ensure my heart was doing its job properly. Due to unsurprising complications during pregnancy, I was forced out two months early by cesarean. I weighed four pounds, which wasn’t too bad for a premie. To the doctor’s astonishment, my heart was (and still is) perfectly healthy.
My family referred to me as a miracle baby. The doctors said I had a 99% chance of being born with a severe heart defect. I was fortunate to grow up with a family who loved me and truly appreciated each moment we spent together. We certainly weren’t perfect, but our unique circumstance allowed us to see the world differently than most families. We didn’t know exactly how long my mom’s heart could last, so we did our best to make each day count for her. As awful of a reality as this was, it increased the quality of time my mom, dad, and I spent together.
my mom eating an ice cream bar a few hours before giving birth
me, freshly out of the womb
We didn’t have a lot of money growing up since it was difficult for my mom to work long hours. She had a few part-time jobs here and there, but it was mainly my dad who kept us afloat. He worked overtime whenever it was offered. Not only did he single-handedly pay our mortgage and bills, but he also supported my whims: piano lessons, years of competitive gymnastics, and, for a brief time, Girl Scouts. I remember watching reruns of Three’s Company in bed with my mom during the nights when my dad worked late. We’d stare at the screen until our eyes drooped and we eventually drifted off. When I’d wake in the morning, I would be sandwiched between my loving parents, a feeling I’ll always cherish. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realized whenever my dad earned extra money working overtime, it would go directly to my mom and me.
The most common stereotype regarding only children is that they’re spoiled. There have been multiple instances when I’ve told someone I’m an only child and their immediate response is, “Oh, so you must have gotten a lot of presents as a kid.” This became an aggravating introduction. I still defend that I wasn’t a spoiled kid and the majority of only children I know do the same.
being possessive of my parents
As frustrating as it is to be greeted with this assumption, I can see where it comes from. Being the sole kid of the family, you receive more attention by default. On holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations, only children seemingly receive more gifts. This isn’t due to any type of special treatment, but rather because you, as an only child, are the only one your family has to treat.
Through talking with other only children, my hypothesis was confirmed. Only children report that undivided attention, especially during gift-giving seasons, was the epitome of their “spoiling.” Additionally, only children, regardless of economic status, are typically on the receiving end when the family receives extra income.
Only children are also said to be inflexible and hardheaded. I can admit that stubbornness is my fatal flaw, but I was curious to see if this had anything to do with being an only child. An article posted on sciencealert.com, explores a study which found that being an only child actually changes the structure of one’s brain. Deputy Editor, Peter Dockrill, writes, “While only children showed greater flexibility, they also demonstrated less agreeableness in personality tests under what's called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory.” MRI scans analyze the gray matter in participants' brains for answers. These scans found that only children showed "greater supramarginal gyrus volumes— a portion of the parietal lobe thought to be associated with language perception and processing, and which in the study correlated to the only children's greater flexibility.” Additionally, scans found that brains of only children revealed less volume in other areas, including the medial prefrontal cortex: an area that is associated with emotional regulation. The team concluded that this discovery correlates with only children's lower scores on the "agreeableness" portion of the test. So I guess I can blame science the next time someone calls me on my stubbornness.
My mom passed when I was thirteen. It was mid-fall and the streets were littered with damp leaves. I don’t recall the sun coming out that entire season. Immediately after her death, I subconsciously took on the traditional “housewife” role. Now instilled with more responsibility than I’d ever known, I barely had time to grieve. My dad would leave for work at six in the morning and, with New Jersey traffic, get home around six in the evening, five days a week. But when he walked through the door, he was unfailingly greeted with a home-cooked meal.
I would get myself ready for school, walk to the bus stop, and start my day alone. Lunches were mostly made by me, except for when I’d beg my dad to make hot dogs and macaroni and cheese to put in my Thermos.
I taught myself how to bread chicken, make pasta sauce, and sauté vegetables. I learned how to differentiate when to use a serrated knife as opposed to a paring knife or a cleaver. Once I got my license I became the grocery-getter. I also took the dogs to the groomer, brought water bill payments to the municipal building, and took myself to the dentist every six months. I got a job as a nanny and started making monthly car payments to take one less burden off my dad.
When I was growing up, I had significantly more responsibility than my peers. Among my school friends, I felt way too mature. When I hung around my parents and their friends, I felt like I was too young to understand their banter. Regardless of this intellectual gap, I enjoyed spending time with adults more than kids my age. This is an only child stereotype that I’ve actually found to be true: Only children seem to be more comfortable when interacting with adults, which translates to authority figures later in life.
In adulthood, elements of a reclusive upbringing transform into something beneficial. Certainly, increased self-reliance and an acquired knack for communicating with those in positions of power are incredibly useful as one continues on to higher education or enters the workforce. During adolescence, only children report having less anxiety when talking to other adults and teachers. One of the world’s leading researchers on only child syndrome, Dr. Toni Falbo of the University of Texas, told Vice that “many only children excel in situations like interviews, making small talk, and bonding with peers and mentors.” Dr. Falbo noted that only children subconsciously assume themselves to be on the same level as adult authorities. “Teachers who have only children in their classrooms say that the only children really feel very comfortable interacting with the teacher. Whereas if you come from a larger family or you're a later-born, you may not have to spend so much time focusing on what the teacher says.”
Although my constant desire for interaction can be linked to the absence of my mother, other only children experience this phenomenon as well. Through my conversations with only children, I learned that it’s common for them to bond with one or two close friends to the point where they regularly refer to them as their “brother” or “sister.” We delegate familial roles to our friends with the subconscious intention of making them a permanent support system. One person I spoke with said, “I think the whole blood is thicker than water concept is bullshit. I’m closer to them [my friends] than members of my actual family, and I’m better because of it.”
I am fortunate to have a long-term best friend I met in fifth grade. Though I’ve made a fair amount of friends since middle school, our bond will always be special since she is the only friend who knew my mom. She was there for me when members of my actual family weren’t. She’s seen me grieve, grow, succeed, and fail. If I get married, she will be the maid of honor. If I have children, she will be the godparent.
pretending my dolls are my sisters
As I prepare to make my annual trip home, I reflect on how my experiences of being an only child have both helped and hindered me. Until my friend expressed shock that I cook Christmas dinner (imagine if I’d told her I do Thanksgiving too), I never realized how odd that actually is. I’ve been cooking both meals since I was 16 and, until recently, it never occurred to me that other teens/young adults don’t do the same.
We’re all products of our triumphs and tribulations and we learn to adapt, most of the time unknowingly. There are definitely times when I wish I had it just a little easier. Had a little more support from my extended family. A little more stability. A little less heartache. But each time I catch myself falling victim to these thoughts, I think about how fortunate I am. I have a great father who would do anything for me, a friend who has become family, and a surplus of resourcefulness and confidence in myself that I wouldn't have if I wasn’t an only child.