Raised by Resilience

The air is bitter and the streets are lined with crushed ice which means that 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 asked what I usually do for the holiday. I told her that I am in charge of cooking Christmas dinner. “By yourself?” she asked. I nodded. Then after a moment, she said, “Damn, you really are an only child.”

Being an only child has shaped my entire life. As you get older, you see how aspects of your childhood affect the person you turn out to be. Yes, I am an only child, but I also grew up in a single-parent-household for the majority of my life. These factors have made me exceptionally independent. 

As a kid, I was extremely 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. Predominantly, her heart was situated on the right (and ironically wrong) side of her body. This happens to less than 1% of the population. Additionally, she was born without one of the main heart valves. This only occurs in 5 out of every 100,000 live births. Finally, one of the valves she did have was virtually useless as it chronically failed to transport blood to the lungs. This particular diagnosis accounts for 5- 10% of all congenital heart defect cases. 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 outweighed 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 mom suffered a heart attack exactly one week after I was born.  Both she and I remained in the hospital for a few weeks. She, once again, defied the odds and we were both eventually discharged from the hospital. To ensure her safety, the doctors performed a tubal ligation, solidifying that she would never have another child. 

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. Intensified by these circumstances, 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. 

We didn’t have a lot of money growing up as 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 are spoiled. There have been multiple instances when I’ve told people 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 certainly wasn’t spoiled, in terms of its most prominent definition, and the majority of only children would argue the same.  

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 occurrence is not provoked by any type of special treatment, but rather because you, as an only child, are the only one your family has to treat. For example, if an aunt has five nieces and nephews, her money will be divided so that she can purchase a gift for each child. However, if an aunt has one niece or nephew, all of her money and attention will go to one child by default. 

Through talking to 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 extra income or opportunity graces the family unit. 

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 my mother’s 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 stubborn traffic, get home around six in the evening, five days a week. When he would walk 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. He’s always been a big fan of PB&J. I discovered the perfect ratio of grape jelly to smooth peanut butter which he would take to work almost every day.

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. Amongst my school friends, I felt 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 I enjoyed hanging out with kids my age. This is an only child stereotype that I’ve 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, one can witness select elements of a solo 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 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, stated in an interview with Vice that as a result of their particular upbringing, “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. Dr. Falbo also presented strong anecdotal information about this subject. She details, “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.”

I’ve found this notion to be true on a personal level. Though I’m rarely forthright with my emotions to strangers, I find it quite easy to connect with most people. When  you don’t have siblings, you rely on a network of friends and peers to replenish the conversational and emotional elements in which you are deficient.

Although I am aware this constant desire for interaction can be linked to the absence of my mother, other only children experience this phenomena as well. Through my conversations with only children, I learned that it is 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 have a habit of viewing my close friends as siblings. They’ve always been there for me and I can’t imagine my life without them. I’m closer with them than some members of my actual family, I think that’s pretty exceptional..”

I am fortunate to have a long-term best friend who 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. I consider her part of my family. 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 symbolic godparent. 

As I prepare to make my annual trip home, I reflect on how my experiences have both helped and hindered me. Until my friend expressed her shock when I told her that I cook Christmas dinner (imagine if I’d told her I do Thanksgiving as well), I never realized how odd that actually is. I’ve been cooking both meals since I was sixteen and, until recently, it never occurred to me that other teens/young adults don’t do the same. 

In preparation for this exploration into the life of a fairly lonely child, I had to uncover a handful of moments I’ve been suppressing. What was originally intended to be a reflection on the stereotypes of only children, rapidly turned into a piece of self discovery. I began with the premise of being an only child but as I started outlining my thoughts, I realized that these behaviors came from my single-parent upbringing as much as my only child upbringing. I believe that this background information is imperative to understanding the context of my maturation.     

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 my life had gone down a different path of fate.