Only the Lonely: When You Have an Only Child

(If you have an only child, you know the looks and comments some people carelessly send your way. Here's a guest post from my friend, Kathleen, on her experience as a mom of an 'only.')


Photo on 2010-07-31 at 17.11



It happens several times a week, at least. The “Oh, that’s too bad.”  “Really? Just one?” It’s always said as if I’ve lost something. Or as if someone has died. Interestingly, no one ever assumes it’s a choice, or that I might be happy with that choice. If they see my discomfort, I get the shoulder pat. “Oh, well, that’s ok.”


I have “only” one child, and the reasons are many, personal, unplanned, and probably not what you assume. I suppose it was my pre-determined path. But today—now—it’s not intentional. It’s not a choice for me. And I grieve, daily, for my Only. I grieve because of the love I have and long to give. But mostly, I grieve for him. For the Onlyness. He would have been the best big brother.


I met my husband at 22, married at 26. I honestly have no idea why we didn’t have a child until I was almost 39. We were just about to ‘start a family’ when 9-11 changed our course. Three military deployments and a relocation later, and we had our first. Our Only.


I remember, vividly, the moment I realized I’d joined the Mommy Sorority. I hadn’t even known I was missing out on this powerful bond, and despite being far from friends and family, I found great comfort, support, and enthusiasm from my Mommy friends.


But that sorority is just that—a sorority—and conformity is key. I joined the sorority, but I didn’t keep up with the Joneses. Today, I’m an outsider once again. But the isolation of having One is worse than it was when I had none. I know what it means to have a child. I know, now, what I’m missing.


I’m not quite a full-fledged mom in this sorority. My experiences don’t score full points on the Mommy Scale of Worthiness. Fly across the country? Multi-day car trip? Harrowing day of errands? “It’s not the same, you only have one.” Yes, I’m sure you’re right. The irony is these observations are never given as if they, too, wish they had Onlys. It’s nothing to be envied.


And then there are the classics: “Only children are weird.” Really? Because I’m thinking of the weirdest people I’ve ever met, and every one of them has at least one sibling. A colleague, one of five, often talks about his self-centered wife, her deficits attributed squarely to her Onlyness. And a beloved teacher told a friend of mine that their child’s challenges at school could be chalked up to being an Only. That comment left an indelible mark—guilt, shame, anguish. She and I have begun to grieve our Onlys together.


One woman I know is an Only who has an Only, and she wears her Onlyness like a Purple Heart for all to see. She’s made consistent life choices that guarantee her loneliness is unending. And as an outside observer, I’ve seen her write this very same life script for her child.


But that’s not the script I’m going to help write for mine. I’ve stopped the joking references to “Only Child Syndrome” when he has a moment of drama. When I get the pity pat on the shoulder from well-meaning strangers, I just tell them that I got it right the first time, no need to mess it up with a sibling. I’m determined to turn his Onlyness into a badge of honor, something cool. Really, I don’t want it to be a “thing” at all. But I’m not sure you’ll allow us that.


I often hear stories of siblings that are a source of conflict and anguish, through childhood and beyond. It isn’t always the lifelong companion and support system that I fantasize my son would have. Yet, while the hurts are unintentional, the opinions on the negatives of Onlys are oddly free-flowing. So, just so you know:


I think about the Onlyness repeatedly, every day. When I see moms with new babies, juggling the toddler and the car seat carrier. Any Facebook photo with siblings. Those stick figure family stickers, on the back windows of every SUV and minivan—they get me every time. When I think of taking family vacations, or of growing old and the burdens my son willface as an Only. My heart actually hurts when he says he wants someone to play with him on a Sunday, or when he tells his BFF he wants them to be brothers. My Only makes up names for imaginary siblings and tells magical stories with wonderful descriptions of his partners in crime. And every time, when I leave the room, I fight back tears.


Our Onlyness comes with great joys! Our son is, if I do say so myself, happy and well-adjusted. And our house has very little conflict. It’s a place of relative peace and relaxation. He often asks if we can “just go home and chillax.” We are truly blessed beyond measure, and my heart is full with this love affair of mine. This isn’t how I would have chosen to write hisstory. But it’s his story. Our story. And despite your perceptions, it’s not an easier journey.


Kathleen Brown is a proud military spouse, a wildly lucky mom, a daughter, a sister, and by most accounts a bit of a bossypants.  She toils during the day as the spokesperson and director of  PR and marketing for a Denver-based company. But she dreams of spending her days writing a wildly popular blog, full of witty observations of the local characters who reside in the microcosm of her favorite Starbucks. Currently living in Tucson, Brown started her own mommy/mid-life crisis blog, Those Screaming Lobsters, in 2009. She’s averaged a blog post a year and a subscriber per post. If you Google her name and add words such as Alcohol, Probation, DUI, Booze, Hooch, Jail, or Chicken Skin, you’ll discover her 15 minutes of worldwide media fame. Her parents are incredibly proud, yet unsure of how one ends up being quoted in the New York Times about chicken skin. She also blogs as an industry expert on drunk driving, alcohol addiction, and the criminal justice system for a blog called Sobering Up. (She’s an expert because of her job, not from personal experience.)