They say we, only children, are selfish.
“It’s our way or the highway!”
We’re possessive, controlling, self-absorbed, and we don’t know much about patience.
But they’ve forgotten to tell you how much we carry. We carry a burden nobody can truly understand unless they’re an only child.
I’ve been giving this “only child” thing a lot of thought lately. Growing up as an only child, with loving parents who, believe me, didn’t spoil me and didn’t put up with tantrums and bad behavior, I hadn’t thought this whole thing through until recently.
I remember people asking me when I was younger, “Don’t you wish you had a sibling?” I remember replying, “I don’t think so.” I didn’t know what it was like to have a sibling, so of course, I didn’t miss not having a sibling. I had lots of cousins who were like siblings for me, so nothing was “missing.” Life was good. With loving and healthy parents.
Until I grew older.
I’m not here to talk about the psychological traits they say we develop as only children. I’m actually tired of how overanalyzed only children are. They always like to portray us as something different, unordinary. I remember being judged by an employer who almost didn’t give me a job because I was an only child. In his mind, I’d probably fail at the job (which I didn’t, and it was a nice surprise to him).
In short, we’ve always been labeled as anything but positive. If I ask you to name one positive quality of an only child, it might take you some time to come up with something. But if I ask you to name two negative traits, it might not take you that long.
Judgment and labeling aside, society doesn’t realize something important about only children. That one day, only children will be broken, at least at some level.
They tell you that we are selfish, and yet the only child holds the sad fate to watch their parents age on their own. And what a “selfish” thing we didn’t ask for that can be.
Normally, the only child grows up with at least one healthy parent around (in case parents are divorced). The only child feels invincible. They have all the support and attention of loving parents. But as the only child’s parents age, the only child’s world starts shaking. The support, attention, or extra care they are so used to gradually disappears and roles are reversed.
As I watch my parents struggle with simple things (nothing serious), concern strikes me because I know well about the “impermanence of things.” And what a freaking hard lesson that is, a lesson I’ll never learn. That I have absolutely no control over their lives. The arms that were once strong and that prevented me from falling are now becoming weak. Soon, I’ll be one pair of arms to hold two. And what a painful sight that is for everyone, right? How unfair life seems as we age.
Now imagine that pain multiplied tenfold. That is the pain, the burden of the only child.
Not having a sibling to share any concerns about their parents brings a whole level of sadness and worry to the only child. Of course, one can share their concerns with some other family members, and they might even give a little hand. But it is not the same as sharing with a sibling. I also know that there are siblings out there who really put the whole responsibility of helping aging parents on one sibling. Unfortunately, this happens pretty often, and that sibling who holds all the responsibility literally feels like an only child. The only child of “abandoned siblings.” So this article also reaches all those “only children” as well.
The only child, once called selfish, now must live a double life. They may have a new family to watch for (spouse and children), but they certainly have at least one aging parent to look after. If they have money, it may be easier to be able to provide the best care for their aging parents in a safe environment. But we know that sometimes that is not the case. The only child needs to be ready to be a parent of their parents if that’s what fate brings. Depending on cultural ties, the sense of duty to a parent can grow or diminish, but one thing is certain: the only child always suffers more as they see their parents struggle without a sibling around.
The only child also knows that, once her or his parents are dead, a big part of life dies with them. The memories, once shared with their loving parents, belong to one person now. Memories that can no longer be shared with anyone. Loneliness strikes.
So I must tell you, if you have a sibling, go hug them now, as you do, share a connection that is golden. You might have dismissed it as unimportant at some point, but we, only children, wish we had that.
A long time ago, I was asked how many children I wanted to have. I said, “either zero or two.” Although I totally understand the reasons why my parents only had me, and other parents may have had one child only, in my case, I knew I’d never want to give a child a life without a sibling. If I had been asked that question again now, “Don’t you wish you had a sibling?” I’d answer, “Hell yeah, I do. You have no idea!”
Another situation the only child might struggle with is the absence of nieces and nephews. If the only child gets married, they will have some from their extended family. Although some love their nieces and nephews from their extended families just like their own, we know deep inside that there is a much stronger connection to the son or daughter of your own brother or sibling. They will be there forever. You don’t know if your spouse and you will always be together, but you definitely know your siblings will still be there, along with nieces and nephews, even if you’re not that close to them.
Yes, I know that there are exceptions and I’m speaking generally about families. I know people who are more connected to their extended families than their own. Of course, it happens. Trust me, I’m all about adoption, so I’d definitely understand that blood sometimes doesn’t mean a thing when love is what moves us through.
But also, the love for a sibling’s son, as I heard, can change your world. I know aunts and uncles who would die for their nephews and nieces. That kind of love the only child was robbed of at some level. We can only hope they have an amazing extended family. In my case, it makes me sad to think of the day my parents will die. I panic at the thought of being left alone with all the memories. I long for the brother or sister I never had when these fearful and sad thoughts come through.
The point of this article is just to urge you to look at only children with more compassion. So you can understand that we may be fighting battles between being our parents’ “caregivers” and loneliness at some point in our lives. So even when you think we want things “our way or the highway,” understand that we may also be acting out of fear.
And we, only children, have a lot of fears. We may be on our own to make decisions regarding our family when our beloved parents might not be in a position of making decisions anymore. We may feel lonely, confused, burdened. So if you can, please offer some help to only children instead of judgment. We are not used to asking for things, but we do appreciate some help sometimes.
So I send you, only children, my love. (Also to all children out there who have siblings who don’t show up to their family needs.) I want you to know that, regardless of your situation, if you are an only child or a child who’s been “abandoned” by siblings, you are not alone. I admire how connected you are to your parents. I respect your sense of duty to make their aging years special and remarkable. You are a superhero before my understanding eyes.
But you also need to realize that you can’t control everything. While aging seems unfair, just remember that it is, unfortunately, the circle of life. Your parents will always appreciate your help but won’t ever demand it. So don’t feel bad to act a little “selfishly” sometimes and take some time off to recharge.
The only child carries the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they need to understand that there is a limit to how much one could carry. It’s always important to delegate, to ask for help, so that the only child isn’t burdened unnecessarily.
The only child may eventually feel a bit lonely on their road, but they must remember that we are all connected. Surround yourself with our earth family. Meet amazing people, join beautiful and inspiring causes.
At the end of the day, we are one planet, one people, one soul. And you are not alone.