Last night I decided to catch up on The Colbert Report. No matter how bad a day or week has gone for me, that show always reminds me how gloriously absurd so much of the “adult” world can be, which makes me feel better about myself, because I’m a smart teenager and not a ridiculous politician! Anyway, the guest on this one episode was the author of a book that looks at how siblings shape you as an individual. He said something like, “Your siblings act as the dress rehearsal for your life.”
But what about us only children? Did I never get the practice I was supposed to? Is my life, like, improv?
I know this was just one old dude’s opinion, but I let myself get really carried away in my own head and started thinking of examples of how being an only child messed with my idea of having a normal life.
I was frequently labeled precocious by adults when I was younger, which led me to avoid the typical teenager activities like they were a plague: dances, football games, anything that would label me clearly as a bona fide adolescent girl. Which doesn’t make too much sense, because I really like dressing up and I really like sports. I don’t know, no one ever told me being a teenager was cool while I was one. Actually, the impression I received from many was that it was looked down upon; no one would choose to hang out with an annoying teen. I spent a lot of time going to shows in basements and illegit spaces and I think the general assumption was that once the teenyboppers discovered a place, it wasn’t a cool place anymore, so I’d try my hardest to not be one of them. Which makes me, now, still somewhat out of touch and even awkward at parties with kids my age.
Now that I’m college sophomore, I’m hanging out for the first time with my own age group. Most of my friends here have siblings, and I can’t help wondering if that’s why they seem so happily normal: they talk about personal things like relationships and sex and gossip and borrow one another’s clothes and feel comfortable in social settings. They seem perfectly happy with being 18, 19, or 20 (besides that half of us have fake IDs, but that serves another purpose). For some reason, none of that stuff feels natural or normal to me. And I think the reason is that I’m an only child.
Growing up, while I occupied myself with achieving independence, I missed out on a lot of communal experiences—those events that people talk about when they talk about being an American teenager. I skipped every homecoming dance to go to a show with my older friends. I neglected almost all school-related extracurricular activities in favor of working with arts and music organizations, because they seemed a lot cooler to me than debate team or choir. I won’t be able to tell my proverbial grandchildren about some dramatic first love in high school, or about cruising around with the first friend with a driver’s license, or getting trashed at football games or whatever goes on there. All of these experiences were strategically avoided because they just seemed too teenagery.
I can be pretty self-centered. I don’t mean that I’m selfish. It’s more that I’m so caught up in my own goals and ambitions, I might have blinders on sometimes. I talk a lot about myself. And I expect everyone to care as much about what’s going on with me as I do. I told this to my mom a little while ago. She, one of four girls, concluded this was a direct result of my only-child-ness.
Maybe an older sister would have told me that I didn’t have to try to be an adult by the age of 15. Maybe she would have helped me understand that I didn’t have to pass off the pain and struggle of being a teenager as something insignificant—that I wasn’t the only one wrestling with identity and confidence on a daily basis, and that these struggles were important.
A younger sibling may have taught me how to be more empathetic and compassionate, less self-centered and singularly focused on my own goals. A younger sibling may have given me initiative to be a role model, a kind of mentor. I would be less self-centered if I had someone to look after.
I know my mom reads this diary weekly and that this one is probably going to make her feel guilty, but it shouldn’t. I’ve always been very grateful to be an only child. During about a five- or six-year period of family upheaval, serious financial trouble, parental separation, and divorce, I was relieved that there wasn’t another person to worry about. Fending for my own emotions was hard enough.
Yet I know that I did miss out on this idea of a life “dress rehearsal.” I’ve been learning about every social interaction outside of my home, in the real world, without practice. I’m definitely not a regretter, especially with things I’ll never be able to control. But right now, with this only-child stuff, I really feel like I missed out. Not only on some typical experiences of being young, but on personal growth. I still have so far to go emotionally, and I feel so behind my peers sometimes. I feel like a baby a lot of the time. I think it would have been nice to have someone like a sibling to help me, but I’ll never know. If you know what it’s like to have siblings, you might disagree and wish you grew up an only child like me.
But deep down, I really doubt it. ♦