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The Only Child
How to Survive Being One
By Jill Pitkeathley, David Emerson
Souvenir PressCopyright © 1994 Jill Pitkeathley and David Emerson
All rights reserved.
The intensity of the only-child experience is key - feeling you have to be everything.
I felt I was carrying all the responsibility a lot of the time - all the eggs in one basket, and I was the future. That is the key thing for me - the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket thing. That is, you know, the great nub of it.
This first chapter examines the strong senses of responsibility, expectation and blame felt by only children and frequently expressed by them as 'being everything'. We then look at the effects of being on the receiving end of all the attention, and getting all the 'goodies'.
Why are these feelings especially strong for only children?
In most societies, two people living together as partners are not the usual idea of a family. We don't hear a man saying, 'I'm a family man' when he only has a wife at home, or a woman saying she wants to give more time to her family if she just means her husband. Only when a baby, a third person, arrives does that unit become a family. As that third person, at a very early age the only child comes to realise that responsibility for being the family, for carrying on the family line, for making the change from 'couple' to 'family', rests with him.
With me it was the total investment syndrome. They knew they weren't going to be able to have another, so everything got channelled into me: my mother's frustration with the marriage, my father's frustration with himself. All hopes were pinned on me. I was the Messiah child. Everything was going to be all right now I was here.
The sense, experienced by many only children, that they have to carry all the responsibility, all the expectations and all the blame for the whole family means that they have to perform a greater variety of roles in respect of the family. They may find themselves acting as mediator or arbitrator between the parents; companion; fulfiller of ambitions — in relation to career and maintaining the family line; bringer of joy, and mood-maintainer; and carer.
But it isn't just within the family - there are roles outside too: as the family representative at school, in community activities or at social events. And all these roles are taken on because there is no one to share them, there is no one else to make up 'the family'. As one interviewee, now in his seventies, said of being an only child:
God, you wouldn't wish it on anyone -you have to be everything.
While few of our onlies felt as strongly as not to wish it on anyone, almost all of them referred in some way to the burden of 'being everything':
You're everything to your parents. You're their reason for being. And I think it's very easy for parents of only children to exploit that with the guilt trip.
Or they increasingly saw it as pressure:
There's a lot of pressure when all their hopes are pinned on you - it's a big pressure. In a way I feel the pressure of being an only child more now than as a child. As they get older I'll feel it even more ... I dread caring for them. As a child you don't know any better - as you get older the pressure grows, the guilt grows. I feel a responsibility to my parents now - it's a role reversal.
But being everything does include the positive as well as the negative: getting all the parental attention and all the material goods that are going - hence, perhaps, the myth of the spoilt brat.
Let's now look more closely at each of these themes.
All the Responsibility
Who is in charge? Who does the organising? Who makes the lists? Who takes the responsibility? The only child, of course. Everyone knows how serious and dependable they are - the repository of their parents' ambitions, the high achievers, the ones who are always correct.
Taking on board their pivotal role in creating the family makes only children very responsible people with a strong sense of having to behave properly, to be in charge:
I've always wanted to kick over the traces but never felt I could, somehow - always that sense of having to be 'sensible'.
I am very good at taking responsibility for my own actions - I believe toogood, now. I think I set too high a standard for myself. But I now believe my parents did too.
The eldest child in a family will feel this too, as he is always asked to be responsible for siblings. As one woman said to her older brother:
When we were young I learned to be selfish, whereas you learned to be selfless.
We know that only children can feel this sense of responsibility more strongly than other children - as one woman of 33, whose brother died when she was 21, illustrates:
When my brother died I thought at first that the extra responsibility I felt for my parents and for just about everything was because of his death. Later I realised that it wouldn't go away as we adjusted to his not being there - it was now a permanent feature of my life - made worse by my having no other person of my blood to share these feelings with.
Only children take on the responsibility for being the leader, the one who completes the tasks, the one who is in charge. They can often recognise another only child in a group by their worried or serious look and the number of times they say 'Sorry':
I am very much a mother hen, even with friends. I'm concerned how they'll get home or if they are ill with drink, etc. Mother hen is linked to bossiness - but I do have a concern for others. And more than that, I feel responsible for them.
The responsibilities fall into two distinct categories.
1 Responsibility for parental well-being
The only children we spoke to felt strongly the burden of being responsible for their parents' happiness and well-being. Do those with siblings feel this to the same extent?
I felt I had to be good all the time to keep my mother sweet. If she was in a good mood all was well and then it was bearable for us all.
My parents split up for a while when I was going to university. I felt a great weight of responsibility to Mum when Dad left. She was on her own and I was the only one. I spent a lot of time, coming down from college. I was the only one to do anything and feel a sense of responsibility towards her: it's only me. Dad did return but I worried at the time what would happen in the future. It was a worry.
Several were aware of weaknesses in their parents' marriages, as a result of which one parent, usually the mother, leant on the only child for support:
I believe my mother needed too much from me. I also feel strongly that this need is very different for mother/son and mother/daughter, but they are equally powerful.
I was always manipulated by Mother into being on her side. Father was scapegoated and blamed and I was required to recognise this and speak out against him, as the price for being supported by my mother.
I couldn't upset my parents and be responsible on my own. The slightest thing was always a problem, so it was anything for peace and quiet. You had to pussyfoot around and not upset anyone. And my parents had a three-way thing with my grandmother too, because she was very off with my father who wasn't good enough for my mother! And I was observing all this and really didn't want to throw any more grit in the works!
When Dad was ill I had to go up - I felt obliged to go up. Mother needed me - to talk to, take charge, etc. I wished she was as practical in a crisis as I was.
My father had a perforated ulcer and I remember having to go back and look after my mother while he was in hospital. She wasn't terribly good at coping on her own.
I felt an incredible sense of responsibility towards Mother. She was very possessive and quite weak and dependent on me - a role reversal. I can remember resenting the fact that I had to prop her up, and everything.
Of course, most offspring would feel a sense of responsibility at such times of crisis, but having no one to share it with, having always to carry it alone, was the real difficulty:
No one to whom you can say 'our mother', feeling it all devolves on you, that's what makes you feel overwhelmed.
This sense of responsibility can sometimes extend to trying to be the mediator in the parents' relationship. A surprising number of the people we talked to felt the need to be a go-between:
My parents rowed endlessly. I used to take bedclothes and sleep outside their door to try to stop them.
I am very conscious of very much being the mediator between my parents. If they argued I had to make things right. I knew I had the power to make things right. For the first year of the remarriage Mum often packed suitcases for her and me, and we'd drive off and I'd sit in the back of the car with my teddies and ask, 'Will Daddy be all right?' I was always the mediating factor.
If happiness is connected with happy families, as most of us learn at an early age, then as an only child you believe you hold the key to it:
There was also, I think, by that stage a feeling of a level of responsibility for my mother inasmuch as I was very much the centre of her life, and I think it was made quite clear to me that it was very important to her that I was not too far away ... you know, if I had wanted to go to Edinburgh ...! So although I went away to university I went to Essex, so it was far enough that I wasn't living at home, but we both agreed that was a good thing.
There is this inherent guilt thing when you're an only child. Looking back ... you are the focus, and with my father now being ill it is almost as if when I go there the entertainment has arrived. It's not quite as if you are the life and soul of the party, but almost as if you are duty-bound to support them with something.
Our interviewees often felt they were responsible for the success or failure of events such as Christmas or holidays — a perception that we encountered so frequently that we have given CELEBRATIONS a short chapter of its own (Chapter 11).
2 Responsibility for their own existence
It was remarkable how many of the only children we talked to felt responsible for being an only child in the first place. This idea seems frequently to have been implanted by overheard conversations:
My mother was always telling people that she was very badly knocked about giving birth to me.
I was always made to feel that the reason there were no more was because I was so difficult and my mother was so exhausted.
Or they were told directly:
There were problems with the birth, and I certainly got the message that it was my fault. My father still has that: he tells me it was a difficult birth, said Mum wouldn't like to have gone through that again - 'Once we had you we didn't want any more', etc. I didn't feel especially wanted, not wanted that much.
The idea is even sometimes fostered where it has no basis in fact:
Family mythology is that as a baby I caught mumps and passed it on to Dad, so that was why there were no more children. I didn't realise until I was grown up that I didn't have mumps until I was seven.
Some of these stories may be true, since there is a greater probability that only children will have had significant medical problems associated with their birth — that is, a proportion of them are only children because of such problems. But, for the child himself, such tales easily translated into guilt: 'You were such a lot of trouble', or 'You're so difficult', was the message that some only children picked up:
As a pregnancy and birth I was extraordinarily difficult. I don't know, I sometimes wonder, because my mother used to tell me this a lot - it's almost as if she needed me to know this - she used to say over and over again, 'Your father was given a choice: did he want to save me or the baby?' I think there was a factual element in that, I really do, but it was repeated a lot in late childhood.
Perhaps the guilt which later becomes such a significant part of the only-child experience starts here:
I think from what my mother said it wasn't a very pleasant experience, and I do have a certain sense of guilt. It was a hard birth and everything combined together and, what with their experience of me as a baby, deterred any further sort of forays, really! My father always said that my mother found the early years of upbringing difficult. I don't think it was planned that 'We're only going to have one.'
I was an enormous baby and called 'the elephant' by nurses, and presumably painful. Mother has made me feel guilty about this, as about everything. That's why I resent it so much.
In cases where the other sibling has died, the distress or thoughtlessness of the parents can instil a feeling of responsibility for the death of the sibling into the only child:
My mother had a baby boy who died after two weeks, when I was seven, and later a baby who died at birth. So I was an only child up to seven, when other children were imposed, but then they didn't exist. I had guilt when they died, perhaps wanting them to die. If you've been an only child for seven years and a brother arrives who I didn't especially want ... Quite a long time after I felt quite guilty that I might have killed him.
Because my mother had lost this daughter, I have lots of memories of me as a child trying to play under the table, with mother in front of the fire, crying, with the lights off. I don't think she ever got over it, and she used to go on to me all the time: 'If your sister was alive she'd have kept you in your place.' I used to get that, which was deeply boring to me as a six-year-old boy, since a dead sister didn't mean anything to me. And she'd say, 'Your sister would have been 12 today.' So there was a lot of that going on which was an extra burden, and a reflection of my mother's pain, of course.
* * *
Only children take on these responsibilities in response to direct or indirect messages from parents and family. And they continue to accumulate responsibility earlier and faster than their peers, through a process which works like this:
__ Being surrounded by adult company and being the centre of attention, the young only child quickly develops a larger vocabulary and models the behaviour he sees around him - adult behaviour.
__ What the parents then see before them is a child behaving in a much more adult way than normal for his age. This may be especially so if the parents are not able to observe the child playing in a normal childish way with other children.
__ The natural response is for the parents increasingly to relate to the child as an adult, and give him responsible tasks and involve him in decision-making about the house and family.
__ In turn the only child becomes more grown up, the parents relate in a yet more adult way, and so on.
__ The phenomenon of the 'little adult' has been created.
Because during my formative years it was just me, it made me grow up very quickly - I felt like an adult long before I'd have been classified as one. It has given me a sense of standing on my own two feet.
The consequences for the emotional development of the child are considerable. The small child is still there behind the apparently grown-up mask. (What this means we develop further in Chapter 4, Social Maturity.) The parents, often unaware of this, may respond to the adult presentation of the child and start giving him responsibilities:
I was aware of money - awareness was shared with you - what could and could not be spent. I was very aware of what could be bought at Christmas - I asked once for something too expensive. I was told it was about budgets; I was very aware of this and how it worked, early on. Beyond my pocket money I worked from very early on to get anything extra. Being part of the decisionmaking, I was consulted early on when I was quite young.
I actually knew what my parents' financial situation was from a very early age and would certainly never have nagged for things or - well, we didn't have TV advertising - dragged them past a toyshop saying, 'I want one of those ...' If something could be afforded I would have it.
It may not just be her parents who recognise the apparent maturity of the only child:
I was always fairly old-headed, always grown up and responsible. Other mothers would ask, 'Is Fiona going? All right, you can go then.' I was an approved person.
Giving the child responsibility or freedom may be a conscious decision by the parents to help the child, a deliberate attempt to compensate for the dangers of overprotection, which we describe later in this chapter under All the Attention:
Mum gave me more leeway than other kids, as she felt it important I went out and was with other kids. Now I'm amazed the things I was allowed to do - things that'd make my hair curl now!
And, of course, having or being given this responsibility has its own consequences both at the time and later:
Through being involved in family decision-making so early, I soon became aware of when I had power. I don't think it was two adults with power - you don't tend to have two with power - that's not how adults work. The major problem for the only child is realising his power position: how much power they do have, and they have the choice whether to exercise it or not.
Excerpted from The Only Child by Jill Pitkeathley, David Emerson. Copyright © 1994 Jill Pitkeathley and David Emerson. Excerpted by permission of Souvenir Press.
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