When people ask me whether I have siblings, I jokingly reply, “Nope, I’m an only, lonely child.” My parents had me when they were 35. I wasn’t an accident, but more of a happy afterthought.
My mum tells me that her and my dad’s life was simply good as it was and the thought of having a baby hadn’t really crossed their minds. They were DINKS - double income, no kids. But a trip to the doctor changed all that when he said it was now or never on the baby front. So, in 1998, I was born.
My life was never interrupted by a sibling because “I never asked for one”, mum told me. Looking back on my life thus far, I’ve often wondered if there were any disadvantages to being an only child.
When my partner and I spar, I realise I’m not the most outstanding debater. I have a tendency to throw a huff and demand I’m right without supplying any evidence; something I’m working on. I’ve got a competitive streak but I sometimes have no idea what to do with these feelings. I also suck at ball sports. I’ve wondered if these were things people with siblings had more practice at.
People tell me I don’t seem like an only child. But what does that mean? I’m the opposite of “entitled with strong opinions, a bit spoiled, selfish, not social, terrible at sharing?” Well, that’s a relief.
But the only-child stereotypes persist, despite being quite unfounded.
With a deep delve into a few psychological studies, I’ve learned only children are not any worse off than those with siblings. We aren’t all self-obsessed or lacking in social skills. Some only children struggle to make friends. Other only children are highly socially skilled.
One thing that did stand out to me during my late-night research was that only children can be more comfortable spending time alone and are quite adept at entertaining themselves. They’re used to it. But I’m an absolute extrovert and alone time has been something I’ve struggled with. I hated spending time alone. It was forcing myself to go solo travelling last year that taught me to love solitude and time to reconnect with myself.
So really, only children are just like those children who have siblings; it’s the wide array of life experiences that contribute to the people we become. In fact, only children can fare just as well as their counterparts with siblings. I am proof of this with all my flaws and strengths, skills and imperfections.
Among my age group, it’s always felt like only children are rare. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who are “onlys”. But there’s actually a global rise of “one and done” parenting. Us “onlys” are becoming more and more common.
In a 2021 study, only 12% of European families had three or more children, whereas 49% had one child. Fertility rates continue to drop long-term in New Zealand. Last year, the fertility rate was 1.65 births per woman.
There are myriad reasons for this: the financial burden of having more than one child paired with the increasing cost of living, worries over climate change. Women are also having children later in life, focusing more on their careers and living life for themselves. This then leaves less time to have another baby.
“DINK” is now trending on Tik Tok, with more than 33 million views on DINK-tagged videos. The very latest hashtag trend is DINKWAD: double income, no kids, with a dog. People are finding freedom in choosing.
New parents have long faced the stigma of only having one child. “Won’t they be lonely?” the common question asked. Even the typical question asked of newly married couples, “When are you going to have kids?” is loaded with “more than one.” But it seems to be more and more acceptable to have only one child or even none at all.
Growing up, I often longed for a sibling. An older sister who could be my best friend and confidant, share her clothes with me and her secrets to getting over heartbreak. Or maybe a brother to fight those boys who did break my heart, and distract my parents from interrogating my own fuck-ups, by making their own drastic mistakes. But then again, it would be a roll of the dice if I’d even get along with these imagined siblings.
In reality, I’ve never felt like I’ve missed out on anything by being an “only.” In fact, I know I’ve been given amazing opportunities because of it. Some days it may feel like I’m carrying the entire weight of my parent’s expectations but really I’m just getting their full love, attention and support.
These days I’ve realised it’s mostly my own expectations I’ve put as a burden on myself whereas my parents just want me to try my best. I am grateful to be very close to my parents.
Does being an only child mean I was a lonely child? The only times I’ve ever felt lonely were not due to a lack of sibling chaos, but rather in moments of moving to new places and trying to make new friends. It is an experience we all go through as we grow up, whether we have siblings or not. We all leave home, run, stumble, tumble and skip down our own life paths. A lot of the time, we are doing this alone.
In new cities and countries, New Zealand and abroad, I’ve been met with kindness and politeness but often a lack of true throw-your-arms-around-my-neck and kiss-my-checks welcoming.
Society seems to be turning increasingly insular and individualistic. Friendship circles dwindle the older we get. Cliques; people too caught up in their own lives. We’re all too busy. Our guards are up.
Loneliness is a growing epidemic in New Zealand and the world. In Stats NZ’s 2021 Wellbeing Statistics report, face-to-face and non-face-to-face contact with families increased but face-to-face contact with friends decreased.
Recently the prominent US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy claimed loneliness poses risks as deadly as smoking. We have 1052 Facebook friends and 989 Instagram followers but who’s really going to come to your birthday? This is a question we all face, whether we have siblings or not.
I think that’s the most important take from being an only child. Whether you have siblings or not, family isn’t just made through being related. It’s your friends and community. My best friends are my sisters. I love my friends just as much as I love my family. I see little difference between friendship and familial ties. I turn to one for advice and support just as much as the other. Both are my lifeblood.
So let’s aim to be more welcoming to newcomers in our lives. Let’s make sure we never make anyone feel alone. To create a village wherever we live, making a community, a family through lived experiences rather than genetics.
At the end of the day, I just feel lucky to be here. Yes, I may not be the best at playing in a team sport. But I have a tribe of people around me and we’re all just figuring it out together. I’m an only child, yes, but I’m never alone.