Book talk/Blog Tour: “Only Child”

(Advisory note: I was offered the opportunity to review this book by MotherTalk, which arranged for me to receive a promotional copy; I received no other compensation.)

Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo by Deborah Siegel
Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo
Deborah Siegel and Daphne Uviller, editors and contributors
Three Rivers Press, paperback, 2008 (ISBN 0307238075 / 9780307238078)
Nonfiction anthology/memoir, 272 pages

First sentence (from the Introduction): What’s it like being an only child?

Book Description: In this insightful and entertaining collection, writers including Judith Thurman, Kathryn Harrison, John Hodgman, and Peter Ho Davies reflect on a lifetime of being an only. They describe what it’s like to be an only child of divorce, an only because of the death of a sibling, an only who reveled in it, or an only who didn’t. As adults searching for partners, they are faced with the unique challenge of trying to turn their family units of three into units of four, and as they watch their parents age, they come face-to-face with the onus of being their families’ sole historians.

Whether you’re an only child, the partner or spouse of an only, a parent pondering whether to stop at one, or a curious sibling, Only Child offers a look behind the scenes and into the hearts of twenty-one smart and sensitive writers as they reveal the truth about growing up–and being a grown-up–solo.

Comments: For the most part, every firstborn spent some portion of his or her life as an only child. Some – like me, just 19 months older than my sister – don’t remember much about that time; others, like my stepdaughter, who is five years older than her brother, recall it well. (And a few of us have probably taunted our younger siblings at least once or twice with the fact that we were here first…) And then there are those like my son, who has remained an only child for nearly 24 years; the younger step-siblings he acquired at age 22 live across the country and aren’t a daily factor in his life. As it happens, I’m not just the parent of an “only,” I’m the daughter of two of them (although my mom became an older half-sister when she was almost 17).

I decided quite early on that I only wanted one child, and I’ve written about that before. My son has never really seemed unhappy about his singleton status, but when the opportunity to read the essays in Only Child came up, I was very interested in other perspectives, especially since I have the impression that he’s a bit of an exception in his contentment with it. I’m also a regular reader of Deborah Siegel’s blog, Girl With Pen, so I was aware her work on the book.

The book contains 21 essays organized into four sections – childhood as an “only,” significant others and friends, parenting, and losing a parent. As might be expected with an anthology, some of the pieces are stronger than others, and different readers will draw different things from it. I was interested in comparing the writers’ perspectives and memories of only-childhood to my understanding of my son’s, and curious about how they might address stereotypes about onlies. These are some of the impressions I take from the book:

  • Some of the writers were very content to be only children, while others begged for siblings – and some went back and forth.
  • Only children seem to have particularly close and open relationships with their parents. Several of the writers talked about the “triangle” of their family, and that was expressed in a positive manner – that is, as a “stable” shape. At the same time, they recognize that in such a small family, the members can be strongly invested in one another, perhaps too much so. It occurs to me that this makes the temptation toward “helicopter parenting” particularly strong for parents of an only (which makes me even more glad I resisted it with my son, pretty much). But for the most part, the closeness is seen as unremarkable within the family – but quite remarkable from the outside.
  • I got the sense that, at least among the only children who contributed to this book, the absence of sibling rivalry and closeness with their parents helped them grow up with more security and self-confidence than average.
  • Most of the only children here seem to deny the “spoiled” stereotype, at least in the material sense – they’ll admit to being spoiled by parental attention, though. As far as the “selfish” designation often applied to onlies – because they “never had to learn to share” – some of the contributors feel that because they didn’t have to fight siblings for attention, toys, or space, they’re actually more generous and giving. (I think there’s something to that, in not having a need to define and defend “turf.”) However, sometimes that can lead to real problems with boundaries, or lack of them – an observation which actually gives me a little better understanding of my dad.

My favorite section of the book is the second one, “We Are…Family: Significant Others and Friends.” This portion contains the editors’ own contributions; Siegel’s essay talks about her hopes of finding a partner who will “complete” her family, while Uviller’s story imagines what life might have been like with a sister. Both are among my favorite selections; I also enjoyed Molly Jong-Fast’s piece on growing up as Erica Jong’s daughter. Sara Reistad-Long’s “Separation and the Single Girl” and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn’s “Becoming an Only Child” – a fairly uncommon experience resulting from the death of a brother – were particularly moving. The “parenting” section is titled “A Sib for Junior?” and I think that’s telling; it’s very interesting that only children frequently don’t want to replicate that experience with the next generation, and that may be one way to learn how they really feel about it. (I’m waiting to see how that plays out with my son – and I’ll be glad to wait a few more years, thank you.)

Only Child contains some fascinating reading and interesting stories, whether you grew up “only” yourself , are the partner of one, or are considering whether to raise one (just one).

Rating: 4/5

Links to other Blog Tour reviews of this book can be found here.

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  1. I was the last of three in our house, and I was spoiled. At least that’s what my siblings say. 🙂 I have seen some spoiled “onlies” but I bet if there were more than one child they’d all be just as spoiled. But I shouldn’t talk. My kids have more stuff than they need. 🙂

  2. Mike – Yeah, the bsby always gets the most spoiling. I wouldn’t know personally. 🙂

    I think you’re right about the “spoiling” not necessarily having much to do with the number of kids, and being more about how the parents operate.

    But most kids have more stuff than they need.

  3. I enjoyed reading your review, Florinda. If my husband and I ever decided we wanted a child, we would go the one child route. We both were the oldest of sibling sets of two (I never include my older half sister in this because I was an adult before I knew she existed).

    I always wished I had six older brothers. Haha I’m not sure why. That was my dream when I was a child.

    I don’t know what that has to do with the book you read, but there you go. 🙂

  4. Literary Feline – One worked out fine for me, Wendy. But if you do have a child (or two :-)) one day, I’m sure he or she will love to read!