I live on a battlefield. My three daughters, ages 10 and under, fight constantly. If you have kids, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the crimes: who cheated at a game, who kicked whom under the table, who gets to sit next to mommy. If one has a cold, her sister might yell at her for breathing too loudly—they’re that merciless. They’re fighting as I edit these words, over a Wii remote to be exact. They’re either violent thugs or normal siblings. I have no idea which.
My husband, who grew up the middle child of three, assures me their behavior is normal. No matter what atrocities I tell him the kids have inflicted on each other, he’s got a story. “Oh yeah? Well, one time, my brother cast a fishing line into my scalp and dragged me across the beach by my head,” he might say, parting his hair to show me the scar. It’s all so weird to me. As you may have guessed by now, I am an only child.
My love for my kids is boundless, my third child a sparkling Shirley Temple lookalike who charms everyone within a 20-foot radius. I mention these truths, and her specifically, to buffer an uglier truth, which is: Their bickering and chaos wears me down so much that I sometimes wondered, in the early years after she was born, if having three kids was a mistake.
Then, last fall, my father began a long, aggressive treatment for stage 3 cancer. When I learned of his diagnosis, I called my husband, who was traveling for work. When we hung up, I stood frozen in my living room holding the phone, not knowing whom to call next. I ached for a sibling like a phantom limb. Lacking one, I dialed up my friend Shelley, whom I’ve known since we were teenagers. “I need a sibling,” I whimpered.
“I’ll be your sister,” she said, and though I knew she meant well, Shelley already has two sisters, along with a busy family and a demanding job. We’re part of the sandwich generation—almost all my friends have aging or deceased parents and school-aged kids of their own. She couldn’t be my sibling. Nobody could.
My mother, overwhelmed from caring for my dad, began suffering neurological ailments, possibly stress-related. My parents and I had always formed a tight triangle, and suddenly two of the sides wobbled. I tried to hold it together from where I live, eight hours away. My husband’s travel schedule increased, which meant I couldn’t take off to see my parents. All I could do was ride out lonely days of solo parenting, trying not to cry in front of the kids, and often failing.
One warm fall day, I stood on the playground after school, pushing my youngest daughter on a swing and avoiding the other moms circling the picnic tables, making brisk small talk I couldn’t begin to face. Beside me at the swing set stood the grandmother of my daughter’s classmate, pushing her grandson. Between pleas of “higher, higher!” we struck up a conversation. She told me that both her daughter and her grandson were only children, and I mentioned that I am one too.
“Do you like it?” she asked. I’d always felt ambivalent about that question. Being an only child was all I’d ever known. At times it had been lonely, but I’d had access to more parental attention and a few more material things along the way.
That day, I didn’t feel ambivalent. But I also didn’t feel like hurting this kind woman. “Well, I did growing up…” I trailed off.
“And now?” she asked. I fought back tears as I told her the truth—that my parents were aging, that their health problems had made it harder. I admitted that I longed for a sibling to rely on, someone who could share my burden with me.
“Yes, my daughter struggles too,” she said. “I lost my husband a few years ago, and it’s been really hard for her as an only child. I don’t think I thought about that much when she was young.” I told her I was sorry about her husband, and she said thanks. Then we stood in silence, both knowing the score.
In recent years, negative studies about siblings abound. The bestseller NurtureShock taught us that siblings’ interactions are so frequently hostile, they are no more skilled at socialization than only children. A 2010 British study surveyed 40,000 households and found that those with only children were the happiest, with satisfaction actually decreasing as more siblings were added to a family. Siblings bring more household duties, rampant bullying, and parental stress, the researchers said. This study seems intuitive to me, if short-sighted. Being an only child was idyllic in many ways. It’s being an only adult that sucks.
I didn’t expect my dad to live, but he did. Cancer-free now, he visited at Christmas. My mom and I made our annual roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner to the tune of my fighting children. After years of wanting to replace our too-small dining table, I finally broke down this year and bought a bigger one. My husband wisely talked me out of ordering a 10-person table—he said the size would look preposterous in our smallish eating nook. I finally agreed on one that seats eight, with some regret. I didn’t care if it was too big; I wanted a table that would fit my daughters and their friends and spouses and children for decades to come. I would have bought a 20-person table if I could have.
Maybe we all want what we didn’t have growing up. I still feel envious when I see Facebook pictures of my friends and their beloved siblings. But to quote Shel Silverstein, “all the magic I have known, I’ve had to make myself.” Eventually, the family I’m left with will be the one I’ve created. I see that now, or maybe I saw it all along. That’s why I had three kids: I gave them the gift of each other. They might not appreciate it as they fight over the last brownie or the first turn at Minecraft. But one day, they will.