It’s an unusually sunny winter day in Connecticut and the beach is crowded with kids in masks. They’re clustered in groups of friends, classmates and siblings all with the exuberance of a family dog finally out to play. Clutching my hand, my son Giorgio surveys the playground looking for his in.
“Maybe I’ll meet someone at the swings. I’ve had good luck there before,” he says and leaves my side to enter the fray.
I have my doubts. The passive-aggressive technique, waiting for a potential friend to make the first move, never worked for me. But I was never an eight-year-old boy. He runs over to the swings and starts to pump, higher and higher. I take a seat on a nearby bench.
A blond boy in a white polo approaches the swing set. Giorgio’s blue eyes light up, but the boy walks by and my son keeps on pumping. I just watch. I don’t want to interfere. I don’t want to project my anxieties. I really hope he makes a friend today.
* * *
I never planned to have only one child. I had always assumed I’d have at least two or three. But I gave birth to my son at the age of 41, plagued with complications from possible preeclampsia and postpartum depression. Although I didn’t feel that my family was complete, I didn’t know when or if I would be ready to have another.
While my window for conceiving was closing I felt a pang of jealousy every time I heard news that a friend was expecting a second child. Still, the package of ovulation predictors I purchased at CVS remained unopened in my cupboard. Just shy of my 45th birthday I agreed to undergo a prophylactic hysterectomy. I had to come to terms with the fact that my family was complete and my son would be an only child.
I worried what a life with no siblings would be like for Giorgio. Is the stereotype that singletons are self-absorbed and maladjusted true? Would my son grow up to be bossy? Antisocial? Lonely?
Nannies used to ask me if I would give Giorgio a little brother or sister. They insisted that if I loved my son, I owed it to him or he would never learn to share. One mother persistently pestered me. “Don’t you want to give him a sibling?” she would ask while her two little ones bickered. “I was 48 when I had little Asher.”
I learned to let the comments slide and be happy with my family of three.
After all, I grew up one of four kids and that didn’t protect me from experiences of isolation. I often felt lost among my siblings and I constantly compared myself to my sister and brothers. Who was the prettiest? Smartest? Most talented? My son never has to complete for his parents’ attention.
When he was young, Giorgio did ask for a little sister or brother, and I would explain that we couldn’t have any more children. We adopted a cat instead.
We were fortunate to be living in a tight, supportive community in New York City. Our doormen and elderly neighbors acted as surrogate uncles and grandparents. We would spontaneously meet up with other singleton families at local playgrounds. Children down the hall came regularly to visit, or Giorgio would sneak his iPad to the apartment upstairs, giving me peaceful alone time.
Financially, of course, it’s easier with one child. The three of us fit into a small apartment. With fewer expenses, we had been able to eat out and see theater and travel more. As a family, we have been to Italy and Alaska and Costa Rica.
Then came the pandemic. After weeks of sheltering in our apartment, we took refuge with my mother in her house in the suburbs. Since last March, it has been just Giorgio with three grown-ups and a cat, day in and day out. We have become his whole world: his teachers, his parents and his siblings. He wrestles us to get his willies out and needles us when he wants to antagonize. With no one else to talk to, he talks to us. He talks and talks and talks, about Captain Underpants and Super Mario 3D World and the meaning of life. Too often we let him use his screen as a substitute for sisters and brothers. He watches people play video games on YouTube instead of playing them himself, and watches kids causing mischief on Netflix instead of causing it himself.
Giorgio is lucky. He has two doting parents who are fortunate enough to be able to spend time with him. He has a grandmother he charms and a cat he annoys. We are lucky too; he is upbeat and curious and funny and compassionate.
I couldn’t imagine a more perfectly imperfect child. But I question our decision to not try harder to give him a sibling, a peer to share these hard times with. Even as it appears to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, I worry what all of this alone time is doing to my son and other only children who experienced last year in a world made up entirely of adults.
* * *
Giorgio is pumping away. Another boy, maybe a little younger, with unkempt curly hair climbs onto the swing next to him. He glances at my son and also starts pumping trying to catch up. Giorgio looks back. Eventually the two boys swing in unison.
I guess he does know what he’s doing after all. Maybe he learned how to make friends out of necessity, being an only child. I felt most lonely when my older sister refused to play with me. We can’t second guess our decisions in light of the pandemic. We all, parents and children, are doing the best we can.
Ten minutes later and my son is among a gaggle of boys and girls on a ride we call “the twirly,” a disk kids sit or stand on that goes round and round until the kids get so dizzy they fall off into the sand. From my bench I hear the reassuring sound of children’s laughter, Giorgio’s hearty chuckle rising above the rest.