My mother is one of eight siblings and she tells me sometimes that I should be grateful for being an only child. Usually, when she says this, it's because of the latest eye-rolling family drama. But to say this is to misunderstand me so profoundly it makes me want to cry.
I have my guesses as to why I never had a sibling, though my mother and I have never discussed it. It could be that it wasn't a choice for her, as it isn't for many others: emotionally, medically, financially, for any number of reasons, sometimes it just isn't possible to have more than one child. But if you can, I believe that giving your son or daughter a sibling is one of the most loving things you can do for them.
Don't get me wrong; growing up as an only child wasn't all bad. My books were never torn by a sticky-fingered toddler. When my father passed away more recently, I inherited a significant sum that I had to share with nobody except the taxman. But I would have traded all of this in an instant — would still trade it now — for having grown up with a sibling.
For not having had to roam on the beach during our yearly visits to the South of France until I found a girl roughly my age of whom I could beg, want to play with me?
For not having had to set up Monopoly games and then play two people's turns myself.
For sharing the burden of expectation with someone, so that my mother could say, Well, I don't know exactly what Claire thinks she is doing with this writing thing, but David, David's a doctor. Stephanie has been promoted to head of her department.
For sharing, too, the burden of care, as I think about my aging mother and stepfather across an ocean.
For having learned to better take teasing, to exchange apologies, to accept conflict as an inevitable part of life, and learn strategies for dealing with it. Say sorry to each other, my friend's parents told her and me one summer after one of us had pushed the other down the slide and a disproportionate fight had ensued. Say sorry to God. Now say I love you. Now hug each other. It struck me later that they must have been used to — even sick of — saying this to her and her sister. For me it was a single teachable moment that stands out in my childhood for its novelty, for its uniqueness.
Writing pages and pages in my journal after we moved from Belgium to England, I would imagine myself instead lying on my side, elbow propping me up, whispering to my sister. Can you believe these people? I would say to her after a rough day at my new school. Can you believe they think Belgium is a part of Germany?
It's easy, of course, to idealize nonexistent siblings. I could just as easily have had a brother who beat me up or a sister who ignored me, a sibling of either gender who outshone me or who needed my parents more than I did. But even if I had — even if I'd been just as lonely or had different emotional issues to deal with as a child — I believe that growing up with siblings teaches children lessons that I never learned, that I would be infinitely better off for having internalized early, when I was too young to notice I was doing so.
I can't read except in total silence. I can't share things — books especially — without my whole self cringing. And people? Forget about sharing people. Embarrassingly, I still ache for best friends, for people who belong exclusively to me. My heart still pangs when someone I'm close to seems to care a little too much about someone else, because I didn't learn in childhood that a person can love someone besides me, without it diminishing their love for me.
My mother believed in doing things herself. The washing, the ironing. The cooking, the baking. She believed in giving me the space, instead, to practice my flute and do my homework. That's a laudable instinct — but in the long-term, it has not served me well. My practical skills are nonexistent, shockingly so. If she'd had more than one child, would she have caved to the pressure of the sheer amount of work? Made us take on some of it? Taught us how to look after ourselves better?
I'll never know, just as I'll never know what happened to the girls I met in the South of France, the girls with whom I built sandcastles and swam in the sea and exchanged letters between summers, the girls whom I imagined to be something like sisters, and yet, in the end, faded from my life, as people with whom we do not share blood are wont to do.