The shocked looks on my friends’ faces were comical, their eyes bulging. It looked like I just revealed that I had a secret 11th toe.
“You’re an only child?” they asked. “Really? You?”
That I am an only child is not typically mentioned in casual conversation, but when it does, I can expect an entertaining, over-the-top reaction. I was surprised that what I thought was only a trivial fact mattered so much to my friends and acquaintances, leaving them stupefied.
What does an only child look like, anyway?
Apparently, the telltale sign is a spoiled attitude. Growing up, I constantly heard judgments floating around about how spoiled only children are. I cannot say how much I live up to that expectation, but, I certainly do not want to be associated with its negativity.
Another assumption, that being an only child means being lonely, is not much better, and in my case, it is just plain wrong.
Having lived in the Bay Area for the early part of my life, I grew up surrounded by the many cousins in my large family. I slept over at their houses and shared nostalgic childhood memories with them.
My entire family gathered at my grandparents’ house during the holidays. Traditional wintertime celebrations were transformed into festive, warm, multi-generational gatherings that everyone excitedly anticipated.
I remember the joyous shrieks of my younger cousins and the music of the karaoke machine that filled the house while the adults chatted and ate.
Agewise, I am the middle cousin, which allows me to relate to relatives both older and younger than me. Because of our friendship, I am able to confide in them the way I imagine siblings do. They are like siblings to me. Even with my quiet life, my cousins ensure I do not feel alone. When I lived in the Bay Area, we would see each other almost daily.
Once I moved to Sacramento, near-daily correspondence via FaceTime and text messages were the norm in my household, which helped me sustain my close relationship with my extended family.
However, growing older is accompanied by more responsibilities and obligations. As I have begun broadening my social circle and busying myself with schoolwork, the frequency of notifications from my cousins has declined, replaced by messages from friends instead. I feared that I was drifting further and further apart from my cousins, who also had their own lives away from the phone.
After the move, my only opportunities to spend time with my cousins were during holidays, and even then, I felt a cold distance that did not exist before the move. I was again reminded that I am an only child. All I could pay attention to was the unfamiliar awkwardness that was telling of how far our friendship had deteriorated.
Yet, miraculously, it was rekindled thanks to quarantine. With the abundance of unfilled time, we reconnected through daily calls and messages to play games, and, of course, Zoom calls that included the entire family.
However, I understand that cousins and siblings are not quite the same. As the only cousin in the family without any siblings, I know that the bond between my cousins and their brothers or sisters is much closer than that of my cousins and me.
We do not live together or see each other daily anymore, and I faced most of my “firsts” without my cousins physically with me. While I view my family as the closest thing I will ever experience to siblings, I am probably only seen as the favorite cousin, the grandchild that lives so far away from everyone else.
Although it sounds sad, I hold no resentment toward this fact of my life because it is not all gloom and unhappiness. I like being an only child! Returning home after school looks like unlocking the front door to the cool temperature of the interior, the smell of dinner wafting from the kitchen.
After a “Hey Alexa, play Chet Baker,” and a snuggle attack for my dog, who was likely sleeping until my greeting, I flop on the couch to drink water and message some friends before starting my homework. The quiet environment at home is relaxing and comforting — a nice contrast from the long, chaotic days at school. I do not mind that no one is home except me for the first few hours, as I enjoy the solitude after school. It is a brief moment of pause and privacy in my day and an integral part of my routine. I was also able to develop a strong sense of independence and an appreciation for privacy and boundaries.
Of course, both are possible to achieve with siblings, but I believe it would have taken me much longer to realize it. The quiet is a source of comfort and re-energization after a long day of socialization for me, helping me relax and escape the fast pace of daily life.
In fact, I believe it is because I have no siblings that I can focus on enriching my other relationships, such as with my friends and parents. Being an only child has pushed me to find a stable, supportive group of friends to whom I can relate and trust.
It has also permitted me to spend more time with my mom because my mom does not need to divide her attention between multiple children.
We have more time to do various activities together, whether it be binging television shows, tasting new desserts from multiple bakeries, or simply sharing stories about each other’s day. So, although I have always wondered what my life would be like with a sibling or two, I am content with my current place, and I would not trade my experiences as an only child for anything.
By Lauren Lu
This story was originally publishedin the Dec. 13 issue of The Octagon