Is being an only more problematic as you get older?

by on September 2, 2010

in Stories

After reading the honest, open and heartfelt contributions of other people who wanted to share their experiences, and after two tears formed on reading some, I knew writing to you was something that I had to do.

To give a little background, I was raised by my mother, and for a few years, her partner. My biological father was not on the scene, as they broke up before my birth. My mother has two sisters and one brother. Due to family dynamic caused in part by sexual abuse within the family, my mother has a very strained relationship with my grandmother, her siblings, and the wider family. Hence, cousins did not play apart in my childhood.

I had lots of fun while growing up. I lived in an area which had lots of children, and made friends easily. I was good at sport, and good at school, but found navigating school friendship groups difficult. I played lots of social games outside the home, and had parents who would play with me when they had time. Also, became very good at playing two-people games by myself.

In all honesty, I think the real impact of being an only child became worse after childhood, levelling off more recently. When I was younger, I was very angry about not having a more normal family set-up, and was considered weak for wanting to feel part of a family. Though I understood why I was not part of the wider-family, it was painful for me, and in a way, always be. For so many years I have been very envious of people with siblings and good family relations. Its one of those things which has brought me to tears more times than I can count, and is something that, on occasion, still has the ability to.

More than missing someone to have played with back then, I feel very, very alone sometimes. Firstly, my mum is not very trusting of people, and generally thinks she does/and has not need people much. This has meant that since, and even during her time in a relationship, that she has relied of me to be daughter/sometimes mother/confidant/friend/partner. This is stressful. As is hearing her relationship views, cynicism, and general negativity. It took me years of talking before she agreed to see a counsellor, years before she started socialising outside the home. I think that she has not felt a burning need to do any of this because I have been ‘there’. I do think that the mother-only child relationship, especially when other family relationships are either non-existent or incredibly strained (e.g. my mother with my grandmother) is part of the reason. I have nobody to help me with my mum. I am ever more aware that she is getting older (is currently late forties), and that when she is old, I will have nobody to help me look after her. In addition, I feel the relationship I have with my mother suffocates me. We are very different in many ways, but she is often trying to compete with me and/or control my thinking in some way, even now. She has too much influence over my life and my thoughts, which is not helping me to life a fruitful life with choices different from her own. She cannot accept that there are things I do not agree with her about, and that I never will. The hardest part of all this living in a gold-fish bowl is that as much as I do not like it, I have had to take a long hard look at myself, and see how much I have, and do contribute to it.

I am also deeply worried about my own future. I am 27, have very little experience of relationships (not that I put this down to only-child status!), and am aware that if I don’t marry, I won’t have a family. In my experience, though friendships can be rich and beautiful, when it comes down to it, for the vast majority they are insignificant in comparison to family bonds. I am also scared of meeting potential consequences of not coming from a strong family. Constantly feeling like an outsider on other people’s dinner tables has made me feel quite vulnerable…as from experience I know it’s the opportunists’ playground. Friendships are and have been important to me, in ways that I don’t feel like others understand. Sadly, I can even see times where I have been scared to challenge a friend, or let go of the friendship, or even recognise that there was not a friendship really, because I have been scared to be alone…where I have not been as disciplined in maintaining boundaries as I should be just so I don’t feel as alone. Again, I would not put this all down to being an only child, but I do think that being an only child exacerbates it.

In terms of my own development, I think being an only child has, in some ways, given me a certain maturity, through having to consider things that some do not have to/at an earlier age than some I expect. I have young friends and older ones, and generally get on quite well with older people, that is a very good thing, as there is so much for me to learn. In other ways, I think being an only-child has impaired my development, and if I knew how sooner, I would have tried to balance-out these aspects of my character. For example, its only recently that I have been able to work through relationship bad-times, and is something I am still working on. Before, whenever a relationship was proving difficult, I would walk away, and think that if it was good, we would not have had the problems. In part, I think this is because I never had to work through relationships such as sibling-drama when I was young. Though I had friends, if I did not like something, I was always able to walk away.

Sometimes I feel too old for people my own age, and too young for people older than me, like being an only-child has given me some years on my age…but always a few short. When dating this tends to come to the fore; mentally, I find men my own age very difficult on the whole, but it is with a lot of reluctance that I consider older men.

Overall, I think that adulthood is posing far more issues and challenges for me as someone who grew up without siblings that childhood did. How do I prize myself away from an enhanced mother-daughter bond enough to take my own chances in my life? How do I minimise the effect of my mother’s own fears, choices and views? How do I live to be able to support her emotionally and financially when the time comes? How do I make sure my need of people and relationships does not eclipse my need for self-respect? How do I give to those that I care about? How will I make sure that my children will have rich childhoods despite not having cousins, aunts and uncles on my side of the family?

And like most others, an only-child, bar health-related reasons, is not something that I want to create.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you,


  • Skay

    Hi thank you for sharing.  It is so difficult being an only child and as you get older it is more difficult.  Am 29 and thinking about getting married but my mother is depressed that she would be alone.  She is in her late forties and I feel guilty for leaving her.  

  • Mike

    I am really glad that I came upon this website today because I too am an only and I have literally been an only for 6 years now after my father passed away and before that my mother. I can really relate to what you said in your account about it being difficult being an only. I have felt that at all of my life in that my parents loved me,but,they were very strict and old fashioned so not only did I not have the sibling experience to teach me how to deal with social interaction and conflict,my parents stifled me and I always had to keep my opinions and needs to myself. Growing up I was very shy and introverted. Sometimes,friends of my parents would help to babysit me,but,I always wanted to have a little brother or friend to play with and talk to. I always felt that I was a bit more mature then some of my schoolmates because I spent more time with adults. My parents did not get along well with my father’s extended family which were the only relatives we had in our city. It has only been in recent years that I have made an effort to reach out to them through an aunt who had stayed in contact with me. It has been good to learn and connect with them all,but,when we are at a large family dinner or get together,I still feel a bit like an outsider. All of my friends have siblings and most of them really don’t understand what it was like for me as an only. My best friend who I have known for a long time recently went on a vacation with a girlfriend of her’s and I felt hurt by that even though it was a girls only trip.
    I have been mad at her for it and I have been tempted to walk away from our friendship because I feel like she is replacing me with the other friend and that I am not good enough for her. Being an only,I have had to deal with issues of dependence and I guess narcissism. I know that she doesn’t see it that way because she comes from a large family. I won’t end the friendship because we have been together so long. But,I am just so glad to find this site and read and share my story because I have met at the most one or two other onlies like me in my life. Thanks.

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