I don’t think it was until I had children that I fully began to understand the extent of what I had missed out, both good and bad, on being brought up an only child.
Watching my children play, argue, compete as well as ignore each other, I began to get a flavour of what it would be like to have a sibling. I could see having another child around had its own challenges and I also became very aware how children with sibling/s inevitably fight for attention from a parent. However I also realised that whilst they did not always get on at least there was always someone of a close enough age to be alongside with. Okay, this could lead to conflict but on the whole I found they enjoyed each other’s company and relished the times they played together. When conflict did emerge they did not shy away from it like I would have done - they battled it out, shouting at each other, slamming doors and sometimes trying to make me take sides or intervene in some way. This wish for me to help resolve their conflict, I found difficult as it was outside of my experience, and unless they were in danger of actually harming each other I kept out of it. What it did teach me is how little experience I had received as a child of similar situations. I was far too shy or fearful to get into conflict with a friend, which I suspect only children usually avoid because of the ultimate danger of losing the friend. You can’t loose a sibling in the same way and of course they are not going to disappear off the scene, so conflict inevitably has to be solved one way or another.
I recently read an interesting insight in the novel “The Swimmer” by Roma Tearne. An only child reflects on the lack of siblings when she is feeling isolated after the death of her mother:
“ I noticed the way other families were made up and what difference it made to have an older or younger sibling. I saw that those of my friends who had complained about members of their family in the past -the younger sister who used all their make-up, the older brother who bossed them around- did not really mean what they said. Their complaints were fake complaints and the realisation filled me with bitterness.” (Tearne 2010: 249)
To me this is like being in partnership or being married. You don’t always get on and you can annoy each other a great deal and complain about it, but when the other person is no longer there you are devastated. It is this ‘warts and all’ relationship that siblings have that allows them to be able to express themselves in a far more authentic way than I think I was ever able to do with a friend. This is why I believe siblings are so crucial to social and emotional development. Sibling relationships are not all positive or pleasant but they are real and they enable both ends of the spectrum of love and hate to be voiced. Tearne says, even when things are conflictual, siblings do: ‘not really mean what they said.’
I found it fascinating watching my children look out for each other when playing with other children. Having had them close in age (2o months apart) they probably had far more contact with each other than if they had a far larger age gap. Of course not all siblings do get on well together but I often wonder if that is the result of too much parental interference – or just plain clash of personalities.
As an only child parent I think there were times I wanted to join in the play more than be the parent, especially on holidays. My memory as a child of holidays was being very isolated. My parents and I always camped and they preferred to camp where there were few facilities (ie a just toilet) in a field where no one else camped! This meant I never had a friend to play with and similar to home I was left to my own devices to amuse myself when we were not on the beach or cliff walking. Agonising over trying to make contact with other children is a strong memory from childhood and that constant fear that my attempts would lead to rejection.
Watching my own children do this ’together’ was an interesting experience. My daughter, the younger of the two, did most of the initial contact as my son was shyer – but ultimately they nearly always made friends on the first day where ever we went and those friendships lasted throughout the holidays with of course the inevitable ups and downs on the way.
I have always valued friendships, as I think my children have, but the big difference watching them is that they often did this together and thus halving the possible rejections and of course at the end of the day they had each other and I have happy memories watching them go off excited about some venture they were determined to follow through be it crab fishing or a cycle race to the shop……
I wonder how many other only child parents have had similar reflections as they watched their sibling children play?