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How Being an Only Child Defined My Entire Life

My friends have become my chosen sisters.

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illustration of woman waving goodbye to house as parents drive car
Jan Buchzik
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As an only child, the love I have for my friends, especially other only children, is special. While being an only child has many advantages, it didn’t help with navigating a child’s world when I was young.

Modeling my intellectual parents’ vocabulary and listening to jazzman Benny Goodman with my father didn’t make for easy communication in my junior high halls. I was exposed to museums, orchestral concerts and theater more than to childhood TV hits like Leave It to Beaver and Howdy Doody.

I often joined their dinner parties, where I watched the smoke wafting from cigarettes and listened to grave political discussions. I remember hearing the grownups rant about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war, and at the age of 11, being too frightened to sleep for what seemed like weeks.

While I enjoyed the undivided attention from my parents, it was my time at Rochelle Murphy’s house that I treasured most. I was 6 when I met Rochelle, also an only child, and it was love at first sight. She was short with rounded cheeks and curly wheat-colored waves. I was tall and skinny, with straight black hair and slightly bowed legs.

Our shared loneliness was the chemistry that bonded us. Together with our mothers, we would spend all day together on Saturdays. While they chatted about recipes from Ladies Home Journal, Rochelle and I became “sisters.” We played elaborate games with our paper dolls and shared our little-girl dreams.

My mother and I were at Rochelle’s when my father called to tell us there had been a terrible fire at our house. The expression on my mother’s face and her teary eyes frightened me. Rochelle hugged me and said I could move into her room.

I brightened, fantasizing sharing our secrets under our matching flowery quilts on her two single beds. So much for fantasies — instead I moved with my parents into a tiny apartment. A year later, we moved from Washington, D.C., and I sadly left my first “chosen sister” behind. I believed it would be for forever.

But three years ago, Rochelle and I reunited after having no contact for more than 50 years. We met at a local cafe and made quite a scene as we shrieked and cried and hugged each other hard. I was no longer skinny, and she was no longer cherry-cheeked! We spoke with women’s voices of little-girl memories and adult challenges.

Amazingly, we ended up living just three miles apart, and still have a lot in common, like adoring our dogs. We also each have multiple children, determined not to repeat our three-person, often lonely, families of birth.

“Friends asked if I missed having siblings — you can’t really miss what you’ve never had,” Rochelle said. “But I felt pressure to behave and achieve in a certain way.”

We shared that we both longed for siblings to comfort us through the long passage of grieving when we lost our parents. (There can also be an added financial burden when an only child has to care for an elderly parent.)

“When my parents started having health problems, I wished for a sibling to help with decision-making,” Rochelle added.

Over the years, I have stumbled across other “chosen sisters,” adults who are only children. I am a therapist, and upon entering my practice, I befriended my supervisor, Debbie Peterson. We both are widows, and we care for each other as we imagine a sibling would. We are even “colonoscopy buddies,” accompanying each other to and from the procedure.

Susan Goldman lived in my neighborhood and our kids went to school together. We had a lot in common. Our mothers both worked outside the house; my mother was an attorney and hers was an administrator for Navy families. We had been the proverbial latchkey kids.

Left to ourselves, we made decisions without sufficient guidance.

Susan had spent part of her youth living in Paris, and at the age of 13, spent Saturdays wandering the streets alone, often confronted by adult men who thought she was older.

At the same age, I was sneaking out my back door to date a 17-year-old high school dropout who had a fast car and fast hands.

“My father’s career required his absence from us for long periods, leaving me with a mother who was unfamiliar with my world,” recalls Susan. “She assumed I was safe and happy. Not always so.”

I spoke to Maryland-based therapist Karen Riibner, who specializes in family relationships. She corroborated the importance of “chosen sisters.”

“For only children these chosen-family relationships are even more essential,” says Riibner. “I see my female patients improve when they carve out time for prioritizing these sister relationships. Symptoms of depression, anxiety and substance misuse decrease and overall satisfaction with life improves.”

Toni Falbo, a social psychologist who has conducted extensive research on family dynamics, has studied the impact of being an only child. As an only child and mother of an only child, she finds that the attention received from parents of a sole offspring often results in his or her enhanced achievement. She also debunks the myth that we only children are lonely, as we have received more than enough affection from our parents.

As Falbo writes: “Across all developmental outcomes, only children were found to be indistinguishable from firstborns and those from small families.”

I agree with Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, on her assessment of an only child being a high achiever.

As an adult, I haven’t felt lonely. I am fortunate to have been truly loved by my husband, two children, four grandchildren and a great new man in my life.

Yet, the love I have for my “chosen sisters” is on another level.

It transcends language. It is crying together and sometimes being silent together and never needing to explain. It is filling the hole that being an “only” created.

Today I am meeting Rochelle for a walk with our dogs, followed by dragon rolls at our favorite sushi place. We will discuss things we discuss with no one else — our health scares, our challenges with our men and, of course, our perfect grandchildren! We are family — “chosen sisters” forever.

Are any of you an only child? How did it define your life? Let us know in the comments below.

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