Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, ONLY CHILD!

It's been one year since the anthology I edited with my one of my other writing halves, novelist Daphne Uviller, came out. And on Feb. 26, the paperback version of Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo debuts. To gear up for part 2 of our book's launch, Daph and I would like to offer ourselves up as guest bloggers on parenting-related blogs. Any takers?!

I'm posting snippets from a little Q&A we prepared below, so you can see the kinds of topics we can mouth off around on this one. Interviewers are starting to ask us what's happened in the year since we did that book--which is also of course something we're happy to muse on. Because a lot happened. Daph went into the project loving being an only, and swearing to reproduce her experience by having an only herself. Me, not so much. I had more mixed feelings about being raised solo was always adamant that I'd have at least 2 kids. Long story short, Daph is expecting baby # 2 this April, and I've come to conclusion that I'd be superhappy with "just one." The reason for our choices? Working with our anthology contributors (all onlies, of course) and taking the lessons we learned from their poignant, diverse essays to heart.

Bottom line: In addition to deepening our own sisterly bond (I'm getting married in Daphne's backyard this summer), doing this anthology kinda changed our lives.

Excerpts from our Q&A:

Q: In the book's introduction, you refer to “so many more onlies in this country”. How many is that?
There are an estimated 15 million only children in the US, and a recent cover story in Time magazine suggested that one-third of Americans starting families now will have only one child. In Manhattan alone—the “OC” capital—over 30 percent of all families are single-child families, compared to a national average of around 20 percent. It’s interesting that over the past 20 years, the percentage of women nationwide who have one child has more than doubled, from 10 percent to 23 percent. The reasons for that are many, but the biggest ones are late pregnancy and the fact that it’s more expensive than ever to raise a child to age 18. And it’s not just happening in the US. Birth rates are falling in Western Europe and Canada too. In Europe, the average family size is estimated at 1.4 kids.

Q: Twenty-one writers who are only children: Did you discover anything you all have in common?
A: We have “I’m King of the World” tattooed on the bottom of our feet. No, seriously, we learned from our contributors that we do all have a couple of things in common. We had intensely close friendships, and somewhere along the way, most of us learned to turn friends into family. Many of us were also very good, of course, at being alone. We related easily at young ages to adults (which is a subtler way of bragging that we were all prematurely poised). And as we wrote these essays, we grappled with the question of whether we’ve become who we are because we’re onlies, or whether we would have turned out the same if we’d grown up with siblings.

Q: Did contributors like or hate being an only?
The essays fell into both those camps. Writers in the first category, like John Hodgman, Lynn Harris, Amy Richards, and Janice Nimura, relished onliness wholeheartedly and thrived as the sole recipients of their parents’ time, attention, money, and love. Others, like Sarah Towers, Alissa Quart, and Ted Rose, found themselves struggling constantly against a loneliness that frequently overshadowed the benefits.

Q: Is loneliness the only downside to being an only?
A: Kathryn Harrison writes eloquently about the fickleness of memory: if you’ve got no one to hold you in check, what’s to keep you from re-inventing your past? Or, by the same token, who can help you make sense of your parents’ eccentricities, help distinguish the normal from the abnormal within your family?

Q: Don’t a lot of the advantages you mentioned – the love, the attention, the money – add up to a lot of smothering?
For some people, sometimes, yes. Deborah Siegel writes about how she struggled, even as an adult, to do grownup things for herself, like handling finances. Lynn Harris was sending her laundry home even after college. On the other hand, they had peaceful, joyful homes with a singular kind of support system that a sibling, to some degree, would have shaken up or diluted—but then again, maybe that fear in itself is a very “only child” sentiment.

Q: Well, then, aren’t the advantages offset later in life by the burdens of caring for aging parents by yourself?
A: There’s no question that being an only comes with enormous burdens. You’re the confidant, the caretaker, and the undertaker. The pressure not to fail, or even to be subpar – in your career, in your marriage, as a producer of grandchildren – is intense. But to say that those pressures offset all the benefits is to favor one half of life over the other. Think of all the people who, as children, fought with their siblings or were estranged, only to rediscover each other as adults, just in time to share the burden of aging parents. Is their adulthood more valuable to them than their childhood?

Q: You sound like you’re defending onliness.

That would be Daphne. She loved it when she thought about it at all – which was rare until Deborah brought up the idea for the book. Deborah wasn’t all that content to be an only. Both of us were onlies by default, not design, but for Deborah, somehow, the disappointment transmitted. Her mom remembers returning home after fertility surgery, to be asked by Deborah, “Mommy, aren’t I enough?”

Q: So how did you manage to do a book together?
Contrary to stereotype, we played fabulously together. Only children can be very, very good at collaboration!

Q: A lot of your readers are going to be parents looking for advice on whether they'll ruin their child by not giving her or him a sibling. Can you give them an answer?

A: The third section, “A Sib for Junior?” addresses that quandary. First of all, both John Hodgman and Amy Richards refer to “deprivation” as depriving their multiple children of the joy of being an only. But while all our writers had varied experiences, there does seem to be one truth that emerges. Kids whose parents weren't sure they wanted to have kids at all and chose to have a single child as a hedged bet - “one is close to none,” says one writer - seemed to be unhappier as onlies than kids whose parents wholeheartedly embraced the kid scene.

Q: So come on, admit it, aren’t you guys just a little bit spoiled?
A: Vanessa Grigoriadis, in a New York magazine cover article on only children a while back (she’s an only herself), says simply, “[T]here are no set limits on what a parent will give an only child, no pressure from other siblings to split things up. It’s not spoiling, it’s just...life.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about onlyness, or only-tude?

A: Yes. Only Child is not just for onlies, or people close to them. Even though our criteria for contributors was that they be sibling-free, they ultimately invoked onlyness as a prism though which to examine the human experience. As one contributor asks, isn’t the only child simply the most exaggerated version of all of us, navigating life alone?


A Classroom of One's Own said...

Wow! I'm glad to have discovered this book. I am an only. My son is an only.

I loved being solitary and it never occurred to me to wish to be anything else. I was far from spoiled...we didn't have enough money even if my parents wanted to spoil me.

Last year I began to blog about my experiences parenting an only and until then, I guess I had never really thought about the issue.

Since becoming a mom, I see a vast difference between my son and friends' children who are growing up amongst the chaos of larger families.

My blog entries probably step on a few toes, so I try my best to explain that my opinions are stemming only from what I see. I am anxious to read your book--I will add it to my blog. I love to recommend books!

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