If you saw Ondine, who’s a fifth-grader at Grace Church School, and her mom, Elizabeth Cohen, walking down the street, you’d probably guess that Ondine is an only child. They have the same stride and the same carriage, and even though there’s more than a foot of difference between their heights, they chatter like best friends. On a recent Saturday afternoon, as she goes with her mom to pick up some dry cleaning on Prince Street, Ondine is dressed in a hipster’s outfit of camouflage pants, bomber jacket, and new Skechers boots with an adult-size heel. Her cell phone is in her mom’s purse. Her fluffy hair is accented with blonde highlights, quite unlike when she had it cornrowed recently for a friend’s Survivor-themed party. The next day, she was invited to the Plaza for tea. “She looked like she had dreadlocks,” says Cohen.
“At the Survivor party,” says Ondine, “they had a monkey on a coconut, and you had to throw these hoops and get them on the monkey—”
“It was in between seasons, so she went to tea in this long black dress,” says Cohen. “She looked almost Amish—”
“I did not look Amish,” says Ondine, grimacing. “I have never been so insulted!”
Ondine, who is still not allowed to go outside alone—“Because of serial killers lurking everywhere,” she says, rolling her eyes—has a strong opinion about everything, and it’s usually a good one. She doesn’t like Hillary Duff, but she does like Coldplay and the White Stripes. Her favorite restaurants are Il Cantinori and Lure Fishbar: “I like the architecture there—I mean, the interior,” she says. “It’s like a boat. I like it better than Balthazar—they make everything such a big deal. You buy a little salad and it’s really expensive and they say it has this sppppecial Itttttalian drrrressing.”
For only children, that blessed sense of entitlement, where you’re always listened to and taken seriously, is at war with a sense of being smothered.
Ondine is living a full Manhattan life. Why would she even want a brother or sister? After all, she has a cat. “I have to bug my mother to have playdates all the time,” she says, shooting her mom a sly look. “I’m loooonely,” she says.
If New York children are sophisticated, precocious, the city’s only children are even more so. How could they not be? Often, as in the case of Ondine, they live like little adults, eating the same food, having the same conversations. The normal red-state/blue-state division in a family—parents versus children—does not apply. A family with a single child is all for one and one for all. The children take on some of the characteristics of adults, and the adults take on some of the characteristics of children—though the child tends to be the focus of everyone’s attention, including his own. Growing up on the Upper West Side, I didn’t want a sibling—I wanted a twin. An identical twin, just like Sweet Valley High’s Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, my generation’s version of the Olsens. (Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen are, in fact, fraternal twins, though it takes a real fan to tell them apart consistently.)
Those of us who have been only children cannot imagine life another way; it’s an unknown unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it. Families seem predestined when you are a part of them, as John Updike, an only child who grew up with his parents and mother’s parents near Reading, Pennsylvania (terminus of the famous Monopoly railroad), writes: “I was an only child. A great many only children were born in 1932. I make no apologies. I do not remember ever feeling the space for a competitor within the house. The five of us already there locked into a star that would have shattered like crystal at the admission of a sixth.”
There were indeed many only children born in Updike’s time; from 1920 to 1940, the percentage of only-child families rose to 30 percent, primarily because of the economic hardships of the Depression. Afterward, during the baby boom, the number fell to 15 percent. Today, according to the 2003 Current Population Survey, single-child families outnumber two-child families (20 percent versus 18 percent), and social scientists tentatively predict that the number of onlies will keep growing, bringing the national average number of children per family down below 2.1. In Manhattan, more than 30 percent of New York City women over 40 have only one child, and over 30 percent of all families are single-child families, according to data compiled by Rutgers University.
There are many reasons to have one child—population-control arguments and lifestyle arguments as well as a general desire to be more cosmopolitan and European (where the average family size is estimated at 1.4 children)—but what are most often mentioned are late pregnancy and the cost. More American women than at any point in history are conceiving after the age of 35. It is more expensive to raise a child to age 18 than ever before—according to the Department of Agriculture, the national average expenditure for parents making over $70,000 is $323,975 ($47,467 is for food).
New York is even worse. The average apartment price in Manhattan is over $1 million. This year, it costs $25,000 to go to high school at Dalton, $13,000 more than it did when I graduated thirteen years ago. Astronomical expenses like these, and the focus on career, and the fact that for many, the postcollegiate support system is extended well into the thirties, make New York City the national capital of only children.