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The Onlies

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Greta Keating, at home.  

I’m looonely,” says Greta Keating, 7.

Greta is a popular girl in her second-grade class, especially with some of the boys. As a philosophical thinker, she’s surprisingly advanced. “I don’t think we’re real,” she says, smiling. “I think we’re all the imagination of God.” From time to time, she stands in front of the mirror and whispers, “Oh, God, I’m changing so much!” She looks less like one or the other parent than an exact combination of the two, as if she were digitally composed. Matt Keating and Emily Spray have thought about having another kid, but Greta was a tough baby, so they didn’t feel that they could handle another, plus there are careers to consider—Matt’s as a musician, Emily’s as a designer. “At the time your financial responsibilities triple, the time you have to put into your career is cut in half,” says Keating, echoing the concerns of many a New York parent. “It would be hard to do again.”

So it’s just the three of them—plus Greta’s imaginary friends, Choga and Honchi, which are only Greta in the mirror, though they’ve been less in evidence recently; Choga, disturbingly enough, recently died in one of her dreams. They live in a beautiful apartment in a doorman building—granted, they do share the bedroom, their areas divided by a canvas scrim—and Greta’s room is a child’s dream, packed with all the best books and toys and stuffed animals. The coffee table in the apartment is where she plays her games, like Store, or Artist, or School, which was the main event one Saturday morning in October (there is some TV in the house—not much—and a computer, but no video games). “Does anyone know what 400 plus 400 is?” she asks, at her chalkboard.

She scrambles to the floor to sit alongside her students—Noae, Alic, Peae, Picyo—and waves a hand over her head.

“I remember telling my husband, ‘You don’t understand— I was an only child. I need to hear that I’m beautiful and smart and that you love me every single day,” says an adult only child. She had to learn “how to be in a different kind of relationship.”

“I know! I know!”

It used to be that Greta wouldn’t get up in the morning unless her mom did—“I don’t want to be alone,” she’d say—but six months ago, she begged for a cat. (It’s hard to deny an only child a pet.) Now she wakes up all on her own and goes to the living room with Timothy to play. The cat, predictably, has become a comic sibling. “It feels kind of pathetic to compare a cat to a human, but having another living thing has changed things in the house so much,” says Spray. “It’s made me wonder if we missed an opportunity not having another kid.” Greta calls Timothy “Little Brother.” She holds him like an infant and dances around the room—then pushes him off her shoulder and he crashes to the floor. That’s something you couldn’t do with a real little brother.

But with a real little brother—though most only children say they’d rather have an older sibling, because they want someone to tease them—there would be all sorts of other problems, like the almost tribal dance of vying for parents’ attention. The family would petrify into a whole different, Brady Bunch tableau: a domineering and successful older-born (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia); a nonconfrontational and confused middle; a flaky yet power-hungry last.

This is the popular mythology of birth order, which has some truth to it—lasts and middles have indeed been shown to be less successful, as a group, than firsts. Birth-order theory has been around for over a century, and most of the stereotypes have been put to rest. A lot of these studies used only children as a control group. It wasn’t until the seventies that they became a subject of study in themselves: With women bearing fewer children and the rise of feminism, there was a notion that only kids might constitute a potential public-health problem, and suddenly there was money for meticulous empirical sociological studies on onlies (i.e., the vocal patterns of onlies versus firstborns at 3 months), many led by Toni Falbo of the University of Texas at Austin. Falbo and her colleagues were surprised to find that there were no findings. Not only was there nothing wrong with being an only child, but, Falbo found in studies in both the U.S. and China, only children’s personalities were in almost every way comparable to firstborns’. They were no more selfish, socially awkward, grandiose, or needy—though firstborns were generally considered more attractive.

Grant money moved on to more pressing public-health issues, and a cottage publishing industry of pop pro-only-child apologias sprang up, written either by parents of an only or by onlies themselves—Ellie McGrath’s fine My One and Only, Susan Newman’s Parenting an Only Child, a niche publication called Only Child Magazine, and Bill McKibben’s Maybe One, an Easter Island defense of onlies (i.e., with a world population of 12 billion by 2050, only one is only ethical). However, while Falbo and her colleagues found no statistically significant differences between only children and firstborns, there were quite a few hypotheses for further testing. It was found, for example, that only children had a smaller circle of friends and adults with whom they socialized than firstborns, and that they perhaps continue this trend later in life; that they had a peculiarly mixed self-esteem pattern, whereby they thought of themselves more often than kids with siblings, but were less likely to compare themselves positively to others, as firstborns did with their little brothers and sisters; and that onlies perceived their parents more affectionately than did other kids, perhaps because they received more consistent and moment-to-moment reinforcement from those parents. Studies are ongoing—Falbo herself is beginning work on a ten-year study of adult only children, using one of the sociologist’s favorite databanks, the people of the state of Wisconsin—though the field is a little stagnant at the moment. “In order to answer the most interesting questions, we would have to take kids and randomly assign them to different families,” says Douglas Downey, a sociologist at Ohio State, “but we can’t do that, obviously, and we’ll never be able to do that.”

What studies did establish was that, for all the Nicholas Scoppetta success stories (an orphan, he was raised in a shelter), the most important factor was the socialization provided by the mother—the only child is “at the utter mercy of his education,” wrote Alfred Adler. With only children, the bond of the triad itself and that between parent and child was found to be especially intense, particularly in the case of mother and daughter. I heard, in my interviews, many moms that called their daughters “my beautiful little friend,” “my best friend,” or even “my little sister.” While only children and their moms were found to be more flexible in their understanding of typical sex roles, perhaps because the child was forced to satisfy both parents’ desire for self-replacement, the mother-daughter relationship was especially fraught, subject to infinite analysis.


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