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The Onlies

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Matthew Niederman as a soldier in his room. (Photo credit: Nicholas Prior)

Last summer, Karen Stabiner’s 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, went to Central Park with the class from her summer film program, while Karen went to visit a friend on the West Side. Her friend wanted to walk across the park. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. What if I bump into Sarah? She would be so embarrassed.’ My friend said, ‘It’s Central Park. What’s the chance you’ll bump into your daughter? Sure enough, we got to an underpass by 72nd Street and there she was. It was her day to shoot, so she was telling everyone what to do—she wanted the camera guy over there and the actor over there. I said, ‘I can’t say hello to her, she’ll be humiliated’—because she’s my only, I’m very sensitive to whether I am being a good parent in terms of letting her go. Finally, I said, ‘Okay, if she sees us and we make eye contact, I’ll say hello, but if she doesn’t see us, I’m not going to intrude on this moment.’ I held an umbrella to the side so she wouldn’t see me, and when we made it through the underpass, I had this really visceral rush of relief that I had done a good thing, a difficult thing. Later, I ended up telling Sarah, and not only didn’t she believe me, but she was upset that we hadn’t said hello. So you can’t win for trying.”

My parents claim they had only one because they “hit the jackpot,” but my mom also says my father would have had another except she didn’t see the need. My mother and I, who bear a considerable resemblance, are close. Very close. We share a similar sense of drama, and we tend to see my childhood as a series of nightmarish affronts to our sacred Kristevian bond. Like the whole situation with the “white girl kitten” I requested for my seventh birthday, an incident I asked my mom to clarify recently over e-mail. She wrote, “Neither Dad nor I had had pets, so we were not so enthusiastic about a cat, but one day you said, firmly and seriously, ‘I don’t have any sisters or brothers. I need a kitten.’ One of Dad’s Ph.D. students had a cat with a litter, and on your birthday he brought the cat (Pebbles) in a birdcage. She was very high-strung and wasn’t the greatest pet, but next summer we found a beautiful golden kitten in our garage in East Hampton and she became your adoring patient playmate.”

How cute! And I did love that second cat, my own “little brother,” Squeak. But there’s one part Mom has left out. Pebbles, being a nasty cat by nature and perhaps not all that fond of getting dressed up in baby clothes, including bonnets, decided late one night when my mom and I were reading on my bed to attack. My mother pushed me in front as we dashed down the hallway with Pebbles’s teeth attached to her calf (she still has scars). We took refuge in the bathroom as Pebbles threw her little body against the door in repeated desperate attempts to come in and kill us. Finally, all was quiet, and as I waited in the bathroom, my mom and a neighbor coaxed her into the cat carrier and then, just in case she possessed some previously unseen Houdini-esque cat capabilities, put the carrier out on our twentieth-floor terrace and locked the door. The next morning, Pebbles went to Uncle Jimmy the Vet, who said that she had experienced a nervous breakdown, something one in every sixteen cats may have in their lifetimes. Furthermore, she was not a city cat. She was a country cat. There was a nice nurse who had a farm upstate, and she liked Pebbles very much. “Bye, Pebbles,” I said, as she glowered at me through the mesh of a kennel cubicle.

It wasn’t until I was 15 and became friends with a fast girl from Fieldston who smoked Camel Lights, wore ripped jeans exclusively, and somehow had a driver’s license before everyone else that I realized what had happened. “Your mom killed your cat,” she drawled, flicking a cigarette out the sunroof of her Audi.

My mother was making dinner when I arrived home with this shattering information. “I wish you wouldn’t be friends with that girl,” she said. So much for my little sister.

In an only-child family, every member—except, apparently, the cat—is indispensable. The giant investment of time and love in a child can create outsize worries about mortality. A child—any child—dying is unthinkable. But many of the parents of only children I spoke to have spent a lot of time thinking about what would happen when, eventually, they die—possibly a projection of their real fears. It doesn’t readily occur to them that that child would most probably have a life by that point, a spouse of his own, children of his own. These onlies were always going to be children; if the parents couldn’t be there to take care of them, it was unclear who would.

Of course, all the science, and the anecdotal evidence, too, points to the fact that only children are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, if in occasionally unusual ways. Only children often work out their sibling issues and their need for attention with their friends. The most social person I know is an only child. As a kid, she would sit at the kitchen counter with the A–Z class list and call each person, emotionlessly and alphabetically, until someone agreed to play with her. She does a more subtle version of this today.

Only children spend a fair amount of time mulling over their aloneness. “My biggest concern is that I’ve befriended so many weirdos on my mission alone that when it’s time to start traveling in a pair it won’t work and something will happen to my family and I’ll be the only one to deal with it,” says Laura Flam, 26, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

And, as any psychoanalyst will tell you, family doesn’t have to be fate. Says Daphne Uviller, 32, an only child and expectant mother who lives on the parlor floor of her parents’ West Village townhouse (if you had the option, you’d still be living there, too): “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.’ He was like, No. I didn’t freak out. I learned how to be in a different kind of relationship.”

Ondine spends a lot of time skittering around her parents’ Soho apartment, but the space that is really her space is the loft bed in her room, piled with soft pastel quilts and up a long sailor’s ladder. Up there, she has a little TV and a portable DVD player, plus dozens of magazines that are strewn all over the mattress. Every night, before her mom puts her to sleep, they sit up there and read—quietly, just the two of them, two clever blondes with sophisticated taste and a lot to say. Her mom reads Vogue. Ondine reads Teen Vogue. “This month I learned about how even the smartest kids in class cheat,” says Ondine. “And Avril Lavigne says that the music industry is really corrupt and sometimes people—I mean, artists—have other people singing for them. Did you hear about Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live?” She hiccups. “Ow, I have the hiccups,” she says, then claps her hand over her mouth. “God! Did I just say, ‘Ow, I have the hiccups?’ ”

Tonight, after homework, a little knitting on her new red scarf, and a mom-administered bath, Ondine was going to sleep. She was particularly excited about Halloween: Last year, she was Margot Tenenbaum, with a wood finger and cigarette holder—“That’s what happens when you raise kids in the city,” she said pragmatically—but this year she’s going to be a bunny, but a “chic bunny.” She also wanted to take back what she had said before about being an only child. “I don’t really want a brother or sister—I think that’s why God invented the TV,” she said. “I like having all the attention for myself.”


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