The Onlies

Ondine and parents Elizabeth and Eziquiel. Photo: Nicholas Prior

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.

The classic American idea about only children, nurtured in suburbs where two children could seem too few, is that they’re oddballs—coddled, spoiled, lonely. Raised without the camaraderie and competition of sibling society, they’re simultaneously stunted and overdeveloped—a repository of all their parents’ baggage (hello, Chelsea Clinton). When the Chinese government mandated in 1979 that each family could have only one child (a directive that would lead to 70 million only-child births over the following two decades), President Reagan gave special consideration on immigration applications to Chinese objectors to the one-child policy. The negative stereotype of only children persists today: According to a 2004 Gallup poll, only 3 percent of Americans think a single-child family is the ideal family size.

“I don’t remember what I did to cause or provoke it, but one day as a punishment the teacher told me to stand up in front of the whole class and tell them what it was like being an only child,” Betsey Niederman, an actress and the mother of a 7-year-old only herself, Matthew, says of childhood in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the fifties. “I will never forget those glaring eyes—it was like The Scarlet Letter. I started to talk, but my eyes misted over and I ran out of the classroom. I walked along the Merritt Parkway until an elderly couple picked me up and took me home. I told my mom that I never wanted to go back there, and she let me stay home before I switched schools. She didn’t want me to go to school anyway. She was attached to me.”

Although large-scale empirical studies, in vogue in the late seventies, found only children to be no more bratty and lonely than other children and that the most important factor—thank you, Dr. Freud—is the quality of the parenting, the stereotypes have recently found some—smallish—validation in academic research. In a paper published this year in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Ohio State University researchers analyzed a Department of Education study of 20,000 kindergartners and found that while only children perform at the same level as firstborns in school, they tended to be less socially skilled than their peers—more temperamental, less sensitive to the feelings of others.

Only children in pop culture are not exactly well-adjusted. Chandler is the only Friend without siblings, the “weird,” neurotic friend who also has a third nipple and a drag-queen father. Noah Wyle (Dr. Carter) is the chilly, entitled only child of ER. None of the characters on Seinfeld have siblings, nor do those on Curb Your Enthusiasm, except the sap, Cheryl. The only child is a superhero—as in Harry Potter or on Buffy, where the only sibling in sight was the magical creation of a gang of evil monks—or a brat. Here is Eloise on room service: “I always say, ‘Hello this is me Eloise and would you kindly send one roast-beef bone, one raisin and seven spoons to the top floor and charge it please, thank you very much.’ Then I hang up and look at the ceiling for a while and think of a way to get a present.”

A thoroughly unscientific culling of famous only children can suggest a certain kind of character, one who’s comfortable (sometimes too comfortable) creating his own weather, who is at home (sometimes too at home) with his or her own contradictions—and occasionally something of a megalomaniac: Alan Greenspan, Frank Sinatra, Tiger Woods, FDR, Rudolph Giuliani, Roy Cohn, Laura Bush, and the three Apollo 8 astronauts. Elvis, Priscilla, and Lisa Marie Presley were all only children—Elvis’s twin brother was stillborn, and after his father was sent to jail for forging an $8 check, he and his mom started sleeping in the same bed, which would continue until he was an adult. Elvis swiped his first uppers from Gladys, and when she died in 1958, some think he never recovered. William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, was doted on by both his possessive mother and his uneducated, millionaire father, who granted his every wish except when he asked on a trip to London to move into Windsor Castle (he would later spend 30 years constructing his own palace, Hearst Castle). Then there’s Hans Christian Andersen: Born to a 23-year-old shoemaker and 30-year-old washerwoman, the highly religious children’s author liked to say that his life was a wonderful fairy tale. He began his first autobiography, “I feel that an invisible and loving hand directs the whole of [my life]; that it was not blind chance which helped me on my way, but that an invisible and fatherly heart has beat for me.”That you could have parents whose hearts beat for you and only you is a comfort. For one thing, there 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. You are the one who gets to decide what playground to go to. You are the one who gets all the money in the end. You are the one who, if you happen to be Leyla Marchetto, daughter of Da Silvano’s proprietor, gets to travel the world with your dad, almost like a lover, visiting Nice, Florence, Kenya, Paris, and St. Barts before 18, and who is assured when you move to L.A. at 25, partially to distance yourself from that father, that his compatriots, like Jack Nicholson, will be looking out for you (this is assuming that Jack Nicholson’s looking out for you is a good idea). Family becomes not so much a pedagogy as a democracy, not even a family, really, or at least it feels that way to the kid. There is the perception, if not always the reality, of equality: When my dad would take second helpings at dinner, I always insisted on the same—“But I am bigger than you,” he tried to explain. It’s almost too much, how intensely everyone relates to each other, especially in a standard two-bedroom apartment. “When I tried to transfer to boarding school in eleventh grade because I disliked my school so much, my dad sent me to a shrink to make sure that I wasn’t trying to run away from him,” says Joanna Bernstein, 31. “That’s what being an only child is.”

For only children, that blessed sense of entitlement, where you’re always listened to and taken seriously—if not to Paris or Kenya—is at war with a sense of being smothered. “I feel that the attention was wonderful, but the imperative to bloom—to be happy, really—was not,” says Deborah Siegel, project director of a women’s research center and co-editor with Daphne Uviller of a forthcoming book of essays on only childhood, Party of One. “Even now, my mom talks about how The Runaway Bunny was my favorite book, which it wasn’t necessarily. It’s about this bunny that runs away to join the circus: The mother says, ‘If you go away, I’ll become the circus master,’ and then the bunny says, ‘I might go be a sailboat,’ and the mother says, ‘I’ll be the wind.’ ”

She might have preferred, say, Tolstoy. Only children tend to develop precocious interests—Ondine started Dante’s Inferno at 7, though she didn’t make it to the second page. Matthew Niederman regaled me with a detailed explanation of hyperspace, the relative advantages of Richard Meier’s new buildings, and why we should pull out of the Iraq war but not before scouring the hole where Hussein was found, because that’s where the WMDs are. Nevertheless, “I’m looonely,” he said, striding around the toy-strewn living room. “My dad is on his computer 8,000 hours a day. I have all these cool realistic toys, but they’re fake. Game Boys hypnotize your brain, but I could have a Game Boy Battleship with two players and maybe I could have someone to play it with me.” He does have the company of his girlfriend, though. “She likes my jokes and thinks I’m funny,” he says with a matter-of-fact shrug. “I think she’s kind and loving.”

Then Matthew’s mom and dad told him they were going out to dinner.

“Noooooo!” he shrieked, jumping in his father’s lap. “I want chicken! I want Daddy’s chicken!”

Rather than having siblings always in your business, you have parents, who tend to be much more formidable adversaries and who can choose not to cook chicken. The issue tends to arise when kids don’t share parents’ interests, or vice versa—usually around the time kids start wanting to play board games, the only child finds himself at odds. From about third grade on, I’d come back from violin, piano, ballet, modern dance, or fencing lessons around six and then—what? Dinner and homework, which might include a science project that was a whole-family project, or perhaps some math-problem sets, which could mean a fight with my father (“You’re getting it wrong to spite me” was his explanation for my lack of aptitude). With a sibling, you would remember what you did. That was the time Karen and I played tennis by the light of the moon, and that was the time Sam froze all my underwear in the refrigerator. Instead, it was always us three roomies, self-motivating to do whatever it was we had to do, except that the two of them got to tell me I didn’t practice my violin long enough and I should go to sleep already. The condition of being an only child gives one a lot to think about—and plenty of time to think.

Greta Keating, at home.Photo: Nicholas Prior

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.

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.”

The Onlies